About 8 months ago I came across Fire and Ice, the toughest foot race in Iceland, and was beguiled by the pictures of shooting lava, northern lights and a really good challenge. It is a 250km stage race over 6 days and challenging terrain. A few weeks later I signed up. Now skip ahead to just 3 weeks ago when I emailed the organiser full of worry and wanting to pull out. I had come through June fitter than ever, but had come down with a virus in July. I ended up running very few miles in July and August and I don’t recall anyone ever recommending a two month taper! The organiser, Dave, sent me a good email back. It was very motivational, but the underlying message was clear: get your backside to the start and see how it goes from there as you never know. I did as I was advised and this is a report about how it went.
There are some things this report isn’t and I am going to set your expectations so that I don’t disappoint you. I am not going to show endless amazing photos of Iceland, although I do have them. I am not going to go into my strategy or equipment, although some of it really deserves to be mentioned. And finally I am not going to give away some of the experiences I had in Iceland before, during and after the race. If I included all of these things they would make this my most amazing write-up ever, but I earned them and at the minute I feel as if they are mine to keep. If you want such an experience then sign up for the race and find out for yourself….or wait and buy my book if I ever get around to writing it 😉
I’m also not going to mention my amazing tent mates in detail (and they do deserve a mention, they were brilliant), but I will give a shout out for Dave Annandale the race director. He wants Fire and Ice to be a tough race, but he also wants it to be an inclusive one. This means he will do everything he can reasonably do to get you to the end, even if you are only able to walk it, and will do what he can legitimately to get you through it. At times this did not make the crew’s life easy with checkpoints staying open long after other races would have closed them and started kicking off the slower entrants. This led to grumbles on the rare occasion when a cut-off had to be set, or walkers set off extra early, but mostly Dave’s attitude gave the race a lovely relaxed atmosphere, at least that is what it felt like to me.
The race started with 65 competitors from all over the world.
Day 1 – The ash plains of Askja – 35km
Today was all about Iceland’s newest lava field just south of Askja. We would be running very near to it and getting a really good look. It was created just two years ago, and behind it, covered in snow we could make out the massive volcano that had erupted so spectacularly to create it. With this vista on one side it would have been easy not to notice the massive glacier topped Queen looming in the other direction. The weather was beautiful, the packs heavy and I plodded off from the start. I was unsure how I would hold up over such a massive 6 day challenge so I started slowly so that I didn’t over cook it. I plodded around marvelling at the small plants trying to establish themselves and continuously gaping at the view. The morning mist had burned off and despite the seemingly endless ash plane later in the day Iceland was proving to be stunning. I finished the day walking it in up the final 5km long drag with a friendly American lady who I had been trading places with all day. It felt great to cross the finish line and then an age to get my act together trying to figure out my camp routine
- Time: 5:34:23
- Placing for the day: 34th
Day 2 – A journey to the queen – 40km
Today we left Askja, packs slightly lighter after last nights meal and breakfast, but legs and bodies already starting to fatigue. We ran over the red volcano and chased The Queen for much of the day. Finally as we reached the Queen and climbed onto her shoulder the cloud lifted for a few minutes and I got to see the broad cliffs surrounding her summit. The rest of the day was spent picking my way through a torturous lava field, slow and stumbling with a rumbling belly. I had eaten my allocated rations too quickly and was paying the price on one of the most technical bits of the course. Finally I found camp, had a quick dip in the river and retired for the night.
- Time: 6:57:24
- Placing for the day: Unknown
Day 3 – The long run north – 64km
Today was the longest day of the race. It would finish with us sleeping in a volcano and included a long trail section of about 30 miles to start before turning into a much more technical finish. It would be a tough day though with a constant headwind, rain and low temperatures as well as two river crossings. Oh, we would also be sleeping in a volcano that became visible half way through the day on a rocky hill top, and then it stubbornly refused to get closer. The weather conditions turned out to be critical. The low temperatures combined with the wind and rain almost made it lethal and a lot of competitors had to drop out and get into the safety of a warm support vehicle. I plodded on for the entire day, ate a hot meal (freeze dried – rehydrated) at an aid station providing hot water about two thirds of the way in. I took measures to stay warm, sacrificing night time kit to add extra layers under my rain jacket. I made it to the volcano and was later rewarded by my first view of the northern lights after dark.
