Sunday, July 24, 2016

Weekly (Plus a Couple of Days) Log: 11-Jul to 19-Jul-2016 – ICELAND!!

Where do I even begin with this one?  How can I put together a cohesive and organized post without drooling and rambling on and without over-using superlatives?  I’m not sure that I can, but given that I’m neither writing a professional paper nor seeking any literary accolades, that’s the chance that I’m willing to take.

As children, we learn the meaning of the US flag design.
How about the meaning of the colors of the Iceland flag?
Blue of the surrounding ocean, against a white cross representing snow and ice,
with the red of Iceland's fiery volcanos.
Reader caution:  This weekly-ish blog post will be longer than others, and will not be entirely about running (my blog; my rules).  However, it will also contain many more photos than usual, so you can always just look at the pictures.  This will also give you an American runner and tourist’s insight into what I perceived as simply an amazing and beautiful country.  (See – I’m out of control on the superlatives already.)

A quick trip back to the 80s ...
1980s Regret.  As with the movie “Back to the Future”, to start this story, you’ve got to set the DeLorean back to the mid-1980s, as that's when I added Iceland to my bucket list.  I can’t remember the exact year (due to old age and confusion), but I was ~ 20 years old.  The short version of the circumstances is that my family was going back for a somewhat regular pilgrimage to my mother’s native country of Germany, and as they were flying Icelandair, it included a stopover in Iceland.  I declined!  WHAT AN IDIOT!  I shortsightedly thought it would be more cool with my parents out of the house to invite a bunch of my high school friends over for a night of partying.  More cool than going to ICELAND?!  What was I thinking?  Why didn’t someone smash a metal frying pan over my head and knock some sense into me?  Anyway, this is one of my big regrets that I carried with me for over three decades, until …

2016 Family Vacation Vote.  Yes, we really do have a family vote, replete with the Official Walker Rules which point-weight your first and second choices to lessen the chance of a draw.  This year Iceland won out over Bermuda by a solitary point, which in turn was only a single point ahead of our 49th state.  On with the show …

Monday 11 July:  5
Last full day in the US of A.  Chased by a turkey deep in Woody Hill. 

Tuesday:  7
Avondale 6 x 1K workout, before 1/2 day of work and up to Logan for a direct flight to Iceland.  5 hours!  Quicker than getting to the west coast. 

Wednesday:  12
AM:  After a 6am arrival and hotel check-in, 7 miles with Matthew around where we were staying in Keflavik.  Unlike two years ago in Europe where Matthew declined most runs, I think he came with me on every single run this time.  Good bonding and someone to share the sights with.
1st Iceland run, in pastoral fields in Keflavik
Bridge Between Two Continents:
Iceland is one of a few, if not the only, country in the world lying both in North America
and Europe.  The tectonic plate gap lies in the chasm you see beneath the bridge,
with Mark in North America and Europe on the left side

Outer-worldly rock formations in southwest Iceland

Geysir with sulfur-streaked soil.  Pungent sulfur smell as well.
Reminded me a little of formations at Yellowstone National Park.

Hafnabjarg Sea Cliffs.  One of many where pictures don't do this justice.

Mark, on top of cliff in picture immediately before this.

PM:  5 miles with Jana and Matthew, while awaiting for our appointed time to enter the Blue Lagoon, a famous geo-thermal hot spa.
Jana and Matthew running
near Blue Lagoon.

Lava field from an eruption in 1226 AD.

Cool gravel running path
with seldom seen trees.
Post run, Matthew soaking in just a very
small part of the Blue Lagoon.

Thursday:  5
Snæfellsnes Peninsula.  Explored the Vatnshellir lava caves, 35 meters under the ground, and 200 meters long.  The temperature at the bottom was 2C (36F)!  Our tour guide, Gunnar, upon encountering another tour group coming the other way, joked that this was the only traffic jam we would see in Iceland.  He was right!  Even in the capital city at rush hour (which was the only place we even saw traffic lights), there was virtually no delay.

Personally not into one of the Icelandic national dishes of lamb ...

... but their bakeries certainly sated
my sweet tooth.

