Race Review – Half Fire and Ice Ultra (DAY 1)

A – Races. I guess in 2012 the first race I signed up for, the Amsterdam Half, could be classed as the original A – Race. I did that one strapped up after a knee injury at Royal Parks. Not sure I had one in 2013 when I was ambling through with sickness, injury, a divorce and was on the cusp of quitting. 2014 it was Berlin Marathon, even though I didn’t run. 2015 Berlin Marathon again but this time I did. 2016 was my first 100K at Stones. 2017 Comrades and Ultraks. Last year am not sure I had one that stood out probably Tower or Transgrancanaria, GMU for the self-nav challenge? And so to 2019. 20 marathons planned, multi-day events, but the big one? It is this one. The Half Fire and Ice in Iceland.

I was originally booked on the full last year but, due to family commitments, I had to defer for a year and they kindly let me. They also, as I had more stuff in August going on, allowed me to drop down to the lesser distance. 125KM across the most unforgiving terrain, carrying everything you need to survive. Sounds fun. Where do we start?

The Kit

There really was a lot of it. And it was mostly mandatory so this was going to be a physical trek until the weight came down. 3 days of food at 2500kcals a day, waterproofs, bedding, sleep mat, water bottles, changes of clothes, cheating sticks, the kind of first aid kit you could save lives with, my wonderful and as yet unused rain poncho, head torches, emergency lighting, survival bag, sun cream, spare socks, waterproof bag, sleeping bag liner,  waterproofs (didn’t I say that already?),  solar USB charger, portable USB chargers, you name it. 12KG of kit, all to be checked before day one.

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” — Stephen King (Stephen King not shown)

Pre- Amble

Keeping track of the entrant list I noted in January that people had bib numbers assigned and assumed that they had requested them. I put a Twitter poll out there asking, and a lot of people do this and so, thanks to Proper Ard Runner I decided to choose one as a test, I chose one as my target time (in hours) and that was 25. We shall see if they give it to me.

Eddie the Eagle, Tim Henman, Josh Dubovie, the 2014 World Cup squad, the English seem to be ok with being shit, and being last but I don’t want to be. No. I look at the list of fellow runners and think to myself several things. I think, who can I beat? If I run day one, and walk day two, and run walk day 3, can I move up the ranking. I wonder about the food and the sleep. I also wonder how many days it will take for me to start smelling like a rotting whale carcass*.

*It was 2.

PROGRAM OF EVENTS (From the Website)

Friday 24th May. 

Arrive at Race HQ the Geo hotel in Grindavik by 7pm Friday 24th May, from 5pm to 8pm compulsory kit checks and Medical checks take place. NOTE you must have everything on the list, take particular note of the minimum Specification of some kit, especially the waterproofs and the Sleeping bag.

Saturday 25th May.

After an early Breakfast, leave your luggage in the storeroom at the Hotel, and a short walk to the start, from the start, follow the course marked with RED TAPE OR RED FLAGS, there will be checkpoint’s on the route that will supply you with 1.5 litres of water, ( but you need to carry your water bottle’s, we don’t issue plastic bottles ) like the rest of the course, there is very little standing water, so make sure you have plenty with you at all times. Campsite at the end of the day is on grass, with a flushing toilet and washbasin. Hot water will be provided that evening. As it will be each morning and evening.

Sunday 26th May.

Very much like the day before, the campsite that night will also be on grass, with a flushing toilet, and a washbasin. Depending on how Saturday goes, it is possible we will have staggered start times for more than one group.

Monday 27th May

A very early start, with more than one start time, as we try to get everyone to finish by early afternoon, the finish is at a bar, just a few hundred metres from Friday nights Race HQ. Food will be available at the finish. Once everyone has finished we depart for the Blue Lagoon, around 5 kilometres away.

Everyone will be advised of the time we are going to depart from the Blue Lagoon,  we will head into Reykjavik around 45 minutes away to the Hotel, if you choose to stay longer at the Lagoon, travel to the Hotel will be your own responsibility.

In the evening we will have a celebration dinner, once the dinner is over, you are now free to follow your own program, breakfast the next morning is included at the hotel, but you are free to take extra time in Iceland or return to the airport depending on what your plans are.

The Build Up

In the weeks leading up to the race it did feel as if communication was quite absent, relative to other races we are used to where we are inundated with blanket bomb emails all the time. Several of us talked about this. As we sat waiting for a kit check that didn’t happen ’til the next day we didn’t know the route, the start time, the cut off, even the number of or the location of the water stops. It made me feel a little bit uneasy. It is not that I want to have all the fun taken out of it, it has been said that the Threshold series has made me soft, but I feel that when it is something as massive as this, that removing some of the areas of doubt relaxes you somewhat.

