Friday, August 26, 2016

Vesturgatan 24K Wilderness Race

Þingeyri, Iceland
Sunday, July 17, 2016

Trying to catch up on the bevy of summer races I'm behind on writing race reports ...

When traveling to different locations, the question isn't whether to run, but where to run, what distance, what terrain, will there be a race, etc?  So it was with this summer's family vacation trip to Iceland.  Back in the March timeframe, Matthew and I started scrutinizing available races in Iceland .  This was a challenge given the dearth of info on the web and the fact that much of the Icelandic websites about running in Iceland, were get this --> in Icelandic!  Go figure.  Anyway, there was a helpful English language site, and after comparing dates and locations we would be, we were able to line up this gem, description excerpted from race website:

"The wilderness run goes along a rough trail on the peninsula between the fjords Arnarfjörður and Dýrafjörður. The scenery is breathtaking, whether you do the 45 km run, 24 km or 10 km run."

Race decisions:  Rough trail between fjords, with breathtaking scenery?  Yes, please!  Sounds fantastic, doesn't it?  (I'm not asking you, Mikey or Tommy!)  While all three distances sounded appealing, we took the Goldilocks and The Three Bears approach of the 10K felt too short, the 45K too long, and the 24K just right.
The course we would run:
24 kilometers (15 miles) counter-clockwise on a peninsula.

Transport 1:  Despite an 11am race start, we were requested to show up in the village of Þingeyri at 8:30am to catch a bus.  Seemed a little early, but didn't want to miss this one, especially after missing a 10K road race in a nearby Icelandic town on Friday evening.  Being a 45-minute ride from the guesthouse we were staying, the 8am breakfast start time didn't work.  I asked the manager for tips on external breakfast choices, and he then insisted he would get up early to have breakfast ready for us by 7.  Cool!  We arrived in Þingeyri with time to spare, and well fed.
Pre-race meeting point in the village of Þingeyri,
before boarding buses to the race start

On the bus ride to the start.
What does one eat before races in Iceland?
Why, Skyr of course!
It's one of the national foods in Iceland,
has the consistency of yogurt, and is delicious and nutritious.

Transport 2:  The bus ride from Þingeyri to the race start took over an hour.  OK, now I finally understood why we were getting on a bus at 8:30am for an 11am start.  After long climbs up twisty mountain passes past snowfields and ledges, we came to a spot where the dirt and rock road was blocked by a river.  The bus slowed to a crawl, and I got ready to get off.  No, the bus was just slowing down to drive ACROSS the river!  After continuing a while longer, we finally disembarked into a field.  No buildings in sight; no porta-jons, just majestic sights of mountains and fjords. 
At long last, we have arrived at the race start.
Disembarking from the bus after an hour plus ride.

Watching some of the 45K runners
pass while we warmed up

Pre-race:  Why waste time writing about pre-race?  Because it already had amazing views, and we got to watch the 45K runners pass while waiting.  It was amusing to see how many would bomb through the river crossing like I would, while others pansied around it, some even going upstream to find a better crossing and then getting wet anyway.

Good-bye, bags.  We'll see you 24km later at the next fjord.
River crossing right at the start of our course.
Typical of several we would cross today,

Race time:  Almost the entire pre-race instructions were given in Icelandic (um, we're in Iceland and almost everyone in the field is a native Icelander).  No complaints here; I'm not the ugly American who expects people to cater to him.  After a while, the RD spoke briefly in perfect if not slightly accented English, explaining that he would give very brief instructions in English as a courtesy to the few foreigners in the race.  Nice.

Race first half: Eighty-one of us toed the starting line, with Matthew and I near the front.  Unlike the insufferable heat this summer in New England, it was a comfortable 63 degrees at the 11am start.  Two fit runners were quickly in the lead, followed by Matthew and then me.  At every kilometer, there was a kilometer marker, and interestingly enough they counted down instead of up (i.e., they denoted the number of kilometers remaining in the race).  Neat.  The first two kilometers were flat right along the water, and then started the gradual rolling hill climb for the next 6km (~4 miles).  At the first short but steep hill climb, I could see the two ahead of Matthew power-walking.  Matthew quickly closed the gap, which caused them to start running again.

... and we're off.  Here is the start, slight downhill to the water.
This will be perhaps the most scenic race I have ever run in my life.

The race course quickly turned into running on loose rocks between the
water and rocky, craggy cliffs.  Tough footing, but it was early in
the race and only lasted a kilometer or two.

