It’s the stuff of every runner’s dreams – running a midnight half marathon at the summer solstice in Iceland, where the sun never sets in the sky. I couldn’t wait to try the Midnight Sun Half Marathon in Reykjavik!
Ancient myth has it that, afraid their enemies may pursue them, the original Norwegian Vikings who settled in Iceland sent back word to Norway that their island was actually an ice-land – but that another island, was inhabitable: green-land. Hence the green island became Iceland and the icy island became Greenland.
The land of ice: 66 degrees North of earth’s equator, where magical elves live (apparently), geothermal and renewable resources supply 85 per cent of the country’s energy and the surrounding seas are abundant with many sea mammals and birds. And in the winter you have a chance of viewing the elusive Northern Lights. Travelling to run in this mythical land, at a magical time of the year is probably one of the most exciting and alternative running events you can do.
This trip was planned for over a year – you don’t just swan off to run a half marathon in Iceland on the longest day of the year! Especially not when you have three school-age children in the UK. You need to plan ahead for an extra-special trip like this, although we had a great tour company that organised our tour itinery, All-Iceland. Once we left Gatwick for our 2.5 hour flight north, the excitement flooded in.
Our hosts, All Iceland, are experts in knowing exactly what runners want from a sports tour – so our trip was packed full of adventure, history, the natural world and fantastic hospitality. This was massively helped by, just as we arrived at our hotel, Iceland scoring their second, and winning goal, against Austria – taking them through to their next round match against England in Euro 2016. This nation was partying for the whole of our stay!
The drive from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik is hypnotising. Travelling in an almost lunar landscape, through ancient lava fields broken by purple veins of wild Alaskan lupines, against a backdrop of mountains, still covered in snow, is captivating. Did we carbo-load? Of course! As our hotel, Centerhotel Arnarhvoll, had a rooftop restaurant, we dumped our bags then dined on an incredible feast of freshly caught fish. We were ready! On the day of the race we popped along to Kria Cycles, whose owner, JR, just happened to be a childhood friend of my partner David. JR (aka David Robertson) is also a truly gifted runner – he is still ranked in the top 10 UK fastest juniors over 1500m. We had lunch with JR at the Coocoo Nest, a snug and cosy cafe tucked away on a backstreet. When it came to the race JR decided he would support rather than participate, and he popped up on his bike, with his son Elias, along the route.
The Suzuki Midnight Sun Half Marathon is a truly international race. There are several race distances available; 5K, 10K and the half. As I mingled in the evening with the other runners it was clear than many had come in groups, some tackling the shorter distances, a few propping open their eyes to brave the longer.
In the crowd, by the start line, runners, speaking over 50 different languages, switched on their GPS watches. The gun went off and everyone settled into their stride as we slowly made our way out and up along paths bordered by a beautiful river that bubbled away along the first part of the route.
How can you not relax and enjoy each stride, and mile, when you are running alongside miniature waterfalls, surrounded by a thick carpet of lupines? It was a quiet journey upwards through Elliðaárdalur valley, one of Reykjavik’s most popular outdoor areas, as we took in a 600foot climb. We weaved through a golf course set in a lava field (with absolutely stunning views across Reykjavik that you just had to stop and breathe in) and around Lake Rauðavatn. It wasn’t a dense field – but there was always someone to run alongside or to hang on to.
At one stage I looked out across the fields to the horizon where a herd of wild horses were galloping away from the front runners – this wasn’t your usual race. After about seven miles the uphill evened out, but considerable damage to my legs had already been done! By this stage it was past my usual bedtime, and with travelling I was starting to feel a little … ‘weird’. It was if my eyes were trying to close even though I knew I had to keep running.
I had looked at the course profile before travelling and knew from half way it was a gradual downhill trek to the finish. I started thinking how surreal it was; it was getting closer to midnight yet fully light, and I was running a half marathon in Iceland. It was the strangest, most amazing, yet calming, feeling.
The marshals around the course all shouted encouragement though I had no idea what they were saying! Eventually we merged with the 5K and 10K runners – the organisers had cleverly set us all off at the right time so that the last few miles were crowded and busy. It really lifted me and definitely helped me keep going. By this time I was cold and feeling tired. I also had really awful stomach cramps for most of the race (be prepared for this if you are new to midnight running) but when we chatted to the other runners in the field they had experienced this, too.
I tried taking one gel on the course but felt so sick I thought I would have to walk. I also really, really needed the loo in the second half of the race – but there were none in sight! Or if they were, I was so delirious that I just didn’t notice them! The last few miles I felt weary, but there was a real gem awaiting us.
All runners were given free access into the Laugardalslaug geothermal pool, within walking distance from the finish, which meant 2,640 finishers relaxing together in beautifully warm waters. You had to literally run from the change area into the outside pool areas as it was so chilly, but once you dipped down into the warm water, with just your head bobbing above, it was the most amazing feeling. I didn’t want to leave, even though it was 1am, I was tired and very, very hungry.
Unfortunately we had to make our way back to the hotel, walking back in the daylight… it’s just so surreal and why so many are drawn to this race from all over the world.
What’s the perfect way to relax the day after your race? For us it was one of the 25 wonders of the world, the Blue Lagoon. I loved being on the bus in Iceland, looking out at the other-worldly landscape, as the weather changed so quickly around us. On our visit to the lagoon, a lake of geothermal seawater with healing properties for the skin, the clouds were at ground level. It was raining, making for another dreamlike experience. The air was cold (about 9 degrees Celsius), but the waters were so hot it was divine. You can make your way to small huts in the lagoon to get silica mud and algae face masks. As you swam in the lagoon you felt like you were on the moon, or some other planet. It was extraordinary and somewhere I would love to return to.
JR also took us to another uber cool bar, Kex, again, tucked away from the main centre behind a nondescript door. It sold some interesting drinks…
We were also blessed to share some amazing home-cooked Iceland food back at JR’s house, with his family – this really made the trip. Everything about Iceland is chic and stylish and just uber cool (more so in the winter I guess).
I knew that I couldn’t leave Iceland without trying to see the puffins on Lundey, a small island in Reykjavik bay, so we took a boat out there on our last day. Watching these little birds fish, then return to their barrows, was a truly magical encounter with nature. We also saw guillemots, fulmars, cormorants, eider ducks and black-backed gulls, and our guide, Tena, a naturalist working for Elding gave us so much insight and information about the wildlife in the area – she was so passionate about her job.
The trip felt like the best geography lesson I’ve ever had. It’s a trip of a lifetime, and a race you’ll never forget. If you, too, venture to the land of ice don’t forget your winter coat. Even on a summer trip!
Plan your trip!
Who to contact: All Iceland ( all-iceland.co.uk) organise a range of sport tours and packages throughout Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and will put together your dream itinerary, whatever your chosen sport or race. Call the team on 01904 621614 or email email@example.com for more information.
How to get there: Iceland Air (book.icelandair.is) or WOW air (wowair.co.uk) offer return flights from London to Keflavik for around £100. Just get organised and book in advance
Where to stay: For your Reykjavik city centre break choose the stylish Centerhotel Arnarhvoll, just off Ingólfsstræti 1 (centrehotels.com/arnarhvoll)
Essential trips: Blue Lagoon (bluelagoon.com) and Elding Puffin Watching (elding.is or firstname.lastname@example.org)
What? It was the closest we were going to get!