Now the reason why we didn’t get to know the route is that is given out on the day, as they may not 100% know it themselves. Same for the checkpoints. And on the first day, we ended up having to start late at 10am due to a bike race being held on some of the same roads. I say some, because I don’t remember any road on that day.

We had all massively over-packed, the kit check list we were originally given was for the full and, when the half document was eventually sent it still included most of the same requirements. It did mean a hefty bag, I went with the larger of the UD and it did exactly what was needed.
Medical checks. Heart rate? Blood pressure? Level of hydration? Daily Weight? Tell a hypochondriac he is having a medical check and see what happens. Have you ever seen someone drop Mentos into a bottle of Cola filmed in slow motion?  That is how I felt for a fortnight when reading it. In the end they just asked if anything had changed since I filled in the online form. Phew!
It was then I got to speak to the others as we relaxed. One guy had only run a half. One was an expedition leader but not a multi day runner. One was a mountaineer. But then one had won the 250 and the other the 125 last year. One had run every one of the Icelandic races to date. Oh and my number was 23, we shall see if I finish under 23 hours in the end.

Midnight Sun

We had packed head torches, and emergency lights, and spare lights, and spare batteries for lights. In the end we needed none of them. This photo was taken at half 11 at night. It would not get a shade darker until 2am, and then it was barely a change. I know this because I couldn’t sleep, even after swapping from a shared twin room to one of my own.

Day One

Morning of the race. Too much kit! So much kit! I had hoped that the kit check would thin it out but it didn’t at all. So instead I stored my suitcase in a spare room, dropped off my drop bag (warm clothes in case of emergencies), had some breakfast (mostly tea and Custard Creams) and spent the rest of the time until 10am generally milling about the hotel.

Before we finally got started, before the walk to the start line at the end of town, we were introduced to the Viking Clap. Some of you would have seen this when England (who lost) played Iceland in the European Cup in 2016. See here.

We would do this at the start of everyday, normally with the local boys stripping off, before eventually all the boys did. And so to the runners. I was surprised by such a small field, but in all honesty it was pretty perfect. The only issue being it was a fast field, so me, and a few others who would ordinarily be mid-packers, found ourselves being the slow pokes for the weekend, whilst the fast kids did their thing.

The wonderful peeps – Me (obvs), Gilly, Jane, Peter, Steve, Dara, Alex kneeling, Nick, Ken, Rafa, John, Isabelle, Mark and and Einar

The start was a gentle uphill on path. My plan for day one was to stick to my very rigid run 1KM, then 200M march, 800M run til the next KM, repeat and rinse. It is a great way of conserving energy and still allows you to move at quite a decent clip. The smooth asphalt lasted a few hundred yards and then we were onto a stony path down and around a hill topped with antennae. It would be our marker for the end of the 3rd day too, as we struck for home. The plan being a point to point run to base camp from Grindavik on day one, a loop back to base camp day two, and then base camp to Grindavik day three.  But that was all a fantasy, as after the stony path, we crossed a road and onto long grass. Fine, and it was. But then the first introduction to the real terrain, moss covered volcanic rock, complete with fractured shards of rock, rocks that moved when you stepped on them, crevasses between fractures that you needed to step across or leap, and literally no paths to speak of. We were truly off road.

We did find road at some point amidst the rock. It was a black ash road, where the supposed sand was crushed lava, sharp and of the evil kind that likes to sneak into your shoes and under your feet all the time. Oh yeah, my shoes. Forgot to mention that. I had decided to take both my new On Ventures, and a pair of Nike Flex that I had picked up the day I flew. In my lack of wisdom I decided on the latter, and so for 3 days ran in a brand new pair of Nike road shoes. Smart.

As bunnies go, I was not a happy one.

At the road the runners had started to stagger themselves 20 to 30 yards apart based on their natural pace. I had Steve behind me. And Gilly was behind him. Jane was just ahead of me. And Dara and then Mark ahead of her. After a hump in the road I couldn’t see Jane, not until I finally caught up and found her bleeding and trying to deal with a scuffed up leg, but more importantly a gash in her forearm that was  more pouring than dripping blood at quite an alarming rate.

