Where we climbed volcanoes and conquered the mud pits of doom.
In 2015 my friend Rosie did a challenge a month in order to raise money for The Lullaby Trust. Whilst planning her May challenge, she sent me a link to the ‘Iceland OMM‘. I’d barely opened the link before I replied “Let’s do it.”
Now I wasn’t that familiar with the OMM – the Original Mountain Marathon – as an event, but I’d seen it as a kit brand. Basically every year a few hundred people in bright lycra run around a remote part of the UK, trying to collect as many checkpoints in the time available, camping overnight. It’s traditional for it to rain.
OMM Iceland – as the name implies – is the same idea but held in a remote part of Iceland. ‘Remote’ describes about 99% of the country.
It was a much smaller scale event than the UK version, with 24 people in teams of 2, and it was only the second year of their expansion. It felt more like a group of friends on an epic weekender rather than a corporate money-making scheme, which I find some of these types of events can feel like.
With the cheap flights only being once a week, we decided to make a week’s holiday out of it. We spent a couple of days exploring Reykjavik beforehand, then met up with two guys on the Friday evening who were also doing the OMM and had hired a car, so after the awkward glances of do-they-look-like-the-sort-of-people-doing-the-OMM, they gave us a lift to the start site a few hours from the city.
The start was on the south coast of Iceland on a black volcanic beach. This was pretty cool, but it meant no protection from the Atlantic storm rolling in overnight – surviving the first night camping felt like an achievement in itself. The wind and rain were so loud, and I had to keep checking the tent was still grounded. Combined with the midnight sun, this didn’t make for a great night’s sleep.
Finally it was time to get up, and we found we were the only tent left – everyone else had abandoned to sleep in their cars instead. Breakfast was porridge mixed with nutella – we’d hoarded those single-serving packets you get at hotels – and/or peanut butter.
10 minutes before our start times we were given our map with the checkpoints circled and the overnight campsite. The maps were pretty lacking in detail, and gave contour lines and colour of the terrain, and marks of hot springs. Teams then had to quickly make a strategy for the next 2 days – we would finish back at the start, so it was no good getting all the checkpoints nearby on the 1st day, leaving none to pick up on the return loop. Each checkpoint was worth a different level of points depending on it’s location: on an easy slope in the open = 20 points, between two mountain ridges, lava fields, and hot springs = 60 points.
We looked around at the other teams taking it rather seriously. My knee injury meant we couldn’t be competitive, so we were just there to have fun. As such, we made our goal for the 1st day to get the checkpoint that was in a volcano. On the other side of the map. But in a volcano.
My knee injury meant the plan was to walk most of it, but we wanted to start off running for a bit, so after some last wishes of good luck from the run directors, we jogged off along a volcanic track heading inland, and into the Icelandic wilderness.
It was a different kind of wilderness than any I’d been in before. There were no trees. You don’t really appreciate how much trees contribute to the landscape until they aren’t any. The largest animals were slugs. There were holes in the ground with no obvious bottom. The only sounds were our own panting as we climbed up the mountains.
It took us about half way into the first day to realise the scale on the map was very different than we were used to from OS maps. Pretty sizable hills wouldn’t even be marked on the map, and mountains would only have a couple of contour lines. Luckily this hadn’t led us too astray, and the good visibility meant we could see the larger mountains behind, and figure it out.
After tagging our 1st checkpoint we descended to a lava field. I’m not sure we would have run there even if we could; the risk of turning an ankle was pretty high. The earth was ruptured, with jagged volcanic rocks pointing out at angles, but covered in a thick, springy moss which covered up alarmingly deep holes. It felt like another planet.
It took us longer to cross the lava field than anticipated, and as we continued towards the volcano we realised we probably wouldn’t make it to the campsite within our time limit. We texted the course director and he just moved us up into the longer time limit groups. Why limit yourself out here anyway?
Eventually we got to the volcano, and climbed into the crater to tag the checkpoint. Doubling back on ourselves, we checked the map and all that was in the way between us and the campsite was a massive mountain ridge. Couldn’t go round it, must go over it!
Unfortunately the trail had turned into a river, and the river into mud pits of doom. My geology knowledge couldn’t explain why there was so much sand on top of a mountain. We saw some footprints of other teams so tried following them, which worked until they abruptly stopped in the middle of a river. Distracted by hot springs (which turned out to be…you guessed it, pretty hot) it took us a while to pick our across the ridge trying to find slightly firmer ground.
Exhausted, we arrived at the campsite (two OMM flags, a stream, and the luxury portable ‘toilet with a view’) where most teams had already set up their tents. Compared to last night the weather was idyllic. Changing out of my soggy shoes filled with half a beach worth’s of sand into fluffy, warm, dry camp socks was bliss. As we prepared dinner (dehydrated bolognese – which actually tasted better than cardboard, a revelation from previous dehydrated meals I’d tried), we chatted with the other teams on how their day had gone. The guys we’d got a lift with had run 50km and snagged almost half of all the checkpoints. But we got the volcano…
The next morning we were woken by “Jerusalem” blaring out from the run director’s truck at full blast at 6am. It was a bizarre experience. I was then in every camper’s dilemma – stay in the warm sleeping bag, or venture out into the cold to prepare breakfast. Eventually my hunger won, but my reluctance to leave my sleeping bag cocoon meant a bit of a rush to pack up before our start time.
Day 2 saw us curtail the planned route through the geyser field, but reports from the other teams said it was pretty hard to breathe around them due to the sulphur. So we weren’t too sad we missed them. More mountains, lava fields, scree slope scrambles (try saying that fast), and a slight navigational error taking us to the edge of a cliff (my bad), and we were back at the hut on the beach. We wolfed down the celebratory flapjack, and cheered as the other teams came in. The guys had run another 50k on the 2nd day and won the long score category. We, somewhat unsurprisingly, and slightly proud of ourselves, came last.
Once all had arrived safely back, we we served chili as we sat on chairs/the floor in the little hut, swapping stories, comparing navigational errors, and laughing at the different reasons for why we had all come here. One thing we all agreed on was that we didn’t want to leave.