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Fire and Ice Ultra: Love, Grace, and Hypothermia

By October 1, 2016 No Comments


Day #6 Camp Photo credit: Jórunn Jónsdóttir

Day #6 Camp
Photo credit: Jórunn Jónsdóttir


“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”  — Time Magazine

“Fuck-ity fuck fuck fuck!” (in your very best Irish accent) – Ellen, very awesome tentmate, Tent #5


This race was incredibly hard – far more challenging for me than last year’s Marathon des Sables in the Sahara.  And far more powerful, in that rearrange-all-your-molecules kind of way.

Happy runner! Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

Happy runner!
Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

Not entirely sure what made me choose an event that takes place 40 miles from the Arctic Circle.  I’m a Midwest transplant – firmly rooted in South Texas sunshine for the past almost-decade. When the temps drop to 60*F, I’m in fleece and sometimes mittens. Thick socks.

Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

I’d like to say it was the promise of lava fields, big sky, waterfalls and ginormous volcanoes – but the real answer? My heart said, “go!” and if I’ve learned anything in this life, it’s for God’s sake pay attention when that happens. (Though I did ask, quietly & not-so-quietly – are you sure? because seriously, cold wind rain arctic (!)…)

The answer was always the same. Yes. That’s it. Go.

As my soon-to-be-friend Fabio from Brazil commented in an online discussion about cold weather prep, “I am just prepared to suffer.”

Rocks! & more rocks. Photo credit: Fabio Campos

View from the course — rocks! & more rocks.
Photo credit: Fabio Campos

The Race

Total race distance was 250 km or roughly 155 miles.  Format is “self-supported”, so – like MdS – I had to carry all of my food, sleeping bag, medical & emergency supplies for all 6 days.  One significant difference – MdS includes a rest day after the longest run day. Fire and Ice covers the same distance in only 6 days by eliminating the rest day.  Ouch.

  • Day 1 35 km ~ 22 miles
  • Day 2 42 km ~ 26 miles
  • Day 3 70 km ~ 43 miles
  • Day 4 42 km ~ 26 miles
  • Day 5 35 km ~ 22 miles
  • Day 6 26 km ~ 16 miles


Iceland is one of the most beautiful wild stark stunning place I have ever been. I have a thing about big skies. And this? heaven.

Northern Lights over camp Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

Northern Lights over camp
Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

Iceland weather is insanely changeable. Where MdS was hot, more hot, + wind – the weather at Fire and Ice included daytime temps somewhere between 37 and 60* F, bright sun or pouring freezing rain, 40 mph winds or gorgeous calm. Sometimes on the same day.  Nights were generally below freezing.

Gear, Nutrition, and Training

At gear check-in, I asked RD Dave, “Do I really need all 3 of these jackets?” Yes, bring them. (So glad I listened…)

Gear: Lightweight, warm, colorful!

Gear: Lightweight, warm, colorful!

At the start, my pack weighed 17.4 lbs. + 2 lbs. in front pack (excluding water).

Things That Worked Well

  • Gear
    • Altra Lone Peak 3 – Shoes held up beautifully to sharp lava rocks & tread was sufficient for varied terrain – brush, sand, rocks & more rocks. Super comfortable.
    • Raidlight water bottles in front – rigged my pack with holders (sewed myself!). Worked great for quick refills and to monitor how much I was drinking (important in cold weather when thirst is not such a good indicator).
    • OMM 32L pack + 4L front pack – loved the fit, held what I needed, better constructed than Raidlight pack I used at MdS. Held up very well.
    • Jackets – #1: OMM rain jacket w taped seams (worked beautifully in all kinds of weather, including sideways rain.  Decent insulation – wore almost every day).  #2: OMM smock – rain resistant, super warm & lightweight but not very breathable. Wore only once – during the long day – & it (literally) saved my race.  #3:  Mountain Hardware down jacket – wore around camp & for sleeping. Very lightweight & warm.
    • Trekking poles – lightweight, carbon fiber foldable Leki women’s. Debated about bringing them as I hadn’t trained with them much. Turned out to be extremely useful for 1) climbing & 2) support when my back spasms kicked in.
    • Sherpa hat – Christmas gift from #1 son & I thanked him in my head at least 50X during the race. Lightweight, water resistant & super warm even when wet. Priceless!
    • Sleep “system” – Western Mountaineering Versalite sleeping bag, Sea to Summit Thermarest insulated mat, Sea to Summit silk liner. Carried in compression dry bag. Not the lightest system for sleeping, but I was (mostly) warm at night. Our tent leaked in heavy rain/wind so insulating properties of the down bag were compromised, but I was (mostly) ok.
    • Watch – decided to use my G-Shock instead of lugging a solar charger for my Garmin. Worked beautifully, though I didn’t learn to set the alarm before I left. Next time – more practice with watch!
    • North Face long-sleeved tee – quick dry, worked beautifully.
    • Trail Toes lube – great for feet & shoulder chafe spots, held up for full day even with water crossings & perpetually wet feet.
Nutrition for 6 days