- Time: 10:22:01
- Placing for the day: Approx 25th
Day 4 – How far to Dettifoss? – 49km
Today I was tired from yesterday and it was still a 30 mile day. We would be travelling approximately 20 miles across country to Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, and then heading to a trail that would take us 10 miles to the finish. I decided to walk the first 20 miles, found some very good company and hiked to Dettifoss. It was worth the visit and the effort of getting there. Dettifoss has to be seen, heard and felt in person to truly appreciate it. After Dettifoss there wouldn’t be much mileage left in the race, so I decided to crack on down the track and even managed to catch a few folk up. It was a fun way to finish a long two days, but the weather was good again and I was really starting to enjoy myself.
- Time: 8:17:03
- Placing for the day: 22nd
Day 5 – Heather hopping to Myvatn – 29km
I managed to cling tightly to the mojo that I found yesterday and set off alongside a faster tent mate. We found ourselves leaping from heathery clump to heathery clump for about 6 miles before finding a trail. It was made more nerve wracking by the occasional chasm stretching into the cooled lava under the flora though. Thankfull all such chasms were well marked by the organiser. The track that we found was barely that and was lump bumpy as well as twisty turny. I really enjoyed it, stretched my legs a little and spent much of the day alone. The race leader, who set off an hour behind me, caught me just a few miles from the finish, and breezed past with a brief fist bump and a big grin. He was also a tent mate. There was as big ashy hill to climb, and as I finally crested it I was presented with the most wonderful view. The camp site was just a few hundred meters away, all down hill, and it was next to the hot pools at Myvatn. We were allowed in them that evening, and it felt great to be clean for the first time in 5 days.
- Time: 3:57:43
- Placing for the day: 13th
Day 6 – Just a volcano to go – 26km
Today would feature a hilly start, hot bubbling springs, a sandy trail, a massive volcano and then the finish and that glorious medal. My mojo stayed and I shot off. I was determined to keep my spot in the placings and maybe even make up a place or two. I soon had to calm myself down and I let a few folk go past before settling in to a more comfortable rhythm. The volcano took a long time to come closer as we looped our way around behind it. When we did reach it we were confronted by a steep, slippery and rock covered climb to the rim. It was worth it though. The weather remained good and we could see a long way in all directions which led to some great photos. I hobbled around the rim as a niggle from Tuesday was turning into something a bit more substantial over the course of the race, and half slid my way down from the top. Finally I gave up and let my legs run. It hurt, but it was worth it as I shot down the path dodging tourists and leaping rocks. I kept the momentum along the next mile of flat section and then found myself pushing up the final hill. Before I knew it I had finished the toughest race of my life and just that thought is still sinking in.
- Time: 2:42:31
- Placing for the day: 13th
- Overall placing 24th of 48 finishers and 65 starters.
It would be almost impossible for me to relate to you all of the amazing experiences that I had during Fire and Ice, or to describe all of the wonderful people that I met both competing and supporting the race. For me it was literally a life changing experience. The stunning country, the hard race, the people and my surprise at my own levels of endurance have made me look at ultra racing and my own abilities in a new light and I hope to ride that positive wave for the coming years and into some more epic races.
I would like to offer a massive thank you to Dave Anandale and also to his wife Jorunn. I would like to thank the medics, the camp crew and the race support crew. You were all friendly and brilliant and just that little bit extra special. Thank you also to the other racers who always seemed to have time to chat whether at camp or during the race. We shared food, tips and many many stories. Finally a super huge man hug to all my tent mates. You were epic and we all fought hard battles, no matter what sort of result that ended up in. I very much miss the blissful Fire and Ice race bubble that I spent last week in, and hope to find such a thing again at a future race.
This isn’t my longest write-up and I’ve left a lot out as I feel that I worked hard for this experience. I gave it a lot of thought in advance, researched all manner of things. I tried a variety of kit, at my own expense, tested nutrition options and mulled for hours over the appropriate foot wear. I over thought it all horrendously and put a lot of effort into my race prep and strategy, and that learning and experience is mine to keep. If you catch me at a race or down the pub feel free to ask me questions about it though and I may let one or two things slip.
I’ve relented a little and decided to give you some pics taken from my trusty Olympus TG-820. The battery on it lasted all week despite telling me it had no juice from Day 2. It was a trooper 🙂
CLICK ON THE PIC BELOW TO GO TO THE FULL GALLERY.