I traveled to Iceland with pals Lisa Dailey and Carol Frazey to participate in the Hengill Ultra. Carol and I had signed up to run the 53 kilometer race and Lisa was set to run the 10K.
Once we arrived I didn’t sleep for more than a couple of hours a night (jetlag/menopause/daylight 24 hours a day—ya know… the obvious suspects) before the race. Also, I hadn’t had a bowel movement since Monday (jetlag/too much bread as an easy meal during travel and not enough roughage). So, the day before the event I took a laxative, and the day OF the race, I lay down to sleep for a couple of hours in the afternoon. When I woke up, I emptied out (thanks to the digestive gods, whoever they may be), and I felt great—ready for 33 miles of mountain running.
My training, while executed mostly on roads in and around Seattle, HAD included some trail running in the Chuckanuts and at Edwards State Park near my home (also, I’m not a stranger to trail running per 30 years of running all over the world…). I had a reasonable expectation that, barring an injury on the course, I could complete the Hengill in under 12 hours—this estimate accounted for stopping for pictures, picking my way up scrambles the parkour practitioners would float over, and a little standing around wondering which direction to go.
With my system cleaned out and my body rested, I was also plenty hydrated and felt confident I could manage whatever waited for me in the Hengill Ultra race. Since last year’s running challenge of 40 miles per week for a year, I was excited to see how the challenge I’d set for myself in 2022 would unfold.
The weather forecast was uncharacteristically clear. Our experience in Iceland thus far was that the clouds had been dark and low. We’d had at least a little rain for each of the four days since we’d landed, so we were grateful for the weather forecast because we’d heard in previous years there had been a lot of rain and fog and that visibility during the race was difficult. (In fact, at check-in, I’d met David, one of the two of the 100-mile runners, who had tried to complete the race last year and had given up because of the weather.) The rain wasn’t a concern for me, of course, because I run in the rain all the time—I’ve got all the right gear for a hard cold rain and even for a stout wind. But a bigger worry for me was that epic fog. Still… mostly… although I did worry a little about getting lost, I was naively more concerned about visibility because I wanted to be able to see the views of Iceland from up on the mountain.
The day before the race we learned how the race course was going to be marked. It would be marked with orange flags staked in the ground periodically. The flags were, we were told, never to be more than many yards apart. We could be confident that if we didn’t see one for “more than two or three minutes,” we had gone off course. I was happy to hear this during the race orientation because, as a back of the packer (often the last runner in an event), I’ve been in situations many times in which I was running all alone on a course that was not well marked. Once, several years ago in the Napa Valley Marathon, with only about five miles left in the race, I missed a turn and logged an extra mile and a half. I wouldn’t have figured it out if there hadn’t been a local runner behind me who followed me and screamed her lungs out for me to come back. And I wouldn’t have heard her if I hadn’t suspected I’d taken a wrong turn and removed my earbuds to ask a passing car I flagged down if they’d seen other runners ahead of me.
There wouldn’t be any cars passing for me to ask directions from on this Iceland race, so I hoped to be able to keep my eyes on those orange flags.
When gun time arrived for my and Carol’s Hengill race (10:15PM on Friday evening), the sky was clear—only a few distance clouds in the purpling sky.
Pretty quickly after we started, I fell to the back of the small pack. There was one woman running behind me for a while. She was running in the 26K distance. We hung together until she had to turn around (hello Fjola!) at the 13K mark where the first aid station was planted.
I’m not going to lie, right from the start, the terrain was HARD. Volcanic shale made getting a firm foothold unlikely on long stretches. Even in open meadows where there was a footpath, the groove of the path was so narrow (as if hewn by bicycle tires) that you would have to put one foot directly in front of the other. When I picked up my back foot it would hit the sides of the groove and knock me off balance. Large fields of giant rocks and big, loose gravel, not to mention some few stretches of slowly melting snow, all proved to be unrunnable (for me). I picked my way through much of the first part of the race at a brisk walk/hike.
The higher up I climbed, the more spectacular the views got. I had the thought, “I’m doing the most ridiculous and the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done.” And although I was moving slowly,
I felt GREAT—easy movements, easy breathing, easy-to-follow orange flags.
The course was a lollypop stick, and then a long loop with an out-and-back in the middle to the major aid station. When I stepped off the loop to head down to that second station, I got a little worried. The route wove down, DOWN, DOWN, DOWN… The views from the top of the mountain with black and red rocks, green fields of moss, and colors in the sky of lavender and periwinkle, were not easy to enjoy as I picked my way down both much traveled trails and man-made staircases (some held in place with wood and others made of metal casings filled with pebbles).
All runners know that what goes down must come UP. The combined elevation gain of this race was to be 6,725 feet. So, as I was picking my way down through the natural beauty, although I was trying to stay in the moment, I couldn’t help anticipating the subsequent climb.
