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Ondra's guide to Iceland for runners and hikers

When you say Iceland, most people think of a raw land of ice and fire, full of beautiful natural scenery. There aren't many places in the world where you can safely watch an active volcano spewing cubes of lava and a few dozen miles away...

...enjoy the view of the turquoise blue glaciers. Iceland is like a diamond. It was formed by enormous pressure and took millions of years to shape into its breathtaking form. This corner of the world wraps itself around your finger. It will take your breath away with its diversity and you will realise that every beauty is balanced with a high price.

The idea of holding a running camp in Iceland was born in August 2022 in the middle of Karakoram, Pakistan. I was guiding a trek across the Baltoro glacier and one of my participants was a boy living in Iceland. Word got around and I decided to visit him in a few months. I originally wanted to do a multi-day Rainbow Mountains crossing in Iceland. However, after a few days I assessed that it would be very financially challenging and decided on a simpler scenario in the form of a running camp. By this term you can imagine a morning training session of 15 - 30 km and the rest of the day is spent visiting natural beauties in the form of waterfalls, glaciers, thermal spas or rock cliffs. Each day is spent sleeping on a bed, having breakfast and dinner nicely under a roof and with a pair of cars the group can be very flexible. An ideal cocktail of sport and fun.

We pick up our rental cars immediately upon arrival and to our surprise experience an unpleasant temperature shock. I change from shorts to pants and curse myself for leaving my favorite Ketil insulation jacket at home. It's starting to rain. At least I have my Stinger with me, which thanks to its weight (410 g) and three-layer gore-tex is an ideal partner for such adventures. Fortunately, this unpleasant surprise lasts only a few hours. Already during the first training session the beauty of Iceland brings me to my knees. Beautiful green valleys full of playful trails and unexpected adventures. To my amazement, it even stops raining after a few dozen minutes and sometimes the sun even shines. After the run, we have an Adventure menu lunch and head to the nearby thermal springs of Reykjadalur. We tread 3.5 kilometers upstream and then dip our navels in the 30-centimeter-deep stream. As a first introduction to hot springs, we can admit it. We don't arrive at our accommodation until around 10pm and the permanent light makes me lose track of time. Thanks to the polar day, one's internal clock is completely out of order. I have far more energy here than I would have at this time of day, and it's no wonder we get carried away with our travel experiences until late in the evening.

The next day we make a 2.5 hour crossing to the Rainbow Mountains. I had originally planned to do the training around Skagfjörðsskáli, but due to concerns about fording swollen rivers we end up going to the more northerly Landmannalaugar area. In the end, it turns out to be the right decision and I'm completely perplexed by this mountain ride. I run up the first hill and stare like a bug at a pharmacy. I stare open-mouthed at the amazing combination of colours and contrasts. Now I understand why these mountains are called the Rainbow Mountains. We start out on grey gravel, drop down ochre clay scree, climb black lava fields and run through snow-covered plains moments later. No one is surprised by the fact that in the middle of the white plains the ground is steaming and a hot spring springs up. The end belongs to the green waterlogged meadows and after the run we jump into the thermal river. Wow! An awesome ride that I will remember for a long time!

I'll also remember Rainbow Mountain thanks to the broken windshield. On the way back from practice, an oncoming car throws a rock that makes a small gash right in the driver's visor and a similar scenario repeats itself a few days later with the other car. Before travelling to Iceland, I recommend getting good car insurance and also making sure to park the car upwind. A door blown off by the wind or a drowned engine due to overconfidence associated with a river ford, unfortunately no insurance will cover. We stop at the Seljalandsfoss and Gljufrafoss waterfalls and, carried away by the water element, head for our accommodation. Here one encounters one of Iceland's greatest ills. Although one pays for sleeping under a roof normally over 1 000,- CZK / person, very often one gets a bed in a shared room where people with lighter sleeping patterns do not get much sleep. Often hostels have fancy common areas with huge bathrooms, but the sleeping area feels like a rabbit hutch. It really is very expensive here by Czech standards, and it is not unusual to pay over 800 CZK for a meal in a restaurant and pour a big beer for 240 CZK. Fortunately, we choose the Adventure menu. We bought food supplies from them for all days of the trip, so not only does one save money, but also time. Plus, when we come back after a few hours on the trail, we just boil hot water and in no time we have heaven in our mouths. Absolutely top notch!

