On the home stretch, I was pretty stoked. The first trail marathon in many years. The Faroe Islands had to equal, if not surpass, the others in terms of scenery. My watch was just about to clock over 42km and I could spy the finish line on the beach only a few hundred metres ahead.
A somewhat diminutive crowd was gathered, actually is four people even considered a crowd? Something was wrong. I checked my watch. Was the latitude messing with my GPS? Approaching a fold out table, which looked like a depleted aid station, I asked the question which must have been repeated by every runner this day. ‘Is this the finish?’ The almost automated yet strangely cheerful reply was that there was still 10km to go, over an arduous 600m pass no less.
Faroe Islands Inspiration
It was 9 months earlier while housesitting in Perth that a particular Facebook video took our attention. Dramatic scenery, cue waterfalls falling off rocky cliffs into the ocean. A landscape devoid of trees and just grass covering all but the steepest of the many windswept cliffs. The footage then zeroed in on a pack of runners striding in slow-mo amongst this most amazing landscape. Added to that were shots of DJs, sailboats, caving, kayaking the aid stations being catered by a Michelin starred restaurant!
Discovering this the Atjan Wild Islands Running Festival sparked the planning of a 4 month European adventure which was to take us across some 17 countries. That 30 second video clip had a lot to answer for! However, if you’ve seen any video of the Faroe Islands it is such a unique environment in the remotest of places that inevitably sets off all of your exploratory instincts.
A bit about the Faroe Islands
You’d be forgiven for not being able to pinpoint the location of the Faroe Islands. Mostly because it is in fact a pin point on the map in the vastness of the North Atlantic. If you drew a line north of Scotland and then drew a line between southern Norway and Iceland, where these lines intersect is roughly where the Faroe Island are. An autonomous territory of Denmark, the Faroese people are self-governing and fiercely independent.
Consisting of 18 major islands, some are connected by bridges, underground tunnels and ferries, yet many locals use helicopter to get from island to island. Helicopter trips are affordable but schedules and seats can be tricky to get as a tourist.
Running Festival warm-up
It is a scenic flight into the Faroe Islands. Coming from Copenhagen, it is serviced by Atlantic Air and you get a good look at the sheer cliffs and fly over Sørvágsvatn, a giant lake which sits just behind the sea cliff and empties into the sea via the Bøsdalafossur waterfall which is known on windy days to be blown back up seemingly defying gravity.
Most people stay in the capital of Torshvan, a quaint but expanding port town. The signature grass roofs of the Faroes appear on may of the government buildings surrounding the harbour. Taxis or more accurately shuttle busses take passengers from the airport to downtown hotels, or in our case, slightly out of town campground. I imagine in the fiercest of storms camping on the shore would be a bad idea. But at the end of summer Torshvan campground was a magnificent spot even if you got a definite four seasons in one day experience. The sheltered and modern communal building was a good refuge for cooking and lounging about, many fellow running festival goers.
A trial trail run
We had only just finished putting up our tent when we were picked up by Henrik. Henrik was a local who was helping out at the Festival to mark trails. He had offered to take us on a test run through the terrain we were to experience during the main event. A short drive south of town we met up with another fellow entrant from the UK. All started off pretty standard, a gentle jog along a gravel trail that led down to a stream. Erin and I were keeping up the pace but it was clear Henrik and the Englishman were in a slightly more elite class.
After a few kilometres on the gravel we crossed to more off-piste terrain. The thick grass synonymous with the Faroe Islands. All this grass sits on a perpetually wet soil verging on peat bog. This has a number disadvantages for the unsuspecting runner. First, it absorbs a lot of energy as you sink into the grass and need to lift your legs to avoid tripping. Second, the grass hides potholes and true edges so it is easy to fall down a hole or miss the edge of a creek bank. Lastly, you will sink into foot sucking mud about every other step.
Soon enough Henrik was pulling further away and I was redlining just to stay within view him hopping over the countryside. Having tried to fit in training whilst travelling, it is difficult to get into any sort of routine and mixing sightseeing, work and just pure travel logistics doesn’t leave much time to focus on training for this type of terrain! We were hoping our 2 week pack hike on the Tour Du Mont Blanc was recent enough to help with the endurance to overcome the many hills we would encounter.