This was just so cool to run under
this rock formation.
On a downhill, I got chicked to drop me into 5th.  I told myself I needed to run my own race, and surprisingly on the next uphill, I got un-chicked by passing her back.  And so this cycle would repeat two more times before I passed her for the last time.  At one point the course went slightly inland, over a dilapidated bridge, and onto a single-track trail through grass meadows.  This was really fun, but very short.
Was so surprised to see a working farm about 10km into the course.  Other than this,
the course was desolate.  Beautiful, but desolate.

I could see the trio leading the race:  two Icelanders with Matthew sitting right behind them, but alas at about 10km in, one of the guys started to drop back.  Over the next kilometer, the gap between him and me would narrow.  He gained on me on the uphill, but then on a long downhill I was able to catch him and pass him.  This put me into 3rd place!

Downhill back to the water again.
Yeah, this is a really ugly race course.  :)
I think the top two runners had gone out more aggressively than I had, and my conservative start may be paying dividends as I was feeling good and actually getting closer to the top two now.  Why isn't Matthew taking the lead?  Is he tiring on these hill climbs, or just conservative on what will be the longest race of his life to date?  Going through the next river crossing, it was about a foot deep and the water felt VERY cold, even after getting out of the river.

Second half:  Coming down a 200' descent gazelle-style at 6:17 pace put me right on the heels of Matthew and the 42-year old Icelandic runner, who would later introduce himself as Gisli.  I asked Matthew how he was feeling, and since he was feeling really good at halfway mark, I was pretty sure he was just holding back and would win the race, and it would come down to Gisli or me for 2nd place. 
Lead pack of three, while Matthew bides his time.

Leading Gisli on a hill climb

Up until now, there had been no spectators on the course at all (save for those staffing the water stops), but as we climbed up to Svalvogativi Lighthouse, there were a number of cheering spectators.  Gisli and I traded the lead a few times and Matthew was either directly behind us or to the side of us.  With about 6km left to go, Matthew surged ahead and was gone.  At the 5km mark, there were a number of spectators cheering again and waving Icelandic flags, and Gisli explained that was his family and his own 15-year old son was in the race as well.  The course flattened out a bit, but I had studied the course and knew a big hill was coming, as I'm sure did Gisli with the home course advantage.  At the 3K mark, we started the hill ascent (220' climb over just 1/2 mile), and this is where Gisli made his move.  He pushed ahead of me and I tried to stay with him, but he was just a stronger hill climber.  By the top of the hill, he was a good 50 meters ahead of me.  Darn.
Svalvogativi Lighthouse, at the tip of the peninsula,
which we ran by.  Other than the farm, this would be
the only edifice we would see on the entire course.
I pushed the ensuing downhill, and what's this, I'm actually gaining back on him!  I would so much like to go 1-2 with Matthew in this race.  My strategy is going to be I can't go by him slowly and give him any chance to hang with me, but instead it's going to be to gradually get closer to him on the long downhill, then really pick up the pace and go past him very quickly. 

I executed better than I had planned, and now past Gisli I know I need to push my hardest the rest of the 2km left in the race, as the final kilometer is 100' climb, followed by 100' downhill to the finish.  I push as hard as I can on both, knowing Gisli is chasing me, and end up crossing the line exactly one minute behind Matthew and 32 seconds ahead of Gisli.  Great race!
Really cool race finish (runners finishing from right to finish at Icelandic flag on left)

Immediately after the race, with snow-covered
mountains in the background
(Pic taken by Gisli Arnason)

We had a long wait before awards, and had to stay around to wait for a bus to take us back to Þingeyri.  Gave us plenty of time to eat and hydrate.  Spoke with a number of Iceland runners, who were all friendly and congratulatory.  The course terrain itself of mostly a dirt and rock road wasn't all that exciting, but the views, the scenery, the friendly people, and running in an amazing country made this a great race for me.
Matthew recovering in the tent at finish.
All finishers got a medal and blanket.

Lots of chocolate-based food post-race.  Yum!

Top of the podium in my age group!

Matthew and I #1 and #2 on the podium,
with Gisli in #3

My loot: Icelandic wool mittens for 2nd overall, small medal for all
finishers, large medal for age group winner,
cool bib that I will keep
Rough translation on my medal:
Runners Festival 2016, 24K Wilderness Run,
Winning male 40 years and older
Just a fantastic time.  So glad I did this one, and really cool to finish on the podium with Matthew.  I imagine this was a one-time event, but maybe just maybe on my bucket list I could add the Laugavegur Ultra in Iceland:
River crossing at Laugavegur Ultra,
in the mountains.  One can dream!

Final results:  1:42:20, 2nd out of 81.  Overall pace 6:48.    Full results here.

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