The following day is more relaxed, as we have all the items on the agenda concentrated in a relatively small space. In the morning, we will go on an excursion around the Skógafoss waterfall, above which there are dozens of larger or smaller waterfalls and cascades. It's a beautiful place and I'm grateful for my Euphoria running jacket, without which I would be soaked to the bone in no time around the falls. We stop for photo shoots so often that we could have done with a running activity on our meals. I don't think I've ever snapped so many photos in one mile of running. After lunch, we move on to our favorite wreck of a Douglas DC3 military plane. We trot 3.5 miles one way and then back, so we've got a good chunk of mileage in our legs for the day. And to make matters worse, we walk to the Sólheimajokull glacier, then move to the Dyrhólaey cliffs and end the day with a look at the black beach with rock organs and the Hálsanefshellir cave. A really busy day packed with great places!

But the best is yet to come! For the next two days the sun comes out and there is almost no wind. We are lucky enough to have these ideal conditions for a couple of training sessions around the Huldujökull and Skaftafellsjökull glaciers. The former starts with a long, steep climb up to a lookout over a glacial valley, where the scenery is hard to describe. Directly ahead is a 40-metre-high wall of snow and ice, complete with several waterfalls, from which a rainbow looms as a bonus. Again I am speechless and remain paralyzed for a few minutes. The run back to the car is marked by glacial views and sympathetic single treks following grass-covered ridges. One of my best runs in years! In the afternoon we visit the volcanic field of Laki volcano, which played an important role in the political organisation of Europe (and subsequently the world) in the late 18th century. Its eruption in 1783 not only caused the cooling of much of the northern hemisphere, but it also created a huge famine that subsequently helped lead to the great French Revolution. Whether this is true or not, Icelandic volcanoes are certainly not to be taken lightly. After all, it was not so long ago that the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull paralysed air traffic over the whole of Europe.

On the sixth day we visit one of Iceland's three national parks, Vatnajökull. This is Europe's largest glacier and Europe's second largest national park, which is a really decent bit of ice. We do a 20km run along the western foot of the Skaftafellsjökull glacial spillway. Once again the weather favours us, so we enjoy panoramic views in all directions and enjoy the joy of movement. However, after the training is over, we have a 3.5-hour drive to Þingvellir National Park. We make the journey even more varied by visiting more thermal baths, which provide us with a great recovery for the last two runs. 

The penultimate training day starts with an unconventional hiking insert. We visit the photogenic Gullfoss waterfall, admire the greenish water in the Brúarhlöð canyon and watch the Strokkur geyser in the geothermal area, which spews boiling water every few minutes to a height of 20 metres. This is something you can only experience in Iceland! The actual training in Þingvellir National Park is a little weaker. It may be home to one of the oldest parliaments in Europe and a really interesting 7km long rock blog separating the North American and European continental plates, but the running terrain here is pretty monotonous. Unfortunately, the wide trails groomed for horses with views into the slash and burn don't satisfy me much. We've set the bar too high the last few days, and after so many waterfalls and glaciers, we expected a bit more from a national park. We fix our mood in the early evening, (which is a decent oxymoron thanks to the polar day) when we visit the thermal beach in Reykjavik. For a fair price of about 120,- CZK you can take a dip in the thermal pool and then cool off in the Atlantic Ocean. This country never ceases to amaze!

On the last day, we go for a training session west of Grindavík, where we go for a run on the cliffs and also test our morale while climbing the lava fields. It's hard to tell if these sharp rocks are more destructive to the sole or the human psyche. Anyway, this concludes the variety of different terrains we have managed to test during our seven runs. We finish our whole Icelandic trip with a walk around the Fagradalshraun volcano, which was spewing hot lava just a few months ago, and in the evening we discuss the experiences of the last few days over a beer. What have we come to?

We were incredibly lucky with the weather, as it only rained for a few minutes the entire trip. Who would have thought that I would actually pull out a goracovka here a few times. Logically, the best weather for visitors is in the summer months between June and September. You may not be able to see the Northern Lights, but then again there is the "never" ending polar day. It's great to make a map of the places you want to visit and then react flexibly according to the weather and the mood of the group. There's no point in trying to go round the whole island at any cost (you need 2-3 weeks for that) and I'd rather start from the so-called Golden Circle enriched with a few more attractions. We got to about the middle of the southern part of the island, which takes over 4 hours from Reykjavik. Great care must be taken in the choice of cars and also their insurance. There's nothing worse than catching a flying gravel in your windscreen and then finding on return that the insurance company won't pay for the €1,000 damage. It's also a good idea to study your accommodation options carefully so you don't have to sleep in a rabbit hutch packed to the ceiling with snoring people. And last but not least, I recommend choosing the crew for your travel group carefully, as not everyone can handle the intense wind and rain that Iceland is famous for. For my part, it was a great trip that enriched me with many more attractive places and a great deal of experiences. An absolutely unique destination that I will love to return to!

Here you can find maps to all the trips mentioned above!

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