Shortly before our summertime trip to Iceland a while back, I saw a note about a “Runners’ Festival” in the Westfjords. Whadya know? It was happening during the time that we would be there. This Runners’ Festival, lasting 3 days, was touted to attract runners from all over the world. It said something like, “Imagine being surrounded by like-minded people. ” It went on to describe the fun we would all have. We would run the pristine countryside of Iceland. My first clue that things might not be exactly as I envisioned : I could tell the content creator had used a translation app as it was somewhat disjointed and tended to use the word “robust” a lot. Translation apps seem to like that word and use it way more often than it’s actually used by native English speakers.
“As you run along the water’s edge, you will see the beautiful fjords. The robust nesting Arctic terns…” or something like that. I couldn’t get my credit card out fast enough! Where do I sign up to bask in the glow of like-minded, sweaty-folk? I chose the half marathon scheduled for day one.
Now, if you’re a runner like me, you’ve run many fun runs, 10ks, half marathons and one marathon. You show up at the start line, set your own pace (mine happens to be happy-go-lucky) and have a good time. Later that evening you laugh with your friends about this person or that person. How serious. How corny. How colorful their pants were. Your friends say things like, “I saw that guy too!”
Obviously I don’t run a pace that aims to win. I hold no expectations. The run operator takes my money and that’s that. The description of this festival and its robust 3 day duration brought to mind images of camaraderie, s’mores over an open fire, possibly grabbing a brew and kicking back with new sweaty friends? Live music. Stuff to buy.
The run began in the town of Ísafjörður. We booked an Airbnb that was an apartment above a 100 year old bookstore in Flateyri.
The day of the run dawned gray and rainy. Cold. Pretty much the same as every other day in Iceland.
But THIS day was full of possibility! It held the promise of adventure and excitement! There was a chartered bus in Ísafjörður waiting to take us runners to the start line in the next town over. When I boarded the bus there was only one guy on it. I smiled and said Hi and made some self-deprecating joke, as I tend to do. He said, in Icelandic accented English, “You have run before, no?” No smile. I said yes and sat down. Just then the gang began to arrive. They burst onto the bus, yammering away in Icelandic. There was much competitive ribbing and first name calling going on. These people all knew each other. I tried to smile and act welcoming to conversation, without being too welcoming. They ignored me. No one said hi. The bus filled but no one sat by me.
As we ride to the next town, I marvel at my bus-mates’ athletic bodies. Lean, fit, muscular bodies. I gaze off into the rain soaked distance. These people are athletes. This is a race, not a run.
We pull up to a school where the run / race will start. I go inside to use the bathroom. When I come back out, everyone is gone. I asked a lady working the starting line, “Where did everyone go?” She answered, “They’re doing a 2 mile warm-up run.”
Of course they are.
Everyone returns. There’s anticipation in the air. (I tell myself, “Don’t cry. Don’t cry.”) I don’t want to cry because it’ll mess up my breathing and I’m going to need all the air I can get. The start pistol fires and EVERYONE TAKES THE FUCK OFF! No time for s’mores, there’s a race to be run! Well, I’m no quitter. I decide to just happy-go-lucky it back to town … and I start off down the lonely highway into what has become driving sleet. Who needs them anyway? The steady “plop, plop, plop” of my wet feet is my solace. The view out over the water is pretty incredible. That song by Cake starts playing in my head. Going the Distance. “Reluctantly crouched at the starting line… “
Then another sound – the sound of tires slowly crunching gravel on the shoulder behind me. I turn slightly to see … a pace car. I guess I am not “all alone in my time of need.” as the song says. That Jeep Cherokee was holding traffic at bay, keeping the runners safe.
Remember the run description? That part about the nesting Arctic Terns? I’m here to tell you, those fuckers are nasty! They screech and dive bomb and go for your head and your blood and those cliffs along the highway are infested with them. The miles pass by in wet succession. I never turn around again to look at the source of the crunching gravel. There was one lonely hydration checkpoint along the route where a kid and his mom were all bundled up and handing out paper cups of Kool-Aid. The kids whines in perfect English, “Are you the LAST one?” I answer, “Yes. I am the VERY. LAST. ONE.”
“… the sun had gone down and the moon had come up and long ago someone left with the cup…”
I held up traffic for 13.1 happy-go-lucky miles and held on to cross the finish line for the last place title. Though it was a humiliating day, the medal I received is my most cherished, though I barely remember it being given to me.
“… No trophy, no flowers, no flashbulbs, no wine”
Now, every time I hear “Going The Distance”, I crack up. “Oh yeah. All right.”