This is what happened when 18 strangers ran the length of Iceland
© Clement Hodgkinson
Sub-zero temperatures, impromptu raves, perilous river crossings and nine back-to-back marathons – welcome to the Great Norse Run.
When happiness guru and Project Awesome founder Danny Bent put the call out on social media for people to join him in running 209 miles across the length of Iceland – a challenge he dubbed 'The Great Norse Run' – he didn’t anticipate a big response. “I just thought one person replying would be great, so I could share the experience with someone,” he explains.
In fact, 18 people signed up to run the 209 mile distance in 10 days (rest day included), the majority of them strangers, and more than half of them with no marathon running experience whatsoever. The challenge would test their physical and mental limits beyond anything they’d ever experienced with back-to-back marathons and ultramarathons, freezing weather, relentless terrain and 15,000ft of elevation. As Bent puts it, “This isn’t running the Virgin Money London Marathon on a nice day in spring; it’s Iceland, it’s super-cold, with crazy rivers to cross and mountains to go up.”
It would be the first time anyone had ever run the length of Iceland, but after recceing the route in July, ahead of their September start date, Bent discovered some of it was still frozen and impassable. Doubts formed and even Bent questioned whether it was achievable. “I’ve competed at a fairly decent level (he was a GB triathlete) and I wanted to test my own limits, but I still wasn’t sure it was possible,” he admits.
Here’s what happened as his team of 18 set off to run from Akyeria to Hrifunesvegur.
The challenge was outside everyone’s comfort zone
The group was made up of ordinary people, rather than experienced ultrarunners. “About 10 people had never run more than 13 miles before, let alone a multi-day ultra,” explains Bent. One of those people was 58-year-old Brian Devlin. “From the moment I signed up, I asked myself every day what I was doing,” he admits. “I was nervous about my ability to keep up, but I trained by running a lot of 10kms. Once we were in Iceland it was a case of ‘Let’s get this done’,” he says.
They bonded over free beer and karaoke
Running back-to-back marathons with a group of strangers was daunting. “I’m not shy by any means, but I knew there’d be no escape for any of us if there was any sort of friction,” reveals 29-year-old Anna Cathro. She needn’t have worried. “The night before we officially started, the group arrived and found a bar giving away free beer, then they started doing karaoke,” says Bent. It broke the ice, and the group quickly bonded. “We became like a family who supported each other. We were our own little community and it was incredible,” says Anna.
They almost changed the route at the last minute
With severe rain in Iceland days before they were due to set off, roads on The Great Norse Run route suddenly closed. Bent and his friend and expedition guide, Nick Carter, arrived early with just a day to scope an alternative way across Iceland. “We drove 600km and saw huge 4x4s up to their windows in water and mud. Rivers were treacherous – so bad we were told a 4x4 would be washed away. And these were the rivers we were due to cross on foot!”
Incredibly, on the morning they were due to set-off, their original route reopened. “There was a huge risk of not finishing with this route, but we put it to everyone. Brian stood up and said, ‘Guys, we signed up for something epic – let’s go epic!’ and there was this incredible cheer. We were all in,” explains Bent.
Each day was broken down into smaller segments
“Regularly the routine was: run eight miles, have breakfast, run eight miles have lunch, run eight miles, eat again,” explains Bent. Day one started with a marathon and day two a 30-mile route, each broken into three stages. “We had people of different abilities and we ran a bit together. People would head out up front alone if they needed some headspace, but there was always someone to run with.”
They endured sub-zero temperatures
In freezing temperatures and wet conditions they quickly became cold, especially after stopping. “We’d huddle together like penguins for body warmth,” explains Kate Davis, 34, who signed up to the challenge with four weeks to go. To keep their next day’s kit from freezing, they’d pop it in their sleeping bags overnight, laying their down jackets (kindly donated by outdoor brand, Rab) on top. “We were united by the common enemy which was the cold and the hunger,” explains Bent. “The only things that mattered were food, warmth and shelter. It brought everyone together.”
