The Run of Fire and Ice

Crossing Iceland on Foot

Tom Whittle and Backcountry Ambassador and world traveler Will Woodward are kindred spirits, ready to search out adventures and challenges wherever they might find them. Crossing Iceland by foot was their first trip together, with Tom doing the running and Will documenting the attempt. To say it wasn’t easy or pretty may be an understatement, but it’s in surmounting big challenges that we often surprise ourselves.

“Do we know what Iceland is like in October? It shouldn’t be too cold or snowy, right?” Rewind six months; Tom Whittle’s path and mine had fatefully crossed along the W-trek in Patagonia. He and two friends were taking a ‘rest week’ from their nine-month-long cycle tour of the length of South America and decided that the best way to rest was to do some backpacking in Torres del Paine National Park. We hiked and camped together for three days, eventually parting ways as I headed north to El Chalten and they jumped back on their bikes towards Ushuaia.

Sometime around July, Tom reached out to me to discuss adventure ideas: canoeing a long river in the US and Canada, speed hiking long trails in the west, or pack kayaking in central America. While no idea was off the table, we were looking for something that would be hard, fun, and hopefully never done before. I honestly don’t even remember how running across Iceland came up, but it seemed like when it did that it was the only option, never mind that Tom was not an ultra runner. The extent of his running career was a handful of 5Ks, one or two 10Ks, and a marathon five years prior, but when he told me he would run across Iceland, I knew that’s exactly what he would do. To make things more interesting, we applied to make this a Guinness World Record attempt.

Tom had some additional, even more important, motivation: children’s cancer support. CLIC Sargent is a UK-based organization that supports families of children with cancer, an organization that Tom and his family had experienced first-hand during the time that Tom’s nephew, Sonny, battled cancer. He’d lost that battle the previous year shortly after his first birthday, and Tom wanted to dedicate the attempt to his nephew’s memory and raise funds to help CLIC Sargent with its mission.

With our location decided, the details of the plan began to fall into place. The route would cover nearly 450 miles of Iceland; paved roads, dirt track, and the occasional trail would lead across the longest part of the island northbound, the Dyrhólaey to Hraunhafnartangi lighthouses marking the start and stop points.

It was raining our first day in country, and had been pouring like crazy for the two weeks prior. The only bridge on the only road had been completely washed away only 80 miles from our intended starting location. Per Guinness World Record regulations, once we started the timer for the crossing, there was no stopping it. The Icelandic road crews could potentially finish the temporary bridge in time, but if they didn’t there was little chance we could make up the time. That afternoon we made a call to flip the route, so instead of driving to the south of the island, we’d instead head 380 miles to the Hraunhafnartangi lighthouse, the northeasternmost point of the island, knowing that the 8-9 days it would take us to get back to that bridge should give them time to complete repairs.

Behind most difficult undertakings is a team. This story is no different, and as we dove deeper into the undertaking of crossing Iceland, Mandy Marr and Jason Sivyer were brought on to round out the team. Mandy saw the challenge and couldn’t resist getting involved. Experienced in adventure travel, she was key in making this expedition go ahead on schedule. During the run she was in charge of planning out each day; navigating through rapidly changing conditions, maintaining the log books and arranging start/stop points.

Comfortable in on- and off-road conditions, Jason was in charge of the support vehicle, making sure the team made it across safely. Also an experienced athlete, he occasionally ran alongside Tom to maintain pace and work on injury prevention, as well as donning the chef cap most nights. One thing we all became acutely aware of through the expedition was that each person was responsible for ensuring the team’s success.

There’s not a good website or resource that can tell you what it’s like to run across a country. We didn’t realize that Tom’s feet would grow over a full size by the end of the 450 miles, so the four pairs of shoes that we brought made no difference in relieving foot pain. How much oatmeal, or potatoes, or pasta does it take to fuel 45- to 55-mile days? The campgrounds websites say they will be closed, will we be able to find wild camping along the way? How do you dry clothes, or tents, or sleeping bags when it rains for three days straight? How big of a blister is too big?

Somewhere along the southern coast, we began to get the occasional weather window. The sun would warm the vast landscapes, and as if to force us to stop and remember the beauty of where we were, the Aurora Borealis would come and dance in the night sky, beckoning tired bodies from warm sleeping bags. It was like a nightlight that raised our spirits and hopes.

Tom accounted the difficulty of the first days, and what mental struggle allowed him to persevere:

“Heavy rain and freezing conditions persisted throughout day one and after just two hours, I was starting to feel the ache in my knees and Achilles tendons. At around 6pm, I had to stop 10km short of the day’s target due to the pain becoming too great. I told myself it could be worse.

“The next day, I was proven right. Around 20km in on day two, I took a short break but found it impossible to get moving again. My heels had seized up so much I was stuck on the side of the road with no idea what to do. If I was unable to move on day two…

“These thoughts put me into tears, but very quickly into action. I didn’t run, I didn’t walk, but managed a slow and painful hobble forward. I learned that after half an hour of limping I was able to walk, and after two hours of walking, I was able to run. The key lesson here? Don’t stop. Stopping = pain. Confucius, speaking 2,500 years ago, was onto something: ‘It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.’ For the next ten days, sleeping breaks excluded, the longest break I took was ten minutes (due to having to pop and drain several blisters).”

Approximately 350 to 400 miles into the journey, Tom’s feet truly began to fail. We stopped the regimen of changing shoes regularly through the day as it was just too hard to get them back on over the swelling. Though his mind remained determined, there was no avoiding that the last days would be an amazing challenge, requiring making miles long into the night. It wasn’t that we were running out of time—officially, we were ahead of schedule. But each day became more and more difficult to even begin, as Tom’s muscles and joints would tighten and cramp through the cold nights.

 

Ten days, 13 hours, and 11 minutes after we started this attempt in the pouring rain, Tom crested the final hill to the Dyrhólaey lighthouse. It was a clear night, and the northern lights had been dancing in the sky for the last hour. In a full on run, perhaps the first actual run of the previous three days, Tom was over the hill, along the gravel lane, and finally touching the lighthouse in the blink of an eye. We were laughing, crying, and yelling into the sky as we allowed ourselves to rejoice in a moment none of us would soon forget.

Tom reflects: “I was a total running novice one month prior to this trip, but I’ve now run 19 marathons and have a 700km ultra to my name. I want people to realize that ‘over-ambitious’ goals are much more achievable than they think. Provided we get in the right state of mind, I honestly think we can do whatever we like. I’d love for the record to beaten soon – it just takes someone to decide that they can. Thank you to our sponsors, a fantastic support team and an incredible group of friends for keeping me going with messages throughout the trip. ‘I could not have done it without you’ has never been more true. Finally, to Sonny, who’s inspired me and I hope now many more. May you rest in peace and your legacy live on.”

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