Eight months ago a new facebook page appeared – The Rift – and my husband Chris sent me a message: “There’s a gravel race being put on by the Lauf guys next summer. What do you think?” And I responded, “Well, I race gravel and I have always wanted to go to Iceland so I don’t see how this is even a question.”
If you are unfamiliar with Lauf Forks you can check them out here. They were conceived and born in Iceland (you can read a super quick synopsis here and the guys (and girls) wanted to showcase all there is to offer on their home soil.
The race offered two distances: 70k and 200k. It was going to be small: limited to 250 riders. It was going to be fun: the race itself and the after-party were promoted with equal weight. I was all in. Chris and I both registered for the 200k. My initial feeling was that this was going to be an experience and not a “race” and I was just going to go and have fun. Gradually that morphed into I’m going to race this thing and see what I can do. The problem was with it being the first year it was tricky to prep for: there were no previous race reports OR race results. How long was this thing going to take? The listed cut off times seemed somewhat generous (9 mph averages). Was this because they want everyone to finish or is it indicative of what we are up against? What are the best tire choices? How exactly should I dress? So many unknowns. We were all just going to be winging it.
Good thing Cimarron Chacon of Gro-Promotions and the guys from Lauf were excellent communicators leading up to the race. Our inboxes were filled with informative information and they did a GREAT job making some short videos of some of the things to expect. One of the initial emails informed us how unpredictable the weather in Iceland is how quickly it can change. For that reason, the exact race start time would not be official until Thursday (like 2 days before the race, Thursday). The videos showed some of the terrain and how to tackle the river crossings. So, in the few weeks leading up to the race, I knew a few things: there could be crazy weather, there would be four river crossings through glacial water, there would be this ridiculous climb called Thor’s Hammer, and there would be four aid stations. What was harder to see from videos was exactly what kind of gravel it was. It LOOKED to be smooth volcanic sand, so based on that assumption (spoiler alert: wrong assumption) I decided to ride my Breadwinner B-Road with Schwalbe G One 40mm tires, carry 3 bottles and not wear a hydration pack.
The race took place in a small town of Hvolsvöllur (population of 600ish which doubled in size over the race weekend) about 90 minutes from Reykjavik. The expo, packet pickup and start/finish were at the Lava Center in town and the pre-party and after-party (more later on the parties) took place at the Midgard Base Camp which was a five-minute easy spin away from the Lava Center. I can’t say enough about how cool these places were. Chris and I stayed at Midgard as it is a family-run adventure excursion hostel/hotel.
The place is AMAZING and the owners/staff are the some of the nicest, most accommodating people you could ever meet. They worked their asses off making sure we all had everything we needed- including being ready for us to have breakfast at 5 AM on race day- after working well into the previous night making sure we had dinner and beer. If you plan to go in 2020, I highly recommend staying there, and BOOK NOW (like now; check right now) as there are a very limited number of rooms and they sold out very quickly last year.
Thursday came and the official race start time was announced. The weather looked “good” so they were going with 7am. The forecast on my Weather Underground app was for 60 American degrees and occasional rain with a tiny bit of wind (I believe WU said 7 mph but, next spoiler: it lied). That said, every wonderful Icelander we met was quick to let us know that (a) weather can change on a dime and (b) it would easily be five to 10 degrees colder as we approached the mountains. I was like a teenage girl before the first day of school – asking everyone what they were going to wear. It varied (mostly based on nationality and/or region of the US from which they came).
Being from coastal South Carolina I went with knickers suited for 40-60 degrees, a short sleeve baselayer and jersey, wool socks and a rain jacket. Even though it wasn’t raining at the start I decided to wear the jacket anyway for an added layer of warmth. I am so glad I did because when the rain (and sleet, and some say snow) it came hard and fast and I would not have wanted to stop to put it on. In hindsight I felt like I was dressed perfectly, but again, I came from 100 degrees with 90% humidity weather.
The start line pre-race meeting consisted of Cimarron trying to hint to us of what we would all soon be painfully aware – the first third of the race would be the hardest and to just keep going. Everyone just smiled and shook it off and was ready to go. Then we were off! We started with approximately three miles of asphalt roads. I wouldn’t say it was a neutral three miles but it was definitely tame. A rather large group was sitting on with the leaders until the first turn onto the gravel. I kept telling myself to chill out and not burn any matches this soon but here I was with the lead group and I wanted to ride the wave for as long as I could. As we turned onto the gravel it was on. What happened next is best described by splitting the rest of the race in three phases.
Sure enough, Phase 1 was ALL. THE. CLIMBING.
As you know, elevation recording can vary from device to device. The GPX file we were given to follow recorded 4,900 feet of climbing (BTW, the entire course was marked and marked very, very well so the navigation was really unnecessary). At the end of the day my Garmin read 6,100 ft. Whichever it was I do not know, but it felt a hell of a lot closer to 6,100 than 4,900. Seriously, 90% of this climbing was in the first 50 miles. As we turned onto the gravel the climbs started. The first climb consisted of nice, smooth gravel and it was long and windy (not switch-backy though) and enough of an effort to splinter the group.