When I finally got to the main aid station, my only complaint was a couple of small rocks in my shoes, which I cleaned out forthwith once I had a place to sit down inside the tent. There, I took my time, refilled my water containers, ate some peanut butter filled pretzels and got ready to make my way back up the massive hill I’d come down twenty minutes before.
The volunteer at the station knew my name, which heartened me. I knew they were keeping track of all their runners (and as a former race director, myself, I know how much hand-wringing there can be until every runner is accounted for safely). When she waved goodbye to me, I’m sure she couldn’t have guessed what would come next.
The first thing that happened after I made it back to the primary loop is that I encountered a runner coming TOWARD me. He was an older fellow (older than I, in any case), running poles in hand, number adhered to his clothing with safety pins, who addressed me with greetings.
“Hallo,” he greeted me in Icelandic with a quizzical expression.
I answered him in English (nearly everyone in Iceland speaks English), “Hello. How’s it going?” I thought it odd that he was running against the course, but I supposed he’d gotten hurt and was heading back to the aid station. So I asked him, “Are you okay?”
“Yes, but…” he said, “Do you know that you are running in the wrong direction?”
I looked at his face and panic flooded my body, making my already cold face grow colder. I tried to process what he was telling me. Could I be going in the wrong direction? I had specifically inquired about the directionality of the course at the info session. Since the instructions were all given in Icelandic, I’d approached one of the main veins of the race—a beautiful blond woman whom I’d talked to at both check-in and at equipment check—and asked her to translate the important details. “You follow the course until you veer off for the aid station. That goes to the left. Then when you get back on the circle, stay left.”
“So just stay left at those intersections,” I’d clarified.
She’d confirmed I understood correctly, so now, here was this man coming the opposite direction telling me I was on the wrong path.
Fortunately, right then, along came David. David’s 100 MILES (not 100 kilometers, okay?) included THREE loops of the route I was doing. He was on his second loop and, ostensibly, he would know the directionality of the course. Also, remember, he’d tried the 100 mile race the year before. He’d told me in his previous attempt he’d made it 112 KILOMETERS, so he’d done at least two loops (and a little more) last year.
“David,” I said as he approached.
He took out his Bluetooth earbuds.
“This guy says we’re going the wrong direction. Are you sure this is the right way?”
“I’ve done this route many times,” the older fellow added, to make his case. I had the feeling he was a local. He certainly spoke with authority.
David gave hardly any credence to the idea that we were on the wrong track. “No, this is right,” he adjudicated dismissively. “I’m on my fourth circuit in two years.” Then he stuck his buds back in his ears and carried on.
The other guy shrugged his shoulders. “All the best,” he said and strode past me.
Once the wrong direction guy was beyond earshot, I called out to David before I lost him in the distance. “David… Are you sure?” I shouted.
He heard me and turned around. “Yes. I’m sure.”
With David’s assurance, I continue following the orange flags, secure in the fact that I wasn’t back-tracking.
All was well again… until I saw the morning fog coming down up ahead. I looked at my clock on my phone. 4:30am. I hoped as it descended, the fog wouldn’t be as dark as we’d read about last year’s fog being. But as I entered the cloud on my next climb, I could see that my visibility was about to be severely challenged.
Suddenly to the right of the course, I saw a green tent, large enough for two people, and a lawn chair. To my left there was another lawn chair, flung by the wind and overturned. If the inhabitants of the tent were in there for the racers, they didn’t hear me coming (probably due to the whistling of the wind), or maybe they were too hunkered down inside sleeping bags to bear the chill of the descending fog.
I ran past the tent, over some spongy moss and more rocks. Then, there was a small snow field to pick across—not too icy, easy to navigate. On the other side of the snowfield I could see the orange flag. Good. I was in the right place. But from that flag, I could see no other—in any direction, though I wandered about for several minutes. What I could see was a yellow post with a black tip. These posts, with either blue or black tips, had accompanied many of the orange flags throughout the journey so far. I assumed they were permanent markers of the trail for hikers, so when I didn’t see an orange Hengill flag, I looked for the next yellow post. And I followed it.
This was mistake number one.
Mistake number two was following the next yellow post. And the next… and the next.
Now I’d gone for nearly a half mile without seeing an orange flag—and I had a terrible feeling I’d gone astray.
The fog was quite thick by this point, and I didn’t want to get lost any further, so I did something I’ve never done before in a race—no matter how lost I’ve been (and if you’ve followed me, you know I’ve gone astray a few times, both literally and metaphorically). I called for help. I was obviously off course—in freezing weather, in deep fog, on a mountain in Iceland. Not a single other living soul knew exactly where I was. This was no time to pridefully fuck around with trying to find my own way. Also, I’d been running for about 6.5 hours, and I knew I was probably not my own best decision maker at the moment.
We’d been given the phone number for one of the race directors.
