Running Among Giants: Exploring Iceland’s Trail Running Scene

Carrera de montaña

, by Fabienne Lang

Photography by: Þorsteinn Roy Jóhannsson

Discover why Iceland stands out as a premier destination for trail running enthusiasts seeking unparalleled challenges, rich culture, and natural beauty.

Nestled in the far East of Iceland lies Borgarfjörður Eystri, “a town [that’s] enchanted me over the years,” says the acclaimed photographer and videographer, Chris Burkard, in a video. “I think it’s probably one of the most unique fjords in the country.”

Chris is talking about the location of one of Iceland’s most unique trail-running events: Dyrfjallahlaup.

“I’m hoping to run the 50K ultra,” Chris says with a chuckle. “It goes up through the mountains, drops into fjords, over multiple mountain passes, rivers, everything you can imagine.”

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“I’m so excited to be here,” Chris continues. “Trail running through a landscape is such an amazing way to get to know it. It’s such an intimate way to experience it. Everything slows down, you see everything, you feel every rock, every pebble, every drop of water, you smell the flowers. There’s so much that becomes visceral in that experience.” Dyrfjallahlaup epitomizes the allure of trail running in Iceland, where every step becomes a sensory experience.

Trail Running at Its Core

Dyrfjallahlaup, situated in the quaint village of Borgarfjörður Eystri, stands as a testament to Iceland’s exciting trail running scene. Despite its remoteness situated nearly 436 miles / 700km from the capital, Reykjavík, the event draws enthusiasts seeking pure immersion in nature. As participants lace up their shoes, they won't encounter any towns, roads, or bustling crowds along the way. It's just them, the rugged trails, and the untouched wilderness, creating an unparalleled experience amidst Iceland's breathtaking landscapes.

“That’s part of what makes trail running in Iceland stand out,” says Olgeir Pétursson, who was born and raised in Borgarfjörður Eystri and is one of the event’s co-founders. “It’s easy to get into nature here and be totally alone.” It sounds exactly like what trail running is meant to be. Even though this trail run event has seen upward of