Reykjavik Marathon (and everything I learned about Iceland in 2 days)

[marathon #164 / unique marathon #82]

One of my paradoxical mantras is that, “Every holiday should include a marathon.” Last year, with some exceptional planning, I managed to fit three marathons into a one-week holiday in KwaZulu Natal. Unfortunately, young kids and the steadily declining rand mean that international holidays (and therefore international marathons) are something of a rarity these days. However, August 2017 saw a mini-family reunion scheduled in the Lake District in England and I hoped that this would provide the opportunity to increase my international marathon count (which was sitting at 26).

Travel dates were fixed around the Johannesburg school holidays and I expected to be spoilt for choice with interesting English marathons to pick from. I was devastated to find nothing in the race calendar. It’s obviously far too hot to run summer marathons in the UK – damn global warming! Undeterred I decided to cast my net wider; and was relieved to find the Reykjavik Marathon in Iceland where it never gets too hot to run marathons.

Iceland – where it’s never too hot to run a marathon.

I successfully sold my wife on the idea of a “fun weekend in Iceland” and my dad on a “fun weekend with the grandkids”. And thus the first transaction of our overseas holiday was processed – R1,200 for a marathon entry at their early bird price (which increases to about R2000 if you enter later) with the rest of the holiday being planned around the marathon!

Iceland, the most sparsely populated country in Europe. Most of the population lives around the capital, Reykjavik.

Iceland is a fairly large island with a very small population (under 340,000) making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe –  and Reykjavik is the northernmost capital city in the world. Emigration and immigration are really minor which means that genepool diversity is a bit of a problem. In fact there is genealogy database of all the country’s known inhabitants which can be installed on your phone. If you meet someone in a bar you can quickly check not if, but how closely, you are related to them before proceeding past first base. The app allows you to simply “bump phones” and if you’re too closely related an “incest alarm” goes off.

Björk Guðmundsdóttir (Icelandic pronunciation: ˈpjœr̥k ˈkvʏðmʏntsˌtouhtɪr) narrowly beats out Cod as Iceland’s biggest export.

Iceland’s most famous export is Björk. They are also famous for knocking England out of the UEFA Football Cup last year but when telling someone that you’re going to Iceland they tend to look at you quizzically and ask one of two questions:

England’s exit to Iceland at UEFA 2016 provided rich comedic fodder.

1. “Isn’t that the country that went bankrupt?”

Answer: Yes, they went bankrupt in 2008 but are subsequently back in the black after jailing their errant bankers and benefitting from a subsequent tourism boom (in 2017 they expect to get over 2 million tourists, seven times their population!). Tourism is now significantly their largest industry with fishing and aluminium smelting rounding out the top three. Although they don’t have any minerals to mine, Iceland’s volcanic core provides free energy so other countries send their unsmelted aluminium there.

2. “Isn’t that the country with the volcanoes that shut down world travel?”

Answer: Yes, the volcano Eyjafjallajökulle erupted in April 2010 and the resultant ash cloud shutdown European (rather than world) travel for an extended period. Ironically, at one stage the only international airport open in Europe was Reykjavik as the ash was ‘blowing the other way’ and you could still fly to America from Reykjavik. The volcanic eruption also led to a major boost in tourism which proves that no publicity is bad publicity!

Before entering the marathon, I was not sure how big running was in Iceland. In South Africa, we can easily train all year round – our biggest worries being athlete’s foot in summer and chaffed nipples in winter. The biggest danger for the Icelandic marathon runner training through winter – a painful bout of snowballs.

However, roughly 10,000 locals managed to survive the winter training regime and joined 4,500 foreigners from 87 countries for the various distances (42.2, 21.1, 10 and 5km – as well as George’s Wacky Outfit Race for under 8s). The marathon is the least popular distance (with less than 1,500 starters) and the 10km is the most popular (with over 6,000 runners). One person missing from the marathon line-up this year was the country’s president. He usually runs the marathon but, since getting elected to power, has been a little busier and only had time to train for the half marathon.

Iceland also has some great trail runs. The most famous of these (and one for the bucket list) is the 55km Laugavegur Trail Ultra. Laugavegur is the most popular trail in Iceland and gets so much traffic that it shares a name with the main shopping street in Reykjavik.

An 8:40am start allows for a nice relaxed morning.

The start was a leisurely 8:40am on a Saturday morning.  They use self-seeding batches which worked pretty well so, even with the full and half runners starting together, there was no major congestion after the gun fired. There was also no need to dodge around portly runners because, with the price of food in Iceland, “obesity is not as prevalent as in other developed countries”.

Taking a quick breather along the coastline.

The route was scenic and very flat – the highest point is only 35m above sea level. The first part of the race is run through the city and the streets are lined with locals who show their support by clattering kitchen implements together (despite their Viking origins, Iceland is currently the most peaceful country in the world and this is the same method people used to protest in the streets after a few silly bankers bankrupted the whole country in 2008).

A scenic section in the countryside.

Water tables were every 4kms and offered Powerade (blue flavour only) as well as bananas in the second half. Although we ran past most of the major museums in the city we somehow avoided going past the “Penis Museum” which we (actually my wife) spotted shortly after arriving in the city. Unfortunately, our brief stay and packed itinerary meant we were not able to visit the “Penis Museum” (and I also didn’t really want to waste valuable holiday time looking at politicians).

Although you run past several museums during the marathon, the Penis Museum is mysteriously avoided.

We were lucky with the weather – Odin blessed us with perfect summer conditions. There was very little wind and the temperature peaked at 14°C (hot for Iceland but well below the all-time record high of 26°C). At several points, there are long stretches along the coastline which is very pleasant. All the beaches have black volcanic sand but they do include a trot passed their premier “white sand” beach (the sand is imported). I didn’t see anyone swimming.

Typical beach view with black volcanic sand. Although its a perfect summers day no one was swimming.

The last third of the race goes into the countryside before heading back into the city along the coastline. Iceland is one of the major filming locations for Game of Thrones. Most of the scenes from “beyond the wall” are shot Iceland – and in the last 10km of the marathon I passed plenty of white walkers fatigued runners who’d definitely hit (and passed well beyond) the wall.

There are plenty of interesting sights on route including the impressive sculpture Sólfar (Sun Voyager).

They have a decent selection of post-race snacks which includes pastries, pretzels and chocolates. If you’re hungry and have big enough pockets you can pretty much pay for your trip with bite-size Snickers bars after the race (have I mentioned how expensive the food in Iceland is?).

A good selection of post-race snacks.

Iceland has some fantastic geothermal pools and your race pack includes entry into any of the public baths in the city. As one time visitors, we decided to book an afternoon tour to the most famous of the geothermal pools – The Blue Lagoon – which is about an hour from Reykjavik. The Blue Lagoon (which gets its colour from the way silica in the water refracts with sunlight ) provided a great way to soak some tired marathon legs (and drink some really expensive beer).

Resting some tired legs in the Blue Lagoon.

We were fortunate to score free accommodation in the city centre a few hundred metres from the start thanks to a former boss who now lives in Iceland. The free accommodation meant that I was able to justify the odd beer – although at R150 a pint my major concern was dehydration (you get very thirsty running a marathon).

Perhaps my most expensive beer ever. Post-race hydration whilst wallowing in the Blue Lagoon.

I shouldn’t really complain… the marathon has been going since 1984 and beer (but not wine or spirits) was illegal in Iceland until 1989. As a person who is naturally full of empathy, I really feel for the poor finishers in those early years who had to find another means to quench their post-marathon thirst.

When in Iceland, drink Viking Beer (beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989).

Marathon entrants get a discount on all tours offered by Reykjavik Excursions and we did the highly recommended Golden Circle tour the following day. This includes visits to exploding geyser at Geysir, the impressive Gulfoss Falls and Þingvellir National Park (where you can stand between the Europe and American tectonic plates). Our tour guide mentioned that international flights from Iceland were something of an ordeal in the 80s. The duty-free section of the airport was the only place you could drink beer in Iceland. This meant that no one was ever late for check-in but they were all usually ‘well on their way’ before the flight took off.

Geysir and Gulfoss Falls are some of the highlights of the Golden Circle day tour.

The marathon is timed to coincide with “Culture Night” where over one third of the total Icelandic population hit the streets for a party. All the national museums offer free access and there are various music concerts around the city. We were fortunate enough to have a bird’s eye view of the heavy metal concert from our flat but this did mean that trying get an early night was not an option. Culture Night is officially terminated by a firework display just before midnight which was spectacular.

A spectacular firework display signals the end of Culture Night (and time for tired marathon runners to get to sleep).

Reykjavik Marathon is definitely an excellent option as a different and unique destination marathon. If offers the benefits and organisation of a big city marathon whilst keeping the charm and distinctiveness of an out-of-town marathon. Maybe one day I’ll make it back there to run the Laugavegur Trail…

Signing out from a great weekend in Iceland.


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