Friday, August 31, 2012

The earth moved for me today

Blue Lagoon

I felt a 4.6-magnitude earthquake whose epicentre was about 20K away on the Reykjanes Peninsula as a strong jolt at noon today. I was working upstairs in the 104-year-old Pisa Guesthouse and Restaurant, in the downtown area, where I moved yesterday for my last few days in Reykjavik. It was initially graded as 3.9 but felt (and proved to be) stronger. But no harm was done.

I've had my feet well and truly on the ground in the past couple of weeks. I'd had high hopes of a good time (around 1:55) in the Reykjavik half marathon (enough with the two-hour-plus halfs, already!) and actually crossed the finish line in a net time of 1:53:38. It was my best time for a half since the Brooklyn half in 2009 and was good enough to get me third place in my age group.

The age group I placed in isn't the age group I've been competing in all year, though, and I haven't had a birthday recently. It seems in Iceland you're grouped according to the age you turn in that calendar year. I was grateful for the third placing (I wouldn't have placed in my usual 55–59 AG), but it freaked me out to find my name suddenly among the real golden girls...

I think I've covered most of the Reykjavik metro area now with Maggy on morning training runs of 10K up to 30K.

When I haven't been taking my feet out for a run, I've been run off my feet with work again. This is a good thing. I haven't sampled much culture apart from seeing a couple of Icelandic films ("101 Reykjavik" and "Jar City", with Maggy) at the fine arts cinema Bio Paradis, and exhibitions at the Museum of Photography, the Art Museum and the National Museum. I even missed the famous Culture Night (on marathon evening), when the city goes a bit wild. I went with Trine (whom I met on the trek) to the Blue Lagoon, which is a geothermal spa a little way out of town set in a lava field. Very blue and very impressive.

From an exhibition of photos of Icelandic women by Berglind Bjornsdottir

The days are already three hours shorter and significantly colder than when I arrived at the start of the month, and I don't do cold...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Surviving an eruption in the vicinity of Eyjafjallajökull

Eyjafjallajökull is the glacier-covered volcano in southern Iceland that erupted in 2010 and brought air traffic to a standstill in Europe. Our group of trekkers spent the fourth night of the Landmannalaugar–Þórsmörk walk near its foot. We weren't in any danger from the volcano; the problem was my bad mood, which I attribute to having had three sleepless nights. One of our group – three Germans, three Italians, three Norwegians, three Australians, two Americans, two Icelanders, one Nicaraguan and one Dane – was a champion snorer. As we were all in bunks in the same room in mountain huts, and the weather outside wasn't kind, there was nowhere to escape the sound, which went on at volume, all night long. I wasn't the only one to spit the dummy, but I spat it loudest and furthest. I'm not proud of myself. But after four nights I decided to cut my losses and return to Reykjavik with the first group instead of adding on a further walk that would have included our friend.

That aside, I really enjoyed the walking. The landscape is very stark and beautiful, with very little vegetation. Geothermal features, ice and snow, black sand, glacial moraine. 

Day 1 we took a bus from Reykjavik past Hekla volcano (which is overdue to erupt) to Landmannalaugar, and walked from there to Hrafntinnusker (about 12 km) through stunning, yellow-brown volcanic landscapes, iced-over streams and hot springs. Minutes after we arrived I nearly broke my leg when the heavy wooden bench seat I stood on to claim a top bunk toppled over, tossed me, then slammed on to my right leg. It took me a few minutes to get my breath and assess the damage. No bones broken, but some very sore contact points. (Yesterday, a week later, I saw a doctor about the bad bruising and numbness on my lower right leg, and he assured me I can run my scheduled half marathon this weekend.)

Day 2 (12 km) was a similarly wet and steamy landscape, with mud pools, springs and our first glimpses of the Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers. Mýrdalsjökull looked like a cloud bank, but was instead a looming iceflow on the horizon. Our hut accommodation at Álftavatn had flushing loos and an alternating scalding hot/icy cold shower. I didn't attempt any acrobatics. One of our bunkmates stormed down the ladder from her bed in the middle of the night to prod our snorer and suggest that he put a sock in it, but to no avail.