Lead up festival events
The Atjan Festival was held at the beginning of Autumn when most tourist activities are either winding down or finished. The signature Puffin birds have flown south already, helicopter flights are sketchy at best and likely to leave you on an island for a few days. Luckily there are a few extra-curricular activities arranged surrounding the festival. We included swimming in the ice-cold waters followed up with a hot tub and optional yoga. There was a cave swimming experience in the worlds largest sea cave. That was combined with the festival arranged activities of movie nights, local music acts and DJ sets.
Faroe Islands Running day
What follows is a blow by blow of my experience on the marathon route. Continue reading or just enjoy the pictures but if you are contemplating hiking or running in the Faroe Islands there may be some hidden intel scattered amongst my post race ramblings.
The Atjan Running Festival consisted of four running events. A 10km, 21km, 42km marathon and a 65km ultra. The trail goes through private farmland and allows access to the unique interior of the islands and gaining access to some of the most remote and picturesque areas of this archipelago. Each event starts at a different location at a different time. This is to allow the majority of runners to finish around the time on the remote beach of Tjørnuvík on the north of Streymoy, which is the largest island of the Faroes.
The marathon began at Hosvik. About 60 runners had signed up and the early morning bus trip was a quiet one. Many going into the unknown in terms of terrain and navigation. It was a clear sunny morning. We were lucky as it is a rare event in these parts. The only previous event held, participants spoke of thick fog, missing trail markers (eaten by wandering sheep) and strong winds mixed with heavy rain.
After a short briefing by the local authorities, and the firing of a shotgun, we were off!
Checkpoint 1: Koks Restaurant
It is hard to describe or summarise events of a run, so best broken up by the stages marked by each checkpoint. From the start outside a hall in Hosvik, a short run through the village and out alongside a creek. Within 500m into the event my feet were wet. Pet bog thick and wet yet less risky than running on clumps of grass designed to break ankles. The trail immediately ascended up a never ending grass mountain. The trail marked only by small pink marker flags stuck into the grass.
Eventually, the hill needed to be climbed on all fours with hand gripping the thick grass to improve traction. After 600m of ascent, the pass was reached with awesome views. It was im[possible not to stop and take a picture. A simple hike up here would be a memorable even on its own. The descent was memorable also. Almost as steep as the climb, it was difficult to keep a steady pace. Downhill running is certainly a skill. A skill I did not currently have. Muxh like the ascenbt, towards the bottom it was a bum-sliding affair to traverse the steepest sections to avoid toppling uncontrollably to the bottom.
A welcome gravel road now wound through the amazing valley with a completely still lake reflecting the scenery and the sky. Again a picture was necessary. The first checkpoint was at the Michelen star Koks restaurant. In the middle of absolutely nowhere. It’s almost impossible to get in to this restaurant. It caters for only 12 guests at a time and earned its stars from crafting food from the very slow growing local seafood. Slow growing due to the frigid water temperatures. It’s impossible to get a table so I was thankful to sample some peanut butter covered parsnip and a sip of pomegranate juice. Easily the weirdest food served at an aid station but supposedly especially designed by the chef for this event!
Checkpoint 2: Vestmanna Dam
After a more gradual ascent from the valley floor at Koks, the trail led down another valley that connected up to the second checkpoint at Vestmanna dam. Vestmanna dam forms one of the oldest hydroelectric power plants on the Faroe Islands. Just below the dam is Vesmanna village, one of the first Faroese settlements dating back to the vikings. Vestmanna means ‘men from west’ and it is believed that Irish Monks originally settled here who were some of the first people living on the Faroe Islands.
The dam was one of the few man made landmarks on the entire course. By this point there were only one or two fellow runners in sight either in front or behind. I also began to pass the first of some of the ultra runners who had started earlier and were now at their 30km mark. The checkpoint had some jam sandwiches. Welcome nutrition but far from the degustation menu at Koks!
Checkpoint 3: Saksun
From the dam, the trail followed a slope overlooking the lake. The grassy peat bog was unrelenting and the terrain was undulating going down to small creeks flowing into the dam and then rising. At the back of the dam a steep grassy incline reminiscent of the initial climb of the day, kept going up to a pass at 600m. Another very steep descent with switchbacks followed a gorge all the way down tot he road leading in to the village of Saksun. The first road running of the event so far took me to the 3rd checkpoint on the outskirts of the small village.
The food at the aid station had been mostly taken although some salted boiled potatoes were just what I needed as most of my supplies had been expended.