Descending into the cave.

Deep inside the cave:
(l-r):  Mark, Matthew, Jeff
After the cave tour, we checked into the house we had rented at Arnastapi.  Jana, Matthew, and I went out for a run.  One of the reasons I chose this locale was it was consistently listed as having the best hiking trail in all of Iceland.  Amazing technical trail of lava rocks against sheer cliffs dropping straight into the ocean.

Bárður the troll lives in this area, and 

protects it from evil.

Running the technical trail from Arnastapi to Hellnar.
Just gorgeous.

Matthew running single-track
through the highlands.

These Arctic terns are nasty.  They hover,
and then dive-bomb you.

This is the bungalow we rented and stayed in while on the
Snæfellsnes  peninsula.  Right on the water and trails.
Friday:  9
Long, long drive into the Westfjords of northern Iceland.  If only I could ever cash in on the phrase of "as the crow flies", I would likely have saved 75% of the time driving today.  Long drives down one side of a fjord and then back up the other, combined with white-knuckled climbs across mountain passes.  Normally, I'm fine with heights, but these were hairpin turns on gravel roads on the edges of mountains with never a guardrail.  One mistake or look away briefly and you're all done.

Just a portion of our trip (in blue):
Up one side of a fjord, down the other side
Twisty gravel road mountain-pass rises and switch-backs.
Dynjandi Falls.  The short 1.5 mile hike was well worth
the sights and experience, as well as giving me a needed break
 from driving.  The four of us in lower right.

Sheep outnumber people in Iceland by
almost 3:1.

We were signed up for a 10K that evening, but time was running too tight.  A subsequent snafu with a mountain tunnel entrance being closed, and then having our hotel reservations explicably canceled by Orbitz and a wait to get replacement rooms at a nearby guesthouse caused us to be unable to get to the 10K bus departure point on time.  A race that we had excitingly signed up for and was taking place in Iceland we wouldn't actually be able to make.  I didn't know if Matthew would ever talk to me again, but after initial disappointment, he seemed more accepting of this than me.  While I couldn't have anticipated either the tunnel or hotel issue, I hadn't given any allowance for contingencies.  Poor planning.

Start of Friday night's northern Iceland run.  Along a fjord,
with snow-capped mountains in the background.
After settled into our new guesthouse, and beating myself up "If only I had done x or y", Matthew somehow accepted my company for a longish run on gravel roads, and single-track through grass up into the highlands and past beaucoup de sheep.  10pm and bright sunshine!  In fact, sunset wouldn't be until close to 1am, followed less than two hours later by sunrise!

Saturday:  6
Late sleep-in and lazy day.  Dead tired and I've been staying up uncharacteristically late, as with near 24 hours of daylight, my sleep pattern is affected.  Noontime 54 degree run!  Easy pace with sights of snow-capped mountains and endless fjords.  Matthew and I stopped on a deserted beach and sat on the rocks soaking in the beautiful and desolate scenery.  I remember remarking that I would be happy to stay in Iceland for a month-long vacation.
The Súðavík Arctic Fox Center seemed a little overrated,
but you have to admit this fox cub is cute.  Mark tried to pet it,
and it thought Mark's fingers looked tasty.  This is the only
land mammal native to Iceland.

The views just don't quit in the Westfjords.
(Jana took this from the grounds of the Arctic Fox Center).

Post-afternoon trip we went for a short swim in the outdoor heated (it would be too cold otherwise) public pool in the village, but unfortunately we were pushing up against closing time of 7pm.  Next the family went for dinner.  Mine was plokkfiskur, the ubiquitous, inexpensive, and delicious Icelandic fish stew.

Sunday:  16
Runner's Festival 2016 - Vesturgatan 24K Wilderness Trail Race.  Simply awesome and very unique experience.  Race write-up to follow. 

After a long-ride (again, up one side of a fjord, then back down-to-another), punctuated by a late night delicious dinner of "Salt Fish" along the way, we reached Reykjavik at Midnight.  We had rented a 3-bedroom apartment downtown and I repeatedly apologized to the landlord waiting for us at Midnight, but he just brushed it off and gave me a nice tour of his small, but very functional apartment.