Day 3 (15 km) we walked into the black deserts of Mælifellssandur. It was sort of like being in "Dune". At one point we crossed a very fast-flowing glacial stream by linking arms and wading across together. It was in the hut at Emstrur that night that I blew my top. A shame, really, as we'd had a lovely dinner prepared by Kolle and Gudny and I'd figured I was so tired I was bound to fall asleep before the show started... Not so.

Day 4 we climbed and descended for 15 km with Mýrdalsjökull glacier off to our left. Our second crossing of a glacial stream. We finally saw our first real trees as we were on the approach to Þórsmörk. There is a tiny settlement here, and a bus connection to civilisation. 

Day 5 I took the bus back to Reykjavik with the two Americans, the Dane, the Nicaraguan and the two Australians.

Lots of interesting, very well travelled people among the group. 

The next time I sign on for a trek, for the purposes of full disclosure, I'll mention in the documentation that I react badly to sleep deprivation. And I'll take along some industrial-strength ear plugs.

Monday, August 6, 2012


What a great little city Reykjavik is, especially in late summer with moderate temperatures and cloudless blue skies. The living is easy, if expensive. The nightlife is wasted on me, having given up getting wasted, but I've been making the most of the long days. The city is pretty, with a working harbour against a background of stark mountains (no snow at this time; it must be stunning in winter) and a little lake in the centre of town. There's lots of parkland, and miles of running and cycle paths. I love the funky-coloured corrugated iron facades of many of the older timber buildings. I've been working all week, so most of the local attractions are still on my "to do" list, but I've done lots of exploring on foot in the evening and know my way around the town. There are also many excursions out of town and to other parts of the country that I won't have time for this visit, which definitely feels like a first one.

The main thing I've accomplished is to make contact with a regular running group that meets on three weekday evenings and on weekend mornings for quality training runs from Vestubaer swim centre, one of the geothermal pools in town. I've had three runs with them (c. 8 km, 10 km and 22 km). Maggy, a transplant from Namibia, has become my number one running buddy, mostly because she kindly held back on two runs to run with me! Yesterday she and I ran a half marathon at a fairly fast clip for me, which we followed with a dip in the hot pot (thermally heated pod) back at the pool. She is good, fun company. As always, running is a great way to get the lie of the land, parks, seashore, harbour, hills and city streets.

I got talking early in the week with a guy from New York who spends a lot of time in my Upper West Side neighbourhood. He and his wife both work in film and TV. There are a couple of movies in production here at the moment. He put me on to Cafe Babalu, run by another American, Glenn. I've had lunch there a few times.

Tomorrow I'm heading off on a week-long organised trek through some stunning glacial and volcanic areas.

I flew to Iceland overnight last Sunday after two weeks spent back in New York following my quick trip to St Kitts to visit Renee. Straight back into early-morning runs with Maria and the 5.30 crew. Ran the 4-mile Central Park Conservancy race. Saw documentary films with Sarah ("The Queen of Versailles") and Sung ("Planet of Snail"), and the Mira Sorvino film "Union Square". Caught up with Lisa, who was down from Woodstock for a night; for meals with new friends Gary, Anne, Diane, Caroline and Gene; and for dinners with Dead Runners Susan and Adrian, Mike, Michael and Mary at Fusha, and with Maria and Barry at Recipe. Morning regulars Maria, Susan, Marie and Lissy shared some of my farewell 14-mile trail run in Central Park last weekend, which we followed up with breakfast at Alice's Tea Cup on the Upper East Side (also with Sun). Also, just before I left I saw the Sydney Theatre Company production of "Uncle Vanya", with Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh, John Bell, Jackie Weaver ... It was a very Australian interpretation of this Russian classic.