One voice in my head was telling me to hold my rhythm and not pay attention to the riders around me. The other voice wanted me to pick off as many people as I could. By the time I reached the top I found myself with a small group of about eight men, including Chris (before the race we had agreed to stay together until one of us was holding the other one back). At the top of the climb, the gravel turned not-so-nice on us. It was now big, loose chunky rocks and you had to move from one side of the road to the next for the best line, which makes it a bit more challenging for bigger groups to stay together. It was only a few miles until the first river crossing. I watched the riders in front of me picking their lines and went with the one that looked the best. It was cold but I was expecting it to be worse. It was actually two crossings of the same river as you meandered your way through it.
Several river crossings came in quick succession and that split the groups again. At this point, I was with four other riders. The road remained rocky with rolling hills until the first aid station at around mile 20. I didn’t really need to stop at this point but decided it might be smart to top off my bottles (BTW, we were told that all the rivers were completely safe to drink from). The decision to stop proved to be smart because the next aid station was at mile 60 – and as you’re about to hear, that took a LONG time to get to. As I was in the process of topping off, a group of riders rolled up. In the group were two women – one of which I knew to definitely be in the master’s division (as was I) and from a little pre-race research I knew she was very strong. When I saw her, it occurred to me that I could possibly be towards the front of the pack of the non-pro riders. The groups were so spread out at this point that it was difficult to know exactly what was going on in front or behind you. I quickly jumped back on the bike and head out. And that’s when the real “fun” began.
The climbs got longer and steeper and the weather turned FAST. As we reached the higher elevations the wind picked up to at least 25 – 30 mph. At first, it was coming at us as crosswinds combined with torrential rain that was pelting us sideways. With even stronger gusts I was having a difficult time staying upright, and I was being blown into bad lines of thicker, chunkier gravel. At times the precipitation turned to sleet, and some riders post-race war stories included snow. I was pushing hard and my heart rate was pegged way higher than I wanted it to be, but I was barely pushing eight mph on the flats and that was pissing me off. Working together was basically impossible here and I just put my head down and tried not to go to the dark place.
I would remind myself to look around because it truly was so incredibly beautiful. You could see for miles and miles in every direction and the sheer enormity of the landscape was mindblowing. The climbing was getting harder and harder. I kept checking the elevation on my Garmin to see if we were getting close to the end of it. At 40 miles I was already at 3,500 feet.
My average speed at this point was dropping into 10 mph range and I was doing a lot of quick math – this had the potential to be a very long day. I wasn’t fooling myself that it was soon to be over as we had yet to reach the “big one.” An entire aforementioned video highlighted said big one, affectionately known as Thor’s hammer. We thought we knew what to expect. WRONG. As we approached it, I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. They had given us an “easier” route around it should we choose to “wimp out” but I wanted to experience everything so that wasn’t an option. After the race, I spoke to a few people who did the “wimp-out” way and was told it wasn’t exactly easy. Anyway, the hammer was for sure thrown down on us. It was a very steep hike-a-bike with very soft dirt. At times it was difficult to get a footing and I kept thinking I was going to fall and slide back down the damn thing and have to start all over.
We made it only to find the descent was no picnic either. There were a few very steep descents that required the utmost care. At this point, a handful of us are riding along sharing quips about sadness and despair. At one point I turned to the guy next to me and said “This has to be the end of the climbing” to which he responded, “I have been saying that for the last 10 miles.” I remember Cimarron telling us at the start that Thor’s Hammer was close to but not the end of the climbing. What she did NOT say was that the last climb was truly the icing-on-the cake climb. We dipped down into a quick water crossing and there is was. It was long and it was steep and it was not rideable.
This is where I told the same guy “I really need to re-evaluate my life choices.” I hadn’t seen any women riders in a while so I had forgotten about racing and was more focused on surviving. Six hours in and we had still not quite reached the second aid station. I was staying positive and told myself that we would move faster when the climbing ended. The second aid station was on the back side of a lollipop loop so as we got closer the leaders were coming towards us. They were smiling. Since we were still going into the wind, they were experiencing a ripping tailwind which you could see was a welcome relief. This gave me a boost of confidence. Aid station 2 was stocked with bacon and pickles and it was a yum like no other. We headed out super excited.
We finally hit Phase 2! It was tailwind!
It was slightly downhill! There were no rocks! We were going to make up all kinds of time!! I put my head down and grabbed Chris’ wheel and we started to hammer it. I was feeling good. I knew our average speed was going to start picking up. No more suffering to maintain 10 mph. We enjoyed a few miles of speed before the gravel turned on us again. But this time it wasn’t rocks.