Monday 18 July (I warned you this is an extended version):  5
Skogafoss Falls. (I'm in blue jacket and
white hat)
We were able to hike to the top of the falls
as well, but the views were best from
right here.

Sólheimajökull Glacier Hike.
Simply amazing to be hiking on top of a glacier.

The boys having fun with their ice picks.

Gulfoss Falls.  Rated among the top ten in the world.

From this vantage view looking down on the falls,
you can see a hint of a rainbow.

After a long and tiring day of hiking, I was long ready for bed at 10pm.  Matthew would hear nothing of it, and wanted to go for a run in the city, and had made the effort to research a few spots of interest.  When would I have the chance to run in Reykjavik again, let alone a near-sunset run along the water?  Thank you, Matthew!  My legs were not thrilled, but my heart and spirit were soon lifted.  Not the wonderful natural sights of the past few days in the Westfjords, but certainly unique and interesting.
Fresh Arctic Char:
just another healthy and delicious local meal.
I thought Mark was going to try the smoked puffin, but he
had the whale steak instead.

Reykjavik night run:
Hallgrímskirkja Church
(Statue in front was a gift from
the US to Iceland in 1930;
it's of Leif Eriksson, believed to
reach America 500 years before

Sculpture of a Viking ship "Solfarid - The Sun Voyager"
along the Reykjavik waterfront,
just before sunset at 11pm.
Right in Reykjavik.
But, yeah, we didn't quite make it there.

Tuesday:  6
Happy Birthday to me.  For my 50th birthday, I ran 50 K with friends.  For my 51st, I ran 51K, mostly solo in the heat, but Matthew "carried" me for the finishing miles on the beach in the dark.  For my 52nd, a birthday adventure run I don't know how I will ever best:

Mount Esja!  2,600+ vertical climb, average 19% grade.  It was about a 40K drive outside of Reykjavik to the base of Mount Esja, towering over the water at sea level.  It was about 12C (in the low 50s) to start, but cooler at the mountain-top.  There were only three hikers ahead of Matthew and me as we started our trek upward, but numerous hikers we encountered on our way down.  The trail started out on gravel but the higher we got the more it became rock-strewn and technical.  With a number of breaks, we were able to run the entire course, save the last 100 meters, which I'll show you why in just a moment.
Alpine flowers and start of our run.

Getting steeper.  Reykjavik in far distance across water.

Barely runnable now.

Final 100m, no longer runnable,
as I am pulling myself up
metal chains over rocks.

Top of Mt Esja!

Esja - success!
The descent.  Yikes!

Tuesday capped out 60 miles of running in Iceland in 7 days.  Hit most of the activities we set out to do, but due to time and other constraints, had to skip sea-kayaking and Latrabjarg (puffin bird cliffs).
These are the major areas we visited in Iceland on our 2016 trip.
2600 km of driving, but still left quite a bit untouched.
(If it's not obvious, the white areas are glaciers.)