I pulled out my phone and dialed the Icelandic number.
“Hallo,” Thor answered.
“Hi. This is Cami Ostman. Number 925 in the Midnight 53K.”
“Yes, Cami. I know you. How are you?”
“Well, I couldn’t see the orange flag so I followed the yellow posts with the black tips. Was that the right thing to do?”
He spared me no ego. “No. You’ve done the wrong thing. Go back.”
“Shit,” I said. “Okay, I’m heading back. It’s very foggy here. I don’t have any visibility.”
Thor stayed on the phone with me only a minute, and then I picked my way back post by post. By now I could barely see the posts either, which stood about three feet each (compared to the orange flags, which were all only about six or eight inches above the ground).
I called him again.
“Where are you now?” he asked me.
“I’m on a mountain. By some rocks,” I knew as I said it, I sounded stupid. On a mountain, surrounded by rocks was the whole race.
“Have you passed the green tent?”
So the tent WAS for the racers! “Yes, a couple miles back.” I was relieved that there were other humans up here on the mountains, but how could I find them? Or they me?
“Send me a picture of where you are by text,” Thor said. “But first, how are you?”
“I’m totally fine,” I reassured him. “I’m just lost. I have food and extra clothes and water, but I can’t see anything.”
We got off the phone again, and I sent him some pictures of my location.
When we talked again, I saw that my phone was down to 7% battery. It had gone down quickly with our short phone calls. Also, my hands were freezing, having taken off my gloves to work my phone screen.
“I’m officially getting freaked out,” I said this time.
“No. There’s no time for that,” Thor told me. “Where are you from?”
“Seattle,” I answered.
“Okay. I was just trying to place your accent.” But I didn’t think he was. I think he was trying to ground me—to get me to think of something besides what I was starting to believe was my eminent death by hypothermia.
Just then, through the fog, I saw the orange flag I’d last seen. My last sign that I was still on the Hengill race course. I screamed into his ear, “Thor, I see it. I see it!!!”
I could hear the relief on the other end of the phone. “Okay, that’s good. You are not far now. Look around. You’ll see the next one.”
We hung up. But look though I did, in every direction, wandering several yards in a circle around that damned flag, I could NOT see the next fucking orange indicator. So I called him back. “No Thor. I can’t see it. I only see a post with signs pointing to various destinations.”
This gave him all he needed to save my life (if I’m being too dramatic, you won’t convince me). By now, my teeth were literally chattering, and I forgot I had wind pants and an emergency blanket and a distress whistle in the pack on my back. I was losing my presence of mind completely. “Take a picture of the sign,” he commanded me.
He texted me back: “Follow the sign Innstidalur and you see flags soon.”
But I didn’t see the text. My mind was truly fraying.
So I called him again. “I’m sorry I’m such a pain in the ass,” I said, fighting tears.
“Look at your text,” he said calmly.
I looked. And then I matched the word of the place on his text to one of the words on the signpost and walked in that direction. I saw it. I screamed in his ear, “Thor, there it is!!! I found it. I see it. I found it. It’s going to be okay.”
Still calmly he said, “Yes. Now keep your eye on the flags.”
And off I went.
But by now I was VERY, VERY cold. And I couldn’t keep my balance. So, in short order I slipped on the loose rock and inside of two minutes, I fell—on a downhill, but backwards, landing on my fleshy butt. I sat for a moment and talked to myself: No crying. Just catch your breath. Get up. Be careful. Walk until you can run. And warm up.
So that’s what I did.
Before long, my core and my hands were warm again, and my senses were restored. I was about 20 miles into the actual race with an additional 1.5 miles added on for the excess wandering.
I ran for as long as I could, but in the last third of the race, I found I’d lost my mojo. The rough ground felt like it came up at me too quickly. The uphills were navigable with a fast walk, but the downhills started to make me dizzy. With ten miles left, I gave up on running and decided to walk the remainder.
By the time I’d got back to the first aid station, where my last companion had left me, I knew I’d be walking the rest of the way. My oomph was drained, but not my determination to finish the race or my capacity to keep moving forward on my feet, even if more slowly than I wished.
With three miles to go, I saw Lisa. She was halfway into her 10K. “You okay?” She asked? Apparently, when Carol had crossed the finish line (with an 8:55 finishing time) to Lisa’s applause, Thor had approached my two friends and told them, “Just so you know, Cami is okay. She got lost, but she’s found herself.”
“I’m okay,” I said. “Holding on by a thread to my good attitude.”
“You’ve got this,” she encouraged me.
I crossed the finish line with nearly 14 hours logged on my feet.
Two days later, as I finish this blog post, I’m only full of gratitude for the support I received and for spending so much intimate time in this beautiful landscape. Why would you want to rush through it anyway?
For more posts on our trip to Iceland, visit Lisa’s blog at www.northwestrambles.com.