They faced unrelenting winds
The group slept in two-man tents, but at one point the wind was too strong to pitch them so they battled to erect their larger food tent instead. “We had to hold onto the legs and tie the tent to the Land Rover and trailer to stop it blowing away. We found huge boulders to help hold it down but it still kept lifting up in the wind,” Bent explains. Sleeping proved challenging as the tent could accommodate everyone standing up, but lying down was a squash. “Every single piece of space was taken up by bodies; you were literally treading on people to get out. But we survived it, and that moment probably built us,” he explains.
The only things that mattered were food, warmth and shelter. It brought everyone together
The experience was raw and cathartic
For Kate Davis, who had lost loved ones including her goddaughter, Rose, in an accident last year, the experience provided a way to process her emotions. “It was kind of a grieving process to let myself run in the elements,” she explains. “There was one afternoon where I was on my own, running in the rain, and I ran with all the people that I’d lost; I just asked them to run with me and I think at that moment, I kind of let [the grief] go.”
They had to cross freezing cold rivers
Some up to waist deep, others shin deep, all incredible fast flowing. “If anything had gone wrong, there would have been quite serious consequences,” says Kate. To get across, the team held hands but the cold was inescapable. “The water is freezing from glacier melt but you grit your teeth and get through it,” she explains.
Physically, it was brutal
“By the end of it, we were literally held together by tape and painkillers,” says Bent. “People had ankles like elephants’, they had blobs sticking out of their shins where the muscles had somehow burst through. It was a horrendously tough, physical ordeal. There were arduous, arduous moments and because we were sleeping in tents, you have the wind buffeting against your face so you can’t sleep or recover properly.”
They ate rations of rehydrated food
To save packing space the team relied on dried food which they rehydrated with boiling water. “It’s fair to say we were all sick of eating rehydrated spaghetti bolognaise and spent the whole week dreaming of pizza,” says Bent. “We were constantly hungry. On our rest day we came across a tiny shack selling Maryland Cookies and Pringles. We bought everything – the shelves were empty!”
The desert monotony nearly broke them
“The beautiful moonscape of Iceland’s grey desert was incredible, but after five days of it we never wanted to see it again,” says Devlin. The monotony of the same terrain proved mentally taxing as the group longed for a change in the barren landscape. “You’d turn the corner just hoping to see something – a bush, a tree – but it was more silver desert,” recalls Bent. “It broke us, that desert. But when you come out of it and start seeing green again, you feel like a flower opening up because you have life around you again.”
People had ankles like elephants’, they had blobs sticking out of their shins where the muscles had somehow burst through. It was a horrendously tough, physical ordeal
There was a surprise proposal
On the team’s one rest day, Anna Cathro’s partner, Scott Allan, who had secretly packed an engagement ring, popped the question at the top of a lava field in Landmannalaugar in the Highlands of Iceland, while Anna was filming their daily vlog. “I had no idea it was coming,” says Cathro, who said yes. “The location couldn’t have been more beautiful. After five days of being on the same road through the desert, we finally had some hills and colour, and we arrived at a campsite with a natural hot spring. To my absolute shock, he proposed while I was filming.”
They raved their way to happiness
At one point, when another huge mountain came into view, spirits were particularly low. But music saved the day. “We had a big speaker with us and someone put on some banging tunes and ramped the music up super loud,” explains Bent. “Everyone was absolutely exhausted because we’d run 150 miles by this stage, but we all started dancing. Crazy, wild dancing. You couldn’t feel the hunger anymore, you couldn’t feel the pain. We were all in this together. We probably sang and danced our way across Iceland.”
They were treated to the Northern Lights
Their physical and mental effort was rewarded by a spectacular show of the Northern Lights on several occasions. “It felt like a gift,” says Bent. “The light dancing all around the sky, the shards of red in between the green. It was just unbelievable. You could probably tour Iceland for a whole month and not experience something like it.”
They built a tribe community
Through the cold, wind, physical hardship and hunger, the group bonded and supported each other, sharing food, offering coats for warmth and building bridges for others to cross streams. “Eight individuals started the journey. By day one they came in holding hands, throwing their arms around each other. By the end of it, these were the people you would lie down and die for,” explains Bent. “When each and every person finished, everyone was in floods of tears; pride in what they’d achieved alone, but love for this community that was created and would last forever.”