A lone figure carefully picks her way through a lava field of large black boulders and unforgiving razor sharp rocks. She’s limping badly and favouring her right leg. As she moves closer I recognised the runner as US ultra athlete Danielle Fury. I walk with her a while…
Words: Chris O’Connor
Pictures: Bjorn Gunnlaughsson
Since it was first held in 2013 the 250-kilometre, six-day Fire & Ice Ultra across the Icelandic Highlands has gained a reputation as one of the toughest footraces in the world. Moroccan ultra marathon runner Mohamad Ahansal describes it as “tougher than the Marathon des Sables”. And he should know – the Ahansal brothers, Mohamad and Lahcen – have won the MdS fifteen times between them.
What also makes Fire & Ice extremely tough is that competitors must carry all the food and equipment needed to survive for the six days.
In 2014 Mohamad was invited to Iceland to compete in the second edition of the Fire & Ice. He claimed first place and decided to return in 2015 to defend his title. I asked him why he chose to leave the familiar heat of the Sahara Desert for the unpredictable and often cold conditions of the Icelandic Highlands?
“After I ran in several races in the Saharan region I decided to try to discover other challenges, especially in the north of Europe. So I had the opportunity to take part in the Fire & Ice Ultra in Iceland. I found it hard going. It was very cold, I had difficulties crossing icy rivers and spending nights in tents at minus five degrees. So it was something completely new for me. I managed to win it but it didn’t come easily. This race needs a lot of physical and mental preparation. But Iceland’s a really spectacular place, I’ve never passed through scenery like that which you find here. It’s truly magnificent scenery. I can’t even begin to describe it.”
Joining Mohamad in Iceland for the 2015 event were thirty other runners from as far afield as the USA, Canada, Japan and Argentina. They arrived a few days before the start of the race in the northern town of Akuryri, staying for two nights at the Saeluhus Apartments on the edge of town, where kit was checked, medical forms filled in and final instructions passed on by race director Dave Annandale.
For me it was a last chance to check the serviceability of my cameras and sound recording equipment before joining the runners and support team for the five-hour journey to the race’s starting point. I’d been commissioned to produce a documentary of the event for US broadcaster Fox Sports in addition to making a number of promotional videos for the race organisation.
As a runner and triathlete myself this was to be a labour of love. Leaving the comfort of the apartments in Akuryri we travelled by road in a convoy of 4×4 vehicles to the edge of the Vatnajökull National Park and then onwards over gravel tracks for 100 kilometres to Camp One, sited less than a kilometre from the edge of one of Europe’s largest ice fields – the Vatnajökull glacier.
A chill wind blew across the rugged ice cap as the runners huddled in their tents under a sky littered with stars and prepared for the 60-kilometre first stage. An early start saw a stream of athletes snaking their way along spectacular valleys, passing through fields of solidified lava and skirting raging glacial rivers.
The scenery was indeed as stunning as Mohamad Ahansal had described, in fact the alien landscape has been used on a number of occasions as a location for Hollywood blockbusters, doubling up as distant worlds in the Tom Cruise film Oblivion and Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Prometheus.
For the ultra runners it was a whole new experience. Navigation wasn’t required as the route had been clearly marked out by the event team with small red flags spaced a couple of hundred metres apart.
Checkpoints were placed at regular intervals where competitors could refill their water containers and seek first aid for blisters and injuries. At each checkpoint the runners were assessed by the medics for their hydration before being allowed to continue. Some ran the whole stage, others adopted a run/walk strategy, whilst a few walked the greater part of the stage arriving at the finish as the sun disappeared behind an extinct volcano. However, darkness had taken a firm foothold by the time Danielle Fury limped into sight and made her way to the finish line, crossing it with a resounding “Whoop” of relief. It had taken her over 10 hours to complete the stage and the battering that her injury had taken was causing concern amongst the medical team. After an examination of her swollen leg it was decided to monitor the situation overnight and make a decision in the morning as to whether she’d be able to continue with the next stage.
Day two and as the camp came to life, the medical team were having their work cut out for them, treating blisters and minor injuries, but most worryingly, Danielle’s leg had continued to swell overnight. After much deliberation it was decided that she would have to be pulled from the race.
Stage two promised something spectacular and it didn’t disappoint. After passing through a region dotted with mysterious, aquamarine lakes the course skirted the edge of a still smoldering lava flow, the remnants of an eruption which took place a year before.
Passing within 500 metres of the edge of the flow the runners could feel the warmth emanating from the slowly cooling boulders. This was a virgin landscape which was being crossed for the first time since the eruption, and it gave a sense of passing where no one had trodden before.
Not surprisingly, it was a place where many took time to stop for a few brief moments to take in the view and get some photos. The day finished where it had started at Camp two and as the competitors rested in the early evening sun, a decision was made to take Danielle to the hospital back in Akureyre.
The swelling in her leg hadn’t subsided, in fact it had worsened, and the medical staff were becoming increasingly concerned. A worse case scenario was that the swelling may have been due to compartment syndrome, a painful and potentially serious condition caused by bleeding or swelling within an enclosed bundle of muscles and which, if severe, could result in amputation of the limb.