Now, I don’t like the sight of blood. Even on TV it makes me go a bit wobbly. But somehow here I didn’t. I took her arm and raised it as we tried to stem the flow of blood with swabs, and then my Fire and Ice buff (that I gave her later as a memento), before I finally got a gauze and bandage on it, taping it down with K-tape as Steve and then Gilly went by. I decided to stay with Jane though. We had not spoken before and I was not happy letting her go off on her own after losing quite a bit of blood. And so we stayed together, leaving the road before looping back onto the nasty moss covered volcanic rock again, realising that this was one barren wasteland.

Somehow we reached a point, after overtaking Steve and Gilly, that we got lost. Or thought we got lost. It looked the same, and the red flags we had passed to get to where we are had dwindled and we seemed to be going back on ourselves after climbing down from a high lava ledge and back onto the long grass again.

It was pretty much here that we had decided that if we are lost, we will just go back to the pub and then have a beer and wait to be picked up to go to camp. So we just kept going and then, after seeing a “steam factory” and the only trees on Iceland, we found ourselves on a road again, and one we had not seen before. We were not lost. Yay. We were not shit.

After a checkpoint where a bottle of water was the only thing on offer, we climbed. The wind got up and I got cold. I said I wanted to put on a long sleeve and my gillet, and Jane went on ahead. Steve went by too, thanking me for looking after Jane. As did CP2 as I reached that. News of the fall had clearly travelled faster than we had. CP2 was also water, after a fast descent.  But at the CP I was told the finish was up the mountain, around it then down the other side and under a tunnel by the road and that gave me strength.

And it was strength I would need as the climb was tiring, long, before a road crossing, and another climb, coming round the mountain when he comes, and then finally a long straight. It was here that I caught up with Steve, who was cramping.  We chatted and he said I could go on to the finish, but it wasn’t that kinda race and so we hid in the tunnel until he recovered and then we ran out to applause from the crew and our first night in base camp.

The 40.2KM Day One done. Tick!

Carry On Camping

As I crossed the line, completing the first 40K I was pretty pleased with myself if truth be told. I had helped a fellow runner, or two, ran in with Steve, not got lost, and somehow wasn’t last as Peter, the tall, rangey Dane, had gotten lost. He had seen a backpack in the distance, assumed it was one of us and then followed them for an inordinate amount of time before realising his mistake. So, with a cup of tea and a freeze dried Shepherds Pie on my mind, I headed to my tent (tent 3) for only my 3rd night in a tent in my 46 years.

It was bright, bright green inside, and I was sharing with Dara and Jane. And the gods of good fortune were truly smiling me on as they were both great roomies for the next 2 nights. Wildly interesting jobs, or running experiences discussed, we had plenty of Tent 3 bants. It will be abstract but let’s just say it included but was not limited to:

Being so bright my solar charger is charging itself and we got tent tans.

2am

The axe murderer photos after discovering the size of my chopper. STEADY! I mean my big tool! HEY! I mean my camping multi-tool.

Let me in little piggies

That if Jane’s arm starts smelling of almonds it has gangrene, but it is ok as we have my chopper, I mean big tool, I mean axe.

Books and food and the quintessential Britishness of tea.

Oh and tent slippers. I had bought a pair of Northface slippers on the Thursday to wear in camp. In the end we all did. They became our team Tent 3 slippers and whoever left wore them. It did mean that everyone else only saw one of us at a time. But hey, that isn’t weird, right?

The Night

Brilliant sunshine until 2am meant sleeping wasn’t easy. Was playing audio of wolves outside the tent a good idea when people are exhausted? Maybe it was a laugh. The girls slept through it anyway. Would it have broken the bank to have something more than water at the CPs? Probably not. Just water and only 2 stops far apart makes it feel like it was made unnecessarily tougher just for the sake of having the moniker Iceland’s Toughest Foot Race. Something it would have without additional hardship.

I wrote this at the end of the day, as Dara and Jane slept and before I finally succumbed to sleep myself, as my poor feet recovered from a volcanic bruising, and the brilliant midnight sun charged my electronic devices.

As I sit in tent 3, having had two cups of tea and a freeze dried shepherds pie and banana pudding I can look back and say that I really hated today in places. The geography is unforgiving and for the most part samey. One expanse of moss covered volcanic rock looks pretty much the same as any other expanse of moss covered volcanic rock. A steaming factory or antenna topped hill may save your mind. But nothing will save your feet. The surfaces are just rough. Beds of fist sized stones, volcanic silt covered paths with sharp pieces that just love to sneak into your shoe and under your feet to stab you. I had visions of quitting and spending the next 2 days in a hotel in shame. But, what do they say? If you aren’t living on the edge you are taking up too much room. Onto day 2.

NEXT UP:

RACE REVIEW HALF FIRE AND ICE (DAY 2 and 3)

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