Nutrition for 6 days

  • Nutrition
    • TriFuel – worked beautifully! Stayed down, even in stress/cold/difficult situations. During the long hypothermia day – that took out 30% of the field! – liquid nutrition was the only thing that worked (hands were too cold to unwrap solid food) & calories to keep up core temp were critical. I went through 8 bottles of TriFuel – pulling from supplies I had allocated for days 4-6.  I suffered a bit in last 3 days when I ran out, but at least it was warmer & I was able to manage.  Next time – I will bring more.
    • Starbucks Via instant coffee = pure gold.
    • ProBar Base for breakfast – lot of calories + protein
    • Treats! – Olives in induvial packs. Salty/spicy break from all the sweet (gels, Blocs, bars).
TrailToes tire trainer + TriFuel

TrailToes tire trainer + TriFuel

  • Training
    • Tire training! – with my Trail Toes trainer. Yes, my neighbors thought I was nuts, but I would not have been able to do the (crazy hard) climbs without the training. Also great for overall strength & endurance.
    • Less mileage – did not go in overtrained this time. Workouts were quality miles with sufficient rest. Total weekly mileage maxed out at high 60’s, which meant I was able to keep my weight up and be stronger going in to the race.
  • Tips
    • Sleeping w damp clothes in sleeping bag to warm them up/dry out overnight.  (Not always possible — because I’m a wimp & damp clothes suck.)


Not So Well

  • Hiking – for the parts that weren’t runnable or when I was pooped. I don’t practice hiking & I’m not speedy at it. Hiking uses different muscles than running and I need to practice it to get faster.
  • Upper body strength training – tire pull got me leg & core strength, could have used more upper body strength, especially in late stages of the race.
  • Foot taping – made a big mistake one day & ended up pulling Rock Tape off a blister mid-run. Managed to pull most of the skin off my toe along with the tape (owww!!) which did NOT go well with the grit of volcanic ash. Luckily, toe went numb & it was last day, so I managed.

Love, Magic, and Carnage

I have always said these races change me – more than dropped weight, added muscle, fatigue, chafe, whatever.  This race was the first time I could feel changes actually reaching back in time, starting before I even arrived in iceland.  Or, perhaps that always happens and this time I was just paying attention.

Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson


Fire and Ice is not a huge race – certainly smaller than the moving caravan that is MdS – with 63 competitors at this year’s start line. The Facebook page for competitors was active & helpful – so I had virtual training/ gear-fussing partners while we counted down to the start. We got to know each other online, so meeting up in person at Race HQ was fun.  (Race director Dave, on first meeting in Akureyri said, “where’s your dog?”).

Tent #5 – what an amazing funny kind strong group of people I had the honor to race with. I’ve never laughed so hard while suffering so much.

Tent #5

Tent #5




For this race, I carried a small Ziploc bag  with photo of #1 son and sweet Lucy, the Vegvisir symbol, and clips of prayers, good wishes, encouragement that people had sent to me in the weeks leading up to the race. I had whole groups of lovely people — artists, shamanic study friends, magical types — in various places across the world holding ceremony, lighting candles, sending strength, love, perseverance, and wayfinding in my direction.

Photos, Vegvisir, good wishes

Photos, Vegvisir, good wishes

I wore the custom talismans crafted by the incomparable Aidan Wachter.

Handcrafted talismans from Aidan Wachter

Handcrafted talismans from Aidan Wachter


So when Day #3 — the dreaded “long day” – arrived and it was pouring cold rain, I said a grateful prayer for the love and support, put on my still-wet clothes, ate a shaky breakfast & went. Two freezing river crossings, 37* F temps, & gusting crazy winds with nothing to slow them down (big skies!).