It was to be a long night for Annandale, who made the 10-hour round trip to the hospital and back, driving mostly on gravel tracks and un-metalled roads. But arrive back he did, with barely 15 minutes to spare before the start of the third stage.
As the runners milled around at the start line, offering each other encouragement, there was a familiar face missing. Mohamad Ahansal had decided to pull out of the race due to a knee injury that had flared up early on day two. The injury had previously thwarted his attempt to gain another MdS victory and despite rest and intensive treatment it had recurred after the long first day in the Icelandic Highlands.
He had his regrets but explained his reasons for pulling out: “The first day was very hard with a heavy back pack. At one point I felt I’d hurt myself but I carried on, eventually finishing the stage. I’m not someone who gives up easily so I decided to do the second stage, but I felt bad so I made the decision to just finish the stage and then call it a day. I’m someone who listens to my body so if I have a problem I think it’s better to stop than to end up with even worse problems.”
Day three saw the runners rounding the base of Mount Herdubreid, otherwise known as the “Queen of Icelandic Mountains” and at 1,682 metres in height, a familiar landmark throughout the event.
The final fifteen kilometres of the stage were particularly difficult as the course meandered across a stretch of jagged, rocky plateau before dropping down to an oasis of green, lush vegetation which was fed by a swirling glacial river.
This was the end of the stage and the temptation to cool off and wash away three days of dirt, sweat and grime was too much for some.
Before long most of the competitors had braved the icy water for a quick dip and were sat in the fading sunlight nursing their tired limbs and dealing with blisters and sore spots. Despite their tiredness many of the runners decided to forgo an early night in favour of getting a glimpse of the Northern Lights, which were forecast to appear after dark. And as midnight approached the sky lit up with an array of green and blue waves which seemed to dance across the heavens, appearing and vanishing as though a switch was being thrown.
The show lasted for over an hour, by which time the urge to rest and recuperate was rekindled and the weary competitors retired to their tents for a few hours before sunrise and the prospect of another day’s racing.
As morning dawned, news came in from the hospital on Danielle’s condition. A CT scan had revealed that she had, in fact, sustained a fracture to her medial tibia. Amazingly, she had walked 60 kilometres with this injury, something that the medics, both at the hospital and at the event, found hard to believe.
Fortunately an operation was deemed unnecessary but she would have to wear a brace to support her leg for at least three months.
The fourth and fifth stages would both have their challenges, including two river crossings and some cold, wet weather made worse by a howling northerly wind. However, the reward for enduring such conditions was a night spent camped at the Myvatn Nature Baths, a man made lagoon with 3.5 million litres of geothermically warmed water. Competitors had free use of the baths and all took advantage of the chance to luxuriate in the 36-40°C hot water.
Another stormy night with high winds and torrential rain preceded the final day’s racing and as the support crew battled to decamp in an orderly fashion, despite the wind’s attempts to rip the tents from their hands, the runners made use of the Nature Bath’s changing facilities to prepare for the final push to the finish.
This was to be a shorter but hillier day’s running with the route taking the runners past hot mud baths, steaming geysers and around the rim of a nearby volcano.
The finish was sited back at the Nature Baths and the runners were sent off in small groups with the slowest going first, the intention being that everyone would arrive back at roughly the same time. The plan worked and just before midday the first runners appeared in the distance.
As they approached the finish line, each competitor was handed a flag representing their country and cheered across the line before being given a welcome hug and finisher’s medal. The men’s winner was Adam Danforth, a butcher from the USA who was competing in his first ultra marathon and who’d never raced in any event longer than a half marathon.
British athlete Karen Hathaway, who despite having completed a 250-mile non stop ultra a few weeks before, won the women’s race. She had led the women’s field since day one and she proudly carried the Union Jack across the finish line.
For the rest of the participants this was an opportunity to race in a country that can be both harsh and beautiful at the same time and one offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. And, despite it’s reputation as one of the world’s toughest footraces, the Fire & Ice Ultra is an event that almost anyone can tackle if they set their mind to it, as Annandale explains: “For an event like this, fitness is important but I think people will be surprised that they don’t have to be a super athlete, but one of the qualities that they do need is the right attitude and the right frame of mind. Without that, all the training isn’t enough. There are people who haven’t trained as much as others but they have the right attitude and that’s what helps them to succeed. So it’s a frame of mind, really. That’s very important.”
And the final word goes to Danielle Fury who left her hospital bed to cheer in her fellow athletes… “I’ll be back. Next year I’ll be back!” True to her word Danielle made a remarkable recovery and was running again within five weeks of sustaining her injury and has signed up to join over eighty competitors at this year’s Fire & Ice Ultra.
Mohamad Ahansal will also be returning, this time accompanied by his brother, 10 times winner of the Marathon des Sables, Lahcen Ahansal.
For details on how to enter the Fire & Ice Ultra, fireandiceultra.com
A documentary of the 2015 race is available to view at: https://vimeo.com/141196644