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Burning it up in Iceland

Simon Donato talks about his experience at the Fire and Ice Ultra, a 250K off-road race in Iceland.

The Fire and Ice Ultra is a 250K off-road race and the first multistage running race to grace Iceland’s volcanic terrain.

As my first stage running event, I was unsure how I would cope with the challenges of racing nearly a marathon per day for seven days. Last year, I raced the non-stop 333K Tor des Geants race in Italy. It didn’t go well and I quit 172K into the race. I learned from that experience that for those types of distances, truth would find you. You could stifle the pleading whine of injuries from other competitors, or even from yourself for a while, but eventually, their voice would demand to be heard.

First, as a whisper, which grows ever louder until it is the only voice you hear, demanding you to make a choice: give-up, or endure greater suffering for hours or days. I chose to give-up and it has haunted me since then.

The injuries have since healed. Training has been going well, and I’ve had a few good races under my belt this year. Despite this, 250K is a long way to run, and my strategy was to run harder than I normally would in a continuous ultra, planning that each day of rest would allow me to recover well. I had to carry 7-days worth of supplies including food, sleep system, and clothing. The race would provide the tents and water. I sacrificed comfort for speed and went as light as possible – keeping my pack weight to eight kilograms. Daily rations were ~2800 Kcal/day. Breakfast was Redline Stoked Oats, race food was one Macro Bar, two Stinger waffles, and two Stinger gels. This was four hours worth of food, which would cover a 40K stage. After each stage, I ate two dehydrated meals (the second just before bed). I would be running an energy deficit, managed through maximizing sleep and post-stage rest to conserve energy.

One of many river crossings endured
One of many river crossings endured
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The race began in central Iceland, next to the country’s largest glacier and headed north to the coast. The area was rugged, empty, and at times, soul-suckingly vast. Quintessential volcanic terrain was our playground and we ran over fields of pumice, volcanic ash, craters, and numerous lava flows. Each day presented new challenges and a continually changing landscape, eventually giving way to forests and thundering waterfalls.

Some of the terrain we ran through
Some of the terrain we ran through

The major challenge this race provided was not mountains or injuries, but six days of unseasonably cold weather that tested our mental and physical stamina. Several days of snow, 18 m/s (65 km/h) head winds, and sub zero temperatures tested us all. Our bodies worked to not only race but also resist the biting cold. We were under dressed, and under fuelled. While I could manage being cold, fuelling was the biggest issue and at 2,500-3,000 Kcal/d, each day was a mental battle to push a weakening body to the finish-line. Not only did we have to contend with the caloric demands of running, but also with the body’s need to keep itself warm.

Jim walks through the blizzard to finish day 4
Jim walks through the blizzard to finish day 4

Despite the uncomfortable conditions, most competitors, myself included, made it to the finish and were united in what we had triumphed against. I race these events to challenge myself and learn more about my capabilities – both physical and mental. I’m fond of saying that in races like these, finishing is winning and everything else is a bonus. Crossing the finish line was my Italian redemption, and reminded me that as long as I believe in myself, my goal, and keep getting out of bed every morning, I can reach the finish line in these races, and in life.