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Iceland Mag

Interview with English ultramarathon runners on a foolhardy trek over the Central Highlands

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • Robbie Britton Running across the central highlands in late September is not for the untrained or unpepared. Photo/Natalie White -Twitter

Two English ultramarathon runners, James Elson and Robbie Britton are running across the Central Highlands. Iceland Magazine contacted the two to see what it was like to run across the Central Highlands, especially at this time of the year. Robbie admits the journey was not particularly planned.

What we thought was supposed to be a simple quick interview turned into something far more as we at Iceland Magazine were recruited to help figure out how the two could get their support team, along with dry clothes and gear, from the lodge in Landmannalaugar to the last stop in Þórsmörk.

Best way to see an island is to run across it
Robbie Britton, who is a professional ultramarathon runner, competing for Great Britain in the 24hr Running Championship, told us the reason he and James Elson, have both been fascinated with Iceland for a long time.

“Both James and me studied geography many years ago, and this is one of the most beautiful islands in the world, so I always wanted to come visit. It’s everywhere, in movies in magazines, and it’s just gorgeous. So, we wanted to come and experience this for ourselves."

For Robbie the best way to see and truly experience the landscape and nature is to run through it, so the two decided to run across Iceland. They began their journey a week ago, on Friday, setting off into the highlands. This first day was amazing, according to Robbie, as they saw the valley narrow and the landscape change around them.

Desolate moonscapes
They haven’t met very many people along the way, and certainly nobody in the highlands, which are deserted this late in the fall. For a good reason: the weather is beginning to turn from summer to winter.

“While we were running in Eyjafjörður fjord, from Akureyri town, we met one American woman who has moved to Akureyri, she ran with us for a while before turning back. Then we met one Frenchman who was walking across Iceland, and a couple of motorbikers, who were turning around, because the weather didn’t look good up ahead.”

 

 

Tough climate, rough roads and mentally challenging landscapes
But Robbie and James kept going, running into the desolate moonscapes of the highlands.

“James has run across the Atacama desert in Chile, and he tells me it looks very similar to the central highlands of Iceland, but only 50 degrees warmer! It looks the same. Endless desolate moonscape. But it's good to run through. The ground is not hard, so, its good on the body. But hard on the mind. Mentally it can be challenging to run through landscapes like these. When we have the mountains and the glaciers, they offer inspiration, but when the entire view is just black sands you need to use meditative techniques to keep going and keep yourself optimistic.”

The weather is not particularly helpful either, although Robbie argues it’s not really the hardest part of the trip. “It’s not warm, but not covered in snow either. It’s wet, windy and cold: It’s certainly a test!”

But, still, the two are pushing their luck running this late in the season. Robbie admits people he has spoken to have told him the trip was a bit foolhardy, or that the two were “crazy” going into the highlands at this time.

“I have a racing season, and in a weird way this is the holiday at the end of the year, something to look forward to. We don’t have the pressure to go fast like we do when we are racing, but instead we can just enjoy ourselves. Of course it would have been nicer to run in the summer months, but this is still just great!”

Admits they could have prepared their trip better
Robbie is not sure about recommending this trip to others, at least not at this time of year, and certainly not to runners who aren’t well trained and prepared. He admits even he was perhaps not prepared enough:

“If you are prepared for something like this, sure. But, I have to admit we weren’t the best prepared people, some people have looked at us and laughed! It can be dangerous, so you need experience.”

The two ran from Akureyri up to Landmannalaugar where they spent the last night. During this leg of the run they were accompanied by their support crew. Two friends which followed them in a 4x4 Suzuki Vitara, recording the journey, filming the run and taking photographs. Warm clothes and supplies which are crucial on a trek like this. However, the car couldn’t follow them from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk, the last stop along the trail.

 

 

The adventurers realize their plan won't work
Instead, the car had to drive a different route, down to the ring-road and from there up into Þórsmörk. Only one problem: Þórsmörk cannot be reached on a Suzuki Vitara due to impassable rivers.

When the team realized this they called us at Iceland Magazine up and asked if we could help them figure out how to get the crew into Þórsmörk, which we of course did. "Any help would be greatly appreciated!" 

Iceland Magazine enlisted as members of the support crew
We called up the lodges in the area and mountaineers we suspected could come to the assistance, to confirm the initial plan of the English adventurers was not only foolhardy, bordering on reckless, but in fact impossible to execute. Under the best of circumstances the rivers in Þórsmörk can be challenging, even for experienced drivers. Unexperienced drivers on smaller 4x4s are adviced not to try to pass these rivers, especially when there have been heavy rains, which makes them swell. "Perhaps if they have experienced drivers, who know the conditions, they might be able to make it" Guðbergur, the lodge warden in Básar, where the team was initially planning to end their trip, told us.

To make matters worse, the season is drawing to a close in Þórsmörk, and most of the vehicles which could have assisted the two are already out of the area. The mountain truck at Arctic Lodges is also out of service. So, together we charted what other options they had and this morning, when the two were leaving Landmannalaugar it seemed we had found a solution, ensuring these adventurers could make it to safety – but we have to wait until tonight when Robbie and James plan on being at the lodge in Langidalur valley in Þórsmörk to know how it all went.

We’ll keep you posted!

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