River crossing -- cold! cold! cold! glacial runoff & pouring rain Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

River crossing — cold! cold! cold! glacial runoff & pouring rain
Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

Rain that was intermittently so hard it was difficult to see navigation flags.  Any stop – to unwrap food, take a quick pee – and I could feel the seeping creeping cold set in, which was scary at a primal level. It took longer and longer after each time to recover and warm up.

I did my best not to panic.  Put on that extra jacket I had been carrying (thanks, Dave!). Pulled out the TriFuel I had packed for future days to get the calories I needed for warmth. (Hands were too cold to unwrap solid food — and the solids I did manage didn’t stay down due to stress & cold.  Ewww….).

SO cold! & wet Photo credit: Chris O'Connor

SO cold! & wet
Photo credit: Chris O’Connor

I had two mantras:  1) “I’m ok, I’m ok” as a way to check in & realize that at that moment I was warm enough, un-injured, moving forward. A minute-by-minute grounding and reassurance. and 2) “Fuckity-fuck-fuck-fuck” (in my very best Irish accent). And yes, I laughed everysingletime.

I leaned – SO hard! – into the magic and strength of the spirit of that place, of the storm, the Ancestors, and people who love me.  Reached out for help and found a solid, bright connection. Sang songs to the rocks and wildness and storm. The harder it got, the more I sang – lots of The Cure (“Friday I’m in Love” – because love).

Water crossing! Photo credit: Chris O'Connor

Water crossing!
Photo credit: Chris O’Connor

And 12-sh hours later I came over a hill & saw the tents — and the race organizers handing out our emergency bags (RD had declared emergency conditions).  Got into dry clothes, made it to our (wet muddy) tent, curled up in my sleeping bag in the dark and tried to eat.  As other runners trickled in, we found out almost 30% of the field had dropped out that day, due mostly to hypothermia.

Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

Format of this race – no rest day! – meant the next day was almost 50K or roughly 30 miles. Although the weather was better, this was for me the most difficult day. Super low on calories & sleep, I ended up with back spasms for the last 12 miles that had me alternately hobbling sideways, crashing to the ground, and sitting on a rock to curse.  Felt around in the dark of my soul for “anybody anybody” that was listening? because holy hell I was in trouble.

And my friend Fabeku showed up in spirit – with love and encouragement and oh-so-much faith in me. When I found myself crashed (again!) on the ground, I remembered one of my talismans says, in part “Face Fucking Forward!”– and I was able to laugh, say thank you, haul my ass up & face forward down the trail.  That adage about “run, walk, or crawl”? I was literally crawling to the finish. Medics ran out to help & I was screaming for them not to touch me, as there was NO WAY I was going to get pulled from the race at that point. (They were helpful & kind & understanding. And yes, I apologized profusely later. Because I really was foaming-at-the-mouth kinda crazy, err… focused.)

Fell into the tent & my sleeping bag.  Medics came and gave me some Tylenol for pain & taped my back for the next day. Tried to eat — but I hurt too much.

And the next day? I was … OK.  Cautious – careful about pace & stopping occasionally to stretch my back – but amazingly OK. Made it through that 22-mile Day #5 and 16 miles on Day #6 to finish.

Running the rim of volcano (after hella' hard climb!) Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

Running the rim of volcano (after hella’ hard climb!)
Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

That finish? included the most spectacular sunrise I have ever seen (and I will remember for all my days on this Earth), a semi-serious head injury (from a not-so-graceful flying me/rock incident), and an up & over run around the rim of a ginormous volcano.

Steam vents! near volcano Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

Steam vents! near volcano
Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

Beauty, grace, magic, love.

I’m home now — sore muscles already healing, a finicky liver that did not appreciate the precipitous weight loss/stress of the week *apparently*, a Harry Potter-like forehead scar. And an aching for Iceland’s big sky.

Photo credit: Chris O'Connor

Photo credit: Chris O’Connor

More sure than ever that, for me, Divinity is to be found in the margins, when everything else is scraped away — and I am closest to All That Is.

Happy finisher! Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

Happy finisher!
Photo credit: Bjorn Gunnlaugsson

I don’t find Divinity in organized Sunday services, uncomfortable clothes, lined up in organized pews to hear another person interpret & translate. God is more inclined to find me on that ragged edge of my strength & capabilities – a little dirty, a lot sweaty – in that place where I can sync up my breath with the Universe.” – Me, 2015 MdS race report


Author Isabelle

Endurance athlete, writer, Chief Dog Smoocher

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