Iceland trip pros:
  • Stunning beauty.  This was my 17th country that I've visited, and by far, the most beautiful.  Simply amazing natural scenery that wouldn't quit, especially in the drop-dead gorgeous Westfjords region of northern Iceland.
  • Extremely clean country.  Almost no litter to be seen.  I might give Singapore the nod here as the cleanest country I've ever been to, but it would be close. 
  • Technology:  Ahead of the US in many areas, from chip-and-pin credit cards, to a virtual cashless society (although I did like their coins with fish and sea creatures on them instead of presidents!), to self-scanning baggage machines, FREE unlimited wifi nearly everywhere even in our rental car, etc.
  • Safety.  The third lowest violent crime country in the entire world!  Ordinary policemen don't even carry guns, and we were told most people in Iceland don't even lock their doors!  Not to knock our own country, but we're not even in the same ballpark.
  • English fluency.  Icelanders learn English as a second language, and Danish as a third.
  • Proximity.  Would it surprise you to know that we took a 5-hour direct flight from Boston?    (Flight price was only $378 round-trip, but being on an Icelandic budget airline "WOW Air", you get nothing, and baggage charges and seat choices rack up quickly.  Pack snacks ahead.)
  • Weather.  This could be a con for many, but personally I don't enjoy the heat.  Highs most days in the upper 50s, a few days reaching the upper 60s meant I was very comfortable.  Perfect running weather!
  • Metric system.  Can we please, please get rid of the silly antiquated English-inherited system that England and her other former colonies have long abandoned, and join the modern world?  Everything makes so much sense in the base-10 system, and you don't need to know that there are 5,280 feet to the mile or 128 ounces to the gallon or how many square feet to an acre?
  • Food.  Again, this could be a con for many, but the Icelandic palate agreed with me quite well.  I could finally easily achieve one of my goals:  becoming a pescatarian (eating no animals at all except seafood).  If you need to wake up to your American breakfast of fried eggs and bacon, you could probably find that in cosmopolitan Reykjavik, but that wasn't the norm at hotels / guesthouses.  The European breakfast I was used to (cheeses, meats, rolls, jams, muesli, yogurt, OJ, coffee) met with my high approval.
  • No mosquitos.  Iceland is one of the very few places on earth where there are absolutely zero mosquitos!
  • Friendly people.  While they wouldn't typically show it with emotion (i.e., not a lot of smiling), I had great conversations with a number of Icelanders.  1) Asking for directions in Ísafjörður, it appeared odd to me that the man I asked started to walk away until I realized he was going to his car to get his personal map, mark it up with the street blocks I need to walk, and then give it to me to keep.  2) At the overbooked hotel where our reservations were cancelled, the manager apologized profusely (it wasn't his fault; it was Orbitz's), personally arranged other accommodations for us and insisted the four of us sit down and have anything we want to eat and drink in his coffeehouse "on the house" before leaving.  3) In Reykjavik, an elderly man living in the adjacent apartment and one of the few non-English speakers I met nonetheless insisted I follow him into the basement (OK, is this getting weird?) where he showed me where he kept his bicycle and offered us to use it anytime.
Iceland trip cons (no I didn't run out of pros!):

  • Expensive.  With nearly everything imported (exceptions of seafood and lamb), it's common to pay the equivalent of US$20 for a salad, or nearly $7 for a gallon of gas.
  • Driving.  Long rides up and down fjords were anything but "the shortest distance between two points ...", and the gravel mountain pass climbs without guardrails were white-knuckle experiences for me.
Shortly after arriving in Boston on the return flight, waiting in a long line to clear US customs, and then packed in like sardines on the Silver Line bus to South Station, Jana (from busy, hot, and traffic-prone Taiwan) made the comment that there are "too many people here, too many cars, and it's too hot".  I agree on all sentiments!  Before I die, I would like to come back for an extended and less rushed vacation to Iceland.  If for some reason that is not fulfilled, our 2016 Iceland family vacation has already left an indelible lifelong impact upon me as a most remarkable and beautiful part of the world.


  1. I'm going to have to re read this repeatedly. Thank you for sharing your epic vacation. Sounds perfectly wonderful, even the white knuckle drives along the Fjords... can you bike them? Your pictures show a glimpse into the amazing sights to be seen. I am curious how the options for the family vacation are chosen, each person throws in their wish? Sounds like you came out the winner in many respects this time! And as for skipping Iceland to have a house party, well, clearly you had different priorities wayyyy back then!

    1. Beth, yes, there were indeed cyclists along the fjords, a number with saddle bags that were trekking around Iceland! The rules have evolved over time, but yes, each person gets to throw their destination choice into the hat, but to omit whimsical choices, only provided that they perform some research and submit a written entry including activities that can be done and cost of getting there.

  2. Great write-up Jeff. Amanda and I have been throwing around travelling options over the last few months. You've given me reason to give Iceland a closer look.

  3. Awesome trip and write up....I'm with you on so many of your assertions (i.e. food, metric system, etc.)

  4. What an extraordinary trip, Jeff! And apparently vacation isn't for relaxing; you fit more into that trip I think than any other family on earth could have. It was fun to live vicariously through you and your post.