There is something magical to me in the words Reykjavik and Iceland – I think of trolls and Vikings, geysers and waterfalls, volcanoes and pristine countryside. In our recent trip to Iceland, I was not disappointed. Maybe I didn’t actually see any Vikings or trolls, in person anyway, but I did learn quite a bit about this fascinating country. The history of Iceland is full of sagas, mostly fact, some fiction, of the earliest Norwegian settlers who were indeed Vikings searching for rich soil and pasture. And the folklore of Iceland is replete with tales of elves and trolls who cause mischief and strange happenings throughout the country. What better place to choose for a marathon?
Our adventure began in the wee hours of Wednesday, August 15th; our flight from the JAX airport to Logan in Boston (via Atlanta) was due to depart at 7 am. Once in Boston, we had to pick up our checked bags and wend our way to the international terminal where we checked in at Icelandair, made our way through security again, and then waited for our evening flight to Reykjavik. Soon we met up with some other marathoners, including Steve and Paula Boone, founders of the 50 State Marathon Club. This trip was the group’s international excursion for 2012 and I had expected a fairly good-sized group to join us but it turned out that only a couple of 50 Staters managed to make this trip. We may have been small in number but we had a lot of fun. Dave from Indianapolis, Sock-Monkey Boone plus Darcy and myself and Steve and Paula comprised a pretty select group. Darcy and I had booked the US part of our journey directly with Delta but the Iceland segment was a package offered by Marathon Tours and Travel. It was a sold-out trip and we met a lot of racers from Canada and other parts of the US. Some were doing the full marathon, others the half or 10k, while still others were traveling as companions to racers (like my husband Darcy).
Even though the flight from Boston to Reykjavik took only 5 hours, we passed through 4 time zones, so by the time we arrived in Iceland it was 2:30 am Eastern time but 6:30 am Icelandic time. We had been up for over 24 hours and were about to begin our 1st day of sightseeing – all part of the fun of traveling. I’m not usually bothered by jet lag since I adapt fairly quickly but I do tend to get a little punchy by the time I’ve been up for a day and a half without sleep. This didn’t bother any of us – we quickly adapted.
Marathon Tours had arranged for us to transfer by motor coach to our hotels. There were 3 different hotels available; two were downtown in the center of town while ours, the Radisson Blu Saga, was a 15 minute walk from the city center. This turned out to be an advantage, at least as far as I was concerned, because downtown tended to be quite noisy at night, with bars and restaurants and music. This was especially true for Culture Night, a popular festival in Reykjavik that attracts people from all over Iceland and is held on the evening of Marathon day. Multiple stages were set up on this night and live bands performed until darkness (and since this is the land of the midnight sun, there are only 2 or 3 hours of darkness in August). Around 11 pm on Culture Night, there was a spectacular fireworks display over the harbor. We were able to view the entire show from our hotel window.
Although we couldn’t check in yet, we were able to leave our bags at the hotel so we could make our way unencumbered to one of the other hotels where we could have some coffee and meet other tour members. Lunch was at the Hofnin Restaurant near the harbor. I must admit I found this first introduction to Icelandic food not very appealing. We were served a watery soup that consisted of some corn niblets, potatoes, cream, and a dollop of butter – very unpalatable. The main course consisted of a kind of fish called char and a starch consisting of bulgar – neither appealed to me. After lunch we had a motor coach tour of the city; we drove by Hofdi House (meeting place of Reagan and Gorbachev and reputed to be haunted), the stately Hallsgrimma church (Iceland’s tallest building and prominent landmark) , and the Perlan Saga Museum (where we had some delicious ice cream).
The tour ended around 5 o’clock and we were able to check into our hotel. We quickly unpacked and headed out for dinner with Steve and Paula. Yearning for some familiar food, we remembered passing by a Subway close to our hotel – a sub sandwich was just what we needed for sustenance. Then it was back to the hotel and finally to bed. I think we collapsed around 7 pm and went to sleep!
I woke up around 6 am. This hotel did breakfast right. The restaurant opened at 4:30 am so early risers like myself could eat soon after waking. We had a buffet breakfast every morning (included in our hotel package) and there was a hot line that opened at 7 am in addition to the cheeses and breads and smoked salmon. Plenty of food here and most of it was very good so we usually filled up for the day. After this first day, I awoke at my usual 4 am and headed to breakfast first thing.
Friday was our first full day in Iceland. We had signed up for the South Shore Excursion Tour and this turned out to be a good decision. We saw quite a bit of the countryside and lots of sheep and Icelandic horses, as well as greenhouses ( a short growing season means that Iceland must import most of its fruits and veggies or grow them in hothouses). Here are just a few of the highlights we experienced:
• the infamous glacier volcano Eyjafjallajokull (the one that erupted back in the spring of 2010 and brought air traffic to a standstill for several days)
• the Seljalandsfoss waterfall
• Vik, a small village and southernmost town and rainiest place in Iceland
• the Skogafoss waterfall
• a black sand beach with puffins nesting in the basalt lava formations
All in all, a great day. As we drove back to our hotels, we stopped at the race expo where we picked up our race bibs, chips, and tee shirts. Now it was time for me to obsess over how I would do in this race.