Checkpoint 4: Skorastova Hut
From checkpoint 3 the trail went immediately up. It was the start of what turned out to be a very long loop to return to Saksun. Back up over another -600m pass that seems the common height of many of the mountain passes in the Faroes. The trail traversed a steep and unending slope. Figures in the distance a reminder of how much further remained. Running uphills had long since ceased. Only flat or downhill sections allowed anything more than a power walk. Poles were not recommended for the event, but in certain sections they would certainly have been beneficial.
After cresting a soggy ridge, Skorastova hut came into view which was a welcome sight as the 4th checkpoint. Skorastova is just a simple wooden hut located in front of a small mountain lake and is shielded from the Atlantic winds by a steep grassy cliff towering behind the lake. Some nuts and potato chips were on offer and I took a handful along with filling up with water that ran outr half way up the hill. Seriously fatigued now, quitting was not an option as we were a long way from a road.
I was mentally fatigued also but was hoping my mind was playing tricks on me when I saw figures in the distance climbing up the grass cliff…
Checkpoint 5. Saksun Beach
The impending grass cliff was bordering on ridiculous to climb. The last hundred metres is almost vertical. The only thing preventing a serious fall is the wiry grass I’m firmly gripping and the occasional foot hole kicked in by the faster runners. At the top, a rocky overhang provided an equally precarious feature to navigate. I took a minute at the top just to catch my breath and take in the next challenge. A similar traverse, this time downhill continued into the distance. The trail at all times only recognisable from a distance by fellow runners and up close by the small pink markers.
The closer the trail got to the cliff the more dramatic things got, this time scenery wise. The descent began in earnest all the way to the beach. Legs were burning so much I needed to stop regularly to take the sting out. I expected at any moment for my legs to fall in a pothole and snap in two but thankfully only a few falls were had into the soft grass.
Towards the beach, the trail followed along a rocky cliff that formed a large inlet to Saksun Beach with imposing cliffs on each side. A few safety ropes had thankfully been strung up in the slippery sections for wobbly, post descent legs. Nearing the beach, it was here where my watch clearly read I was at 41km and supposedly near the finish. I knew Saksun Beach was not the finish point but I couldn’t imagine where the trail could go to from here to be on a beach and within a 42km distance. Basically I was willing it to be the finish as I was spent.
The Final Insult
After learning of the 10km extra my walkie talkie buzzed to life. At the other end was Erin who was reaching the 5km to go mark on the half marathon route. It was a mix of relief that she was doing well and on the downward stretch, yet despair that it would be some time before I could join her at the finish.
It was kind of a fitting situation for the Faroe Islands which is a somewhat mythical place. Unlike any I’ve encountered, it seemed the normal rules of distance and time did not work the same way here and having an extra 10km to spend in the amazing landscape should be considered a welcome bonus. But that is retrospective me talking, at the time I descended into a dark mess of pain and suffering.
The road from the beach went up to the right of the valley whereas I need to ascend the hill on the left. I needed to go an agonisingly long way past where the start of the climb was, then loop back around before starting a now all too familiar trudge up through the mossy, grassy, muddy and occasionally rocky mountain. 10km is a long way at the best of times. After reaching a bunch of false summits I finally saw the narrow bay at Tjørnuvík where somewhere there was a beach where there was hopefully a finish line.
With the smell of the finish, a more cavalier descent ensued down a set of rocky switchbacks. Then the town appeared, then I was running on a street, toward a beach. In my delusional state I missed the entrance to the beach and instead climbed over a wall despite a crowd of people waving at me to go through the gap. A few strides along soft sand had me at the finish line and a beer swiftly stuffed into my hand. And, most of all, Erin’s smiling face was waiting at the finish, having triumphed herself over the equally tough and less catered for half marathon.
A hearty hot soup was served inside a small hall before hopping on the bus back to Torshvan.
With some runners still out on course into the night, some were cleared off the mountain as the weather closed in. Barely able to walk, we made it to Mikkeller, the cosy local bar and the designated festival bar. They brew beer and also have a basement which was turned into a nightclub. So we danced/shuffled into the wee hours with our fellow runners and comparing stories and confirming distances were a lot longer than intended!
The Atjan Wild Islands Running Festival is an all unique event. Combining running, exploration, activities music and people from around the world. Running really takes a back seat to just getting to know a group of people over the course of 4 or 5 days in a unique location. It connects you with the locals and provides access to some of the most wild and wonderful terrain you’re ever going to experience. Having been cancelled in 2020 due to COVID, let’s hope the event continues into 2021 and beyond. Hopefully we can return one day to explore more of the Faroes, and maybe try the 10km this time!