TRAIL MAGIC AND THE REBIRTH OF A GOAL
“Look at the sky!” she smiled, her blonde dreadlocks brushing past my face as she turned to point behind us.
I viced in my shoulders to create enough swivel space between the van’s rear side window and the hotel employees sardined next to me, acutely aware of my body’s ripe ultra running freshness. The base of a behemoth rainbow was covering nearly half of the expansive shoreline of lake Pingvallavatan, arching upwards and fading into the blackened clouds above. The setting sun and churning sky refracted light onto a scene with the visual impact a cinematographer could only dream of. The entire van load of us gazed in awe through the rain smattered rear window as it all grew increasingly distant in the rearview of our drive towards Reykjavik,
After regrouping mid-burger and post-taxi-stranding, I had decided my best option to continue my journey was to find a rental car and shuttle my own damn self to the next trailhead. The remoteness of the last portion of my route meant no bus, taxi, nor hitchhiking would be possible once I got far enough out. I also knew I couldn’t just run straight through – I’d lost so much time and mileage bush/moss whacking, it would be physically impossible to cover the distance left in my original route and not incur the $1000 flight change fee.
Solo shuttling would be tricky – I couldn’t simply jump far ahead. There was immediate access to the route, which would leave too much mileage to finish in time, and access at one other point farther along. The logistics eliminated my ideal back-up scenario of just jumping a chunk of miles ahead and finishing the rest in a single go.
I needed to shave at least 60 miles off for a realistic chance of reaching the northern coast under the power of my own two feet, and I needed wiggle room on the day of my flight that the limited bus system couldn’t provide.
Just before the trail-magic van, as I sat amidst mood lighting, passing robed spa attendees, and the smooth stylized musak of the adventure hotel lobby, I reviewed and re-reviewed my map till every verbally unapproachable town and road’s name was ingrained in my memory. I was able to visualize two long segments, maintaining trail, forest roads, and a highly anticipated summit of Kaldidalur pass, all while lopping off mostly pavement and highly traveled gravel miles. The distance would be a stretch with my remaining time, but it was just possible enough, and that’s all I needed.
I would have to shuttle myself first to just north of Pingvellir, then again to an access point in the middle of nowhere. This meant an out and back followed by my final stretch to the coast. This also meant that at the end of that final stretch, with my legs exhausted and my journey seemingly complete, I would have to turn around and back track – at a running pace, for time purposes – to my vehicle. In total if all went to plan, I’d end up running over 100 miles.
One hundred miles across Iceland, I thought, that’s a goal I can fucking get behind. Now I just need to find a rental car…
“Excuse me,” the lady from the front desk had stepped out into the waiting area and was standing beside me. Oh crap, I thought, I’ve overstayed my overly-accommodating Icelandic welcome.
She glanced over her shoulder and leaned in to speak softly, sharing what appeared to be classified information. “I’m sorry, I can’t take you all the way to Pingvellir,” she whispered, “but I may be able to help you.” In hushed tones, she let me know that there was a van leaving for Reykjavik in a few hours, that I could get a ride if I needed.
I smiled and shook my head gently in disbelief. It just so happened that Reykjavik was the only place I could rent a car.
For a moment, as the van rocked over inconsistencies in the pavement and we shared in the wonder of that colorful sky, I was able to rest in the relief of knowing I was no longer stranded nor lost. I was finally heading in the right direction.
A NEW ROUTE
Day two involved a convoluted re-looping to places I had run through the day before, then precariously driving my tiny, ill equipped rental car onto 4×4 roads. I remember falsely nodding as I received clear instructions to specifically NOT do this by the rental car company. Blah blah blah liability blah blah blah sign here. I clenched the wheel with prayers of automobile bodily integrity as I made my way to the start of my second running segment, shards of gravel and rock audibly dinging every inch of my car as tires slipped and skidded with a trail of dust in the rearview.
I chose a random secluded pull off spot, surfed the car to a stop, grabbed my essentials and sat with the door ajar as I pulled on my barefoot shoes. A shifting breeze picked up to greet me through the opened door as I mulled in preparation for uncharted territory. I noticed a shadow forming beneath my head as warmth and light encircled my body – the sun was shining. The rain clouds had passed.
I took it as an omen.
I was overflowing with joy and excitement as I launched, so glad to simply be running again, dreaming again, heading somewhere. I would run for my fill of daylight and evening hours, making my way up and over the second highest pass in all of Iceland, encountering random sheep and little else, shuffling my way back to the car around 40 miles later, then prepping for a pre-dawn start the following day.
I was focused and methodical, determined to complete this new plan and journey. At the end of the day, I was spent. My feet were a bit battered and swollen and my face was sunburned… in Iceland. If I was this depleted now, how the hell was I going to run another 30+ miles tomorrow?
Well, I thought, I’ll just have to find a way.
With minimal to-do, I extricated my car, heading hopefully and anxiously onwards towards a yet-to-be-assured final destination.
THE FINAL STRETCH
I still remember it as a kind if distant registering, as if it were unfolding in a haze in another world beyond the solidity of speeding earth beneath my swollen feet.
I’d been running on the squirrely rock shards of Icelandic back country roads for more miles than I was willing to consider at present. The terrain lent an irregular cadence to my landings, the impacts and foot rolls forming a rhythm whose sui generis melody was animating the dead weight of my legs.
Firm and uneven. Shuffle, step, shuffle, step, step, step.
And then… softness. And sinking.
As if the thudded pounding of my rotund feet had finally fully tenderized frigid earthen sinews, unbound weavings giving way. I could no longer properly feel my feet, their indistinct plumpness resembling a lychee.