This is a relatively small race (only 675 marathon finishers). As usual, half marathoners far outnumber full marathoners, and there is also a marathon relay,a very popular 10k plus a 3 mile fun run for kids. The full and half races began at the same time, 8:40 am. Of course, I was ready to go by 7 am. The race booklet had instructions and pictures and maps in both Icelandic and English, but the maps were fairly complicated and the streets all had Icelandic names (naturally), so I had to trust that the course would be well-marked and easy to follow.
Paula, Steve, Darcy, and I headed out to the starting line around 7 o’clock. We stopped at the porta potties several times, took some photos, watched the crowds, and listened to the music. There were no corrals per se but signs listing minutes per kilometer helped us decide where to line up. For me it was pretty close to the rear. We started right on time and as usual once we began, my tension disappeared. I was feeling pretty good and decided that as long as I didn’t get lost, I would be fine. It didn’t even matter if I came in last, but I really wanted to beat that 6 hour time limit.
The course was very scenic. We passed by stately buildings, the National Gallery of Iceland, City Hall, the National Museum, our hotel, the University of Iceland, and the city center – and that was just the first 12 k. We headed towards the harbor and passed by the Sun Voyager, an aluminum sculpture that resembles a Viking ship. The weather was perfect – in the 50’s to start and the 60’s at the end, with no rain in sight, but a pleasant wind that cooled us off without freezing us. A lot of the course was on bike paths. Some of the bike riders came uncomfortably close to me but I kept myself acutely aware of people around me and managed to avoid any unwelcome encounters. The course was marked with yellow tape and there were volunteers at every questionable intersection. I later heard that some racers felt the course was confusing and not easy to follow; I suspect that they were probably looking at the beautiful views or talking or listening to music, because I never had a problem. Of course, I spent much time looking at the ground, watching for those yellow markers – I had to remind myself to LOOK UP so I could appreciate the great views.
I really enjoyed this race but it wasn’t easy. No hills, no rough trails, no dangerous potholes – but it did feel like a long long race. That may have been because the course was marked in kilometers rather than miles, and 42 k always seems like a greater distance than 26.2 miles. Still, every k was marked with a sign and that helped a great deal, and of course the kilometers went much faster than miles would have. There were several Canadian power walkers in the race and most of them blew right past me mid-race but one of them was having some trouble around mile 18. I thought I was the last walker, but Laurel caught up with me around that point and we helped each other get through the rest of the race just by hanging out together. Neither of us was up for talking much; we concentrated on conserving our energy for the race itself, but just having the companionship was a big asset. I crossed the finish line in 5:49 chip time, received my medal, and met up with Darcy and the Boones and several Maniacs.
It was a good race. After a hot shower and brief nap, my husband and I had the best meal of the trip – a buffet dinner at our hotel restaurant where we tried all kinds of Icelandic delicacies, including roast lamb, smoked herring, and lobster bisque. The key here was choice; there were a variety of well-prepared dishes and we could try as few or as many as we wanted. We discovered several that we really enjoyed.
Our trip was not over yet, though. We had another full day tour on Sunday. This was called the Golden Circle tour and it took us into the countryside where we visited the Pingveller National Park, site of the first Icelandic parliament and a geologically unique area where the tectonic plates from America and Europe meet but are slowly drifting apart. Another stop was at Gullfoss, a beautiful waterfall, on to some hot springs, and finally the Blue Lagoon. We returned to our hotel fairly late and then decided to make one final sojurn into the city to try one of the famous Icelandic hot dogs (made of lamb and not to my taste at all). We spent the rest of the evening packing for our early departure to the airport on Monday.
We were very pleased with the way Marathon Tours handled everything, from the flights and city tours to the way the Tour company representatives congratulated all of us at the finish line, even back-of-the-packers like myself. Our Icelandic tour guide, Kristin, was excellent as well, and patiently answered all our questions and told us some intriguing tales of about Iceland’s history and folklore.
Bottom line – this was a good destination marathon and highly recommended for walkers who can meet the 6 hour cut-off (or close to it – the last finishers came in at 6:19). For travelers in general, the downside is that Iceland is quite expensive and one can easily spend a bundle on food and souvenirs. Even those Subway sandwiches and hot dogs were quite pricey. However, being aware of the high costs in advance helps with budgeting. Practically everyone speaks English and we found most people to be very helpful and welcoming. Since Iceland counts as Europe, this is my second continent in my quest to complete a marathon on every continent.