It was washboards. Mile and miles of lots and lots of washboards. Sometimes you could find a smooth line and sometimes you just had to power through them. It got challenging to eat or drink because if you couldn’t take your hands off the bars. Here’s one time I wished I had my hydration pack. At this point Chris and I were alone but during this washboard section a few riders on MTBs caught us- this section was much better suited for them. My “little” 40 mm tires beat me up pretty damn good. If they had set up a tent on the side of the road selling Lauf forks I would have stopped and bought one on the spot. It was back to every rider for themselves- sitting on a wheel wasn’t going to happen. The washboards went on for about 20 miles before we hit a pavement section. Man, was that a welcome relief.
To make things even sweeter we now had that strong tailwind again. I tucked in behind Chris and we had a good five to six miles of pavement to enjoy. We were riding a solid 24-26 mph at this point. We reached the left turn to get back onto the gravel and I started to slow up but Chris was maintaining a high rate of speed. The gravel in the turn was loose and deep and its direction meant crosswinds were back. As he took the turn his back wheel went out and before he knew it, he was on the ground. Fortunately, I had slowed and had time to react but still had to go offroad to avoid running over him. I stopped before running into a fence, I put my bike down and turned around. He was still in the fetal position on the ground with his bike on top of him. SHIT. He wasn’t moving. I ran over to him and he was holding his elbow. A couple of guys rolled and up stopped to help me sit him up. We tried to get him to move his arm. Did he break something? He wasn’t sure. He decided he hadn’t, but I still wasn’t sure. After experiencing many breaks myself, I knew that the initial adrenaline can lie to you. As he tried to convince us all that he was OK, two women passed – including the masters female from earlier in the day. My competitive self kicked in, leaving the caring wife in me behind. I told Chris that if he was OK I needed to get going. He told me to roll on and he would try to catch up. I took off.
The washboards were back and the crosswinds were strong. The climbing started to pick up again. Nothing crazy, just punchy short hills. I was riding just hard enough to catch up to the woman who passed us and sat in for a while. I thought I had been eating well but I clearly underestimated how much this terrain had been taking out of me. I was feeling hungry and I was getting low on stuff I brought myself. Eventually, Chris caught back and was feeling good enough to work with me to speed up. We pulled away from the other riders but I knew that the woman was not going to let me get away that easy. As the last aid station approached at mile 100, I decided to take a chance and not stop. I knew it was a bit of a risk considering I was already feeling hungry, but I took another gel and convinced myself that it was only 20 more miles so thought I could make it. I was hoping she needed to stop and I could increase my lead. Chris decided to stop and again told me he would try to catch up. In hindsight, I wish I had asked him to give me any food he had before stopping. In my breaking the race up in phases…
Mile 100 marks the third and final phase
We were now backtracking the first 20 miles. This was good because I knew exactly what to expect. It would first be some punchy climbs, then we would be back to the river crossing, then we would descend that nice first climb, and then finally back to the pavement. The problem was that I was getting very tired. The winds were still kicking my ass and not stopping at the aid station was catching up to me. I had now eaten everything I had with me. At the big river crossing which I had easily ridden through earlier in the day, I hesitated and got off my bike. I was mentally exhausted and didn’t trust my judgment to pick the right line. I walked through it actually enjoying the crispness of the water temperature. After I crossed, I sat on the other side for a few minutes and tried to get my shit together. I saw Chris approaching and waited for him, hoping he had something I could eat. Good for me, he did. As I started to get back on my bike, I saw my competition again – she was about to take the water crossing. I knew we didn’t have much further to go so it was time to lay it all out there. I just had to get to that gravel descent and it would literally be all downhill and then pavement. I turned myself inside out trying to keep her at bay.
The descent was awesome – the gravel was tightly packed and fast. The pavement brought tailwinds again. We were home free. We navigated our way through the town and crossed the finish line. I was so stoked to be done. I was beyond starving so I went straight to the Lava Center for food. A delicious buffet of all kinds of hot Icelandic comfort food. Everyone was relaxed and chatting it up and I totally forgot about checking the results. We finished eating and rolled back over to Midgard to clean up and prepare for the after-party. It was probably another hour before Chris finally pulled up the results and saw that I had won – by one minute. I was so stoked!
Everyone managed to rally for the after-party and awards ceremony at Midgard. As I walked around and talked to other athletes the consensus was the same: It was one of the hardest but most beautiful races they had ever done. Most every DK finisher I spoke with- including Ted King and Yuri Hauswald – agreed it was as hard or harder than Dirty Kanza. The atmosphere was so light and fun that everyone stuck around after the podiums and mingled, exchanging war stories and laughs.
I may have done well in the race but I did not win the party. I turned in at midnight when the DJ and dancing just getting started. This is a must-do for any gravel enthusiast.
I can’t say enough about how organized and well put together the entire weekend was. Huge props to the Lauf staff for such an amazing experience.