By Bill Harris
My wife and I have always enjoyed traveling. In addition to my running hobby, I’m also an avid fisherman. I’m sure a lot of runners have a bucket list of races they want to run at some point in their life. I’ve always had a bucket list of fish I’d like to catch in my life. I’ve been able to knock most of the ones in the Eastern Atlantic off the list; there’s still a few that have eluded me, but I know that if I go offshore enough times in North Carolina, I’ll eventually luck into a sailfish and a blue marlin. I’ve personally seen four sailfish caught on boats I was on, even dragged one in for a photo op for my friend before releasing it. I’ve also been driving the boat when a ~400 lb blue marlin hit one of our lures and naturally chose the line with the smallest rod and line combo (20 lb. class tackle vs. the 50 lb. tackle on our other lines). A sploosh, a splash, a bunch of line peeling off the reel, and he was gone. Point being - I know those guys are out there, and sooner or later with enough opportunity, I’ll get one. No sense in targeting a trip to go get one. This is in direct contrast to some of the other things I’d like to catch in my life that I won’t find near home, like a roosterfish from Pacific Central America, or a blue trevally from the South Pacific.
Since you don’t always know exactly what’s going to be in a new place, I’ve usually tried to set up a fishing trip when we travel somewhere to see something new and enjoy my hobby in another place. This included a day trip of chasing down Northern Pike and walleye on our honeymoon to Banff, chasing salmon in Vancouver, and paddling around on a kayak a half mile offshore of Kona with rod in hand. Thankfully, none of the tiger sharks we were warned about made an appearance.
Often times it’s a great experience; sometimes what you sign up for isn’t quite what you expected. I secured a guide in Kauai once to go chase some imported peacock bass, only to be told upon arrival that they weren’t biting well of late and he was going to take me on a stream to catch smallmouth bass instead (something I’ve caught plenty of back here). After some initial disappointment and a feeling of bait and switch, I did a quick reality check and told myself, “You’re fishing on a beautiful clear river in Hawaii - enjoy it,” and I did.
I suspect golfers do this as well (find new places to golf as they travel), and as my running hobby has picked up, I find that I’m also looking for races when we travel somewhere new and exciting. Late last summer, Susan and I traveled to Iceland in hopes of seeing the beautiful scenery (check), some puffins (check), and the northern lights if we were lucky (check!). In the planning stages, I looked to see what kind of fishing might be an option, and there was nothing terribly exciting. Couple that with potential sketchy weather and cold, and I decided that in lieu of a half day chasing small cod (I’ve actually caught those off NC in the winter), we’d do a race. After some research into races that aligned with our schedule, we settled on the “Tindahlaup Mosfellsbaer” which I think translates to “Peak Run in Mosfellsbaer” (my mastery of the Icelandic language was rather incomplete after a nine day trip).
This interesting race had multiple options of 12-37 km, encompassing 1, 3, 4, or 7 peaks. Longer distance meant more peaks. Looking at the map and the timing, and seeing that Susan and I were in decent shape, we opted for the 12 km/1 peak distance, so as to enjoy ourselves and not overdo it. I’d progressed to a more middle of the pack runner in most races, and Susan, while not terribly fast, has decent stamina, and actually does quite well on most hills with her “If I run it faster, it’s over quicker” mantra. I told her I’d happily run with her. A couple emails, some assistance from google translate, and we were registered.
When we arrived on race day, it was ~50 F and drizzly. I was dressed in light attire. The rest of the field was dressed much more heavily. I tend to dress lighter than others on race day, but this was my first sign something may have been amiss. We set out under drizzly skies and learned Iceland trail runners are a fit lot. Susan and I were shuffled towards the back in short order, where she and I and about three other runners made up the tail end of the field.
The preliminary 2 miles or so were on a greenway that skirted the Mosfellsbaer harbor and provided nice scenery. Seven and a half miles of this was gonna be enjoyable, pending the one peak we had to climb up and down.
And then we saw it. From a distance. It wasn’t Everest, but it was gonna be a bear.
A mile later, we were at the base and even picking up the pace as we floated along on single-track trails carpeted with the needles of evergreens. The pick-up in pace was short lived, however. That uphill slalom I’d hoped for was eradicated when we emerged from the forest, looked left, and saw our path was an uphill scamper amongst muddy rocks on a ~30+ degree slope. At least it wasn’t very long, maybe 100 yards before I could see a plateau. Susan’s fast uphill scamper skills vaporized with muddy footing and a steep slope. This was evidently different than Concrete Bridge Road in Duke Forest.
We quickly had a firm hold on last place and crested the top of this climb, only to be greeted by another climb, at an ever slightly less steep slope. Another ¼ mile or so of uphill drudgery. The drizzle was picking up, and the wind was now gaining traction as well. Oh….and did you realize that when you climb up a peak, it gets colder? Yeah..had that working for us as well.
In retrospect, I think we climbed up four different slopes, thinking each was the last, before we finally hit the summit. With each ridge we crested, the rain and wind picked up, and the field got more and more out of sight. The aid station just short of the summit had already shut down when we got there. The rescue squad staff dressed in parkas stationed at the top of the peak gave me the once over for my lightweight clothing before deciding we weren’t going to die, and let us proceed to the downhill portion of the course. This obviously meant things were going to get better, because we all know...downhill is WAY better than uphill. Maybe harder on the knees, but overall - faster pace and less effort.
Not so much.
The wind, which was supposed to die off, was whipping up the backside of the mountain in full force. I’d been in ugly wind before, from that aforementioned fishing habit, and I’d say this was pushing a full 50 mph. Steady and constant, with drizzle beating you in the face. Susan probably still has flashbacks of the “bappita-bappita-bappita” noise of her bib flapping in the gale. The downhill trail off the back of the mountain was loose footing with volleyball-sized rocks interspersed and was marked by small flags planted in the ground, every 50 yards or so, meaning once you found one, you had to search to find the next one before proceeding (not an easy task in cloudy/misty conditions).
As the grade lessened, the trail went through waist-high shrubbery, and also crossed a couple ditches (which were normally dry, but thanks to the rain had filled a bit). We finally found road again, and were ready to get back to running and finish off this madness. After about 100 yards of running into what had now abated to maybe a 35 mph headwind, we laughed it off, accepted our last place finish, and started to walk sideways, so as to limit our resistance to the wind.
A half mile or so later, we found the next aid station (also abandoned), took a left turn back towards civilization, and *finally* proceeded to be able to run again, which we did until the finish. The end of our run took us on dirt roads, greenways, and trails back to the start. The courses for the other distances all merged near the end, so course monitors and other runners were present again. Rather than giving us the “wow, you’re slow feeling,” it was nice to have company for the finish.
After the Icelandic equivalent of our bagel, banana, and juice box (skyr), we piled into our vehicle, drove to the Blue Lagoon, and had the best post-race recovery ever.
So just like in fishing, and other outdoor activities, you’re at the mercy of mother nature when you travel. If you’re going somewhere out of your comfort zone, you don’t always know what you’re going to get. Your attitude during the middle of it determines how much enjoyment you can get out of it.
Would I go run a 12 km trail race with a stupid climb in cold drizzly windy weather in a foreign country again? Probably not. Next time, I’d sign up for the 19 km one instead.