Excellent, now I have permanent nerve damage, I remember thinking, immediately assuming the sensation arose from deadening functions within my battered feet. It took a number of steps, glancing downward in confusion, before my brain could process the changing landscape.
Sand. I was running in sand.
I abruptly halted my lumbering. My widened eyes rose to meet the tangerine saturated horizon and so did every tingling fiber of hope and anticipation within my body.
The coast. It’s here. I’m actually here. I’m going to make it.
Sand dunes and sea grass as far as the delirious eye could see. Somewhere beyond the blackened heaps lay a landscape I’d longed for since I planted the seed of this crazy journey in my mind, in my heart.
I excitedly lifted my legs to launch into an aggressive ultra-running hobble. It lasted nearly 100 feet before I resigned myself to my original, slowed shuffle.
I was tired.
My brain was tired. My legs were tired. My feet were watermelons and fingers, per usual, had become vienna sausages. In all my life, my legs had never reached this degree of exhaustion. It felt as if I was demanding an engine to turnover on air and the mere memory of fuel. After over 100 miles in around 30 hours over a trio of days, the eight miles or so left to the coast were going to be the hardest of my running life, and the pain and exhaustion of exerting effort quickly vanquished my hope.
The inlet DOES technically come out to here, I reasoned, so I can technically honestly say I reached the ocean at this point. And what am I really missing out on past those fucking ostentatious mounds of sand?
I was mentally grasping at straws and finish lines – I was trying to talk myself out of completing the journey.
How could I be this close to fulfilling a dream and simultaneously this close to giving up? Why does this happen Every. Goddamn. Time? Why am I so eager to quit when I’ve fought and cried and bled and publicly pooped and hobbled my way to imminent completion? What is it about succeeding that unearths this deep seeded urge to escape? And in that asking, the answer resonated like a stone resting down upon a seabed – I didn’t want to give up on a thing, I wanted to give up on myself.
Somewhere buried beneath the weight and years of my becoming was an unshakable distaste for myself. Society had coated me in assumed inadequacy, trauma had pried a door further ajar to doubt and shame, and my whole life I had subconsciously retained experiences and people who reinforced the belief that there is a wrongness inherent in my existence that will never be mended.
The ocean breeze picked up my hair and brushed it past my eyes, the strands alight with the fading day. Cool tears traced tributaries down my salt coated cheeks, my water-balloon feet throbbed gently in the sand.
I cannot do this to myself anymore. I WILL not do this to myself anymore.
There is nothing wrong with me. There never was.
And goddamnit, I deserve to be believed in, and I choose to believe in myself. Not tomorrow, not when I run a certain pace, not when I finish a degree, not when I return to run the miles I had to shuttle past – right now. I believe in myself because I am me. That is and was always enough.
I took a deep breath, opened my eyes and drew a path through the landscape. My determination and feet followed.
Shuffle, step, sink, shuffle, step, step, sink.
The established path disappeared.
I didn’t care.
Through sea grass and sand, with a general orientation, I continued shuffling, resolute.
Shuffle, step, sink, shuffle, step, step, sink.
There were no sounds beyond the breeze, the rustling grass, my dragging feet. The sun was setting, but I’ll make it, I thought, I’ll be damned if this day ends before I’m finished. As with all the landscapes in Iceland, everything was close yet inconceivably far away. Like the flat lands and mountains I’d passed previously, the sand dunes were much, much farther across the inlet than I understood. But I kept my head up and legs moving. With my determined shuffle, I’d finally reach the base of the dunes, only to discover row upon row of them followed.
I didn’t care.
The mounds blocked the visual path to the coast, but I had faith in its existence and a nascent yet deeply imprinted faith in myself.
The breeze kissed my cheeks again when suddenly, I tasted it.
I stopped, my eyes widened with shock. My mouth was filling with the weighted saltiness of the sea. I could literally taste the ocean in the air.
I was here.
I launched myself into a dilapidated sprint and this time, my legs held out. Oh my god, I’m here. I’m fucking here.
I sprinted over another dune, clawing my hands into the black sand, cascading down the other side. Repeating and repeating till an army of dunes lay felled behind me.
Then, finally, the sound.
Enmeshed within the breeze I could hear the crash of the waves upon the northern shore, a sound I had not heard in three days, a sound I had not heard since I ran along the southern coast from Porlakshofn towards an imagining of a dream.
As I scrambled over yet another dune, the horizon finally opened, and it swallowed my heart: there it was, the northern coast and the Greenland Sea. I broke into tears and sprinted onto the shore and directly into the waves.
OH HOLY BALLS GOD FUCKING DAMNNIT!
I ran back out of the waves.
Apparently, despite sunshine capable of causing a typical summer sunburn, the ocean water north of Iceland never quite rises above testicular-retraction. I hunched over to catch my ice-shocked breath.
Since realizing I would never locate a key yet non-existent horse trail on day one, that I would have to redraw the entire map on a whim, I had doubted that my sore feet would ever come to stand here. Even as I resolved myself, the odds loomed dismal and the path disjointed at best. Our narrative rarely unfolds within structured schemas we plot in our minds, and perhaps this mess, these misplaced splotches across our canvas, are where real beauty resides.
I savored the salt on my tongue, tide in my ears, chill of the breeze on my moistened skin, and sun reflecting off a sea as black as the volcanic sand beneath me.
If you ever find that life affords you the opportunity to jump – into plan-less reverie, into improbable adventure, into water colder than a polar bear’s titty – trust gravity as it carries you into that free fall, and let go. I pried my shoes from my feet, stripped off my clothes, took a breathe, and ran back into the water.
The release had never felt so good.