Monday, August 7, 2017

Taking the Long Way Around

Laugavegur Ultramarathon, July 15, 2017

In a way, you could say I made it to the finish line of the 55k Laugavegur Ultramarathon in Iceland last month, although it wasn’t in the way the race organizers intended.

Officially I was a DNF, having missed the 6-hour cut-off at 38k. But if they gave an award for persistence and arriving at the finish by the most circuitous route, I, along with a fellow runner I will call Lisa (because that is her name) would get all the medals. Here is the story:

I knew going in that I would have to have an unusually great day to finish this very challenging race. My torn hamstring in May had eliminated the most critical 6 weeks from my training, and I simply did not have the miles or the hills in my legs. But since we were coming to Iceland on vacation anyway, it seemed a shame not to try.

However, at Laugavegur as with The Force, there is no try; there is only do.

The first 10k of the race went straight up a mountain; a good part of this was in heavy, wet, shin-deep snow. Sleet was blowing down the slope into my face, driven by a merciless wind. I didn’t see much of the advertised spectacular scenery on this stretch. Just sleet. And my feet. As we came over the top of the mountain, the weather cleared and runners were presented with the breathtaking sight of Alftavatn, a glacial lake way below and far away.

The run was now steeply downhill, and the footing was tricky.  Alftavatn is at 22k, where the first cut-off checkpoint is, and I made this without too much difficulty. But the elements and topography had taken a big toll on my undertrained body. I found it hard to get moving again with any decent speed.

By the time I waded across the icy waist-high river at the race’s halfway point, my hopes of making it to the second cut-off in time were pretty dim. I would have to run a pretty brisk 10k or so to make it, and I was feeling anything but brisk (hypothermic, more like, at least from the waist down). But I gamely trotted off, having taken time to change my socks.

The frustrating thing is that the terrain is mostly flat through this section, so if you’re in a hurry you can make pretty good time here. But all my high-distance training had been preempted by my injury layoff. I could jog slowly, but this would not get me to the cut-off point in time.

(I don’t mean to lean too much on my injury here; this race would have tested my limits even if I were in optimal shape. Those who finished have my unending admiration.)

The course took its final swipe at me when I tripped on a rock and face-planted into the trail at about 30k. OK, I said to the gravel against my cheek, you got me.

Eventually I came across a van that was looking for stragglers, of which I was now one. The official confirmed that my race was over and offered to drive me to the bus. My race was indeed over, but my journey was just beginning.

Let’s take a moment here to review the options for runners who drop out mid-race. There aren't many, and none are good (to their credit, the race organizers tell you this repeatedly in the advance information). This event takes place over mountainous terrain that is inaccessible for forty-eight weeks of the year and barely accessible for the other four. There are no real roads, just rocky tracks. So if you leave the race before you get to the end, the organizers will transport you to the nearest town of Hvolsvöllur, and from there you can get another bus back to Reykjavík.

But I didn’t want to go to Reykjavík; I wanted to go to Thorsmörk, where the finish line was and my wife was waiting.

As I was wondering what I would have to do to get to Thorsmörk, another runner came along, and she also had to get to the finish. It seemed that we two were the only ones who had spouses waiting there. There wasn’t a lot we could do. The sag bus would deposit us at Hvolsvöllur, and then we were basically on our own.

After a couple of hours bouncing over the rocks, we arrived in Hvolsvöllur at about 6:00 pm, where the other non-finishers got on their bus for the city. Lisa and I deciphered the schedule as best we could and figured that the last and only bus to Thorsmörk would come along in about 3 hours.

You can bet that there were not 3 hours’ worth of fun activities to do in Hvolsvöllur that evening (of course we were dressed only in our damp running gear, and it was not warm outside). But we made the best of it, eventually ending up in a German-Icelandic restaurant, where we dawdled over dinner as long as we could. I have to say that the day would have been very bleak without my fellow traveller, and I was grateful for the company.

The bus showed up at 9:00 pm and we climbed aboard, spending several more hours bouncing back over the rocks till we arrived at Thorsmörk at about 11:30, to be greeted by our patient reception committee of two. Doing the math, one can see that we spent far more time getting to the finish by bus than the actual finishers took getting there on foot. I also estimate that we could have casually strolled the remaining distance along the race course to the finish and still beaten the bus, but the race rules do not allow this. Once you’re out, you have to leave the trail. The bottom line is that you do not want to drop from this race.

It was an extraordinary experience. I wish I could have lived up to the physical and mental demands of the event. But of the handful of DNFs I have had in the past 32 years, this one was the easiest to take, although definitely the most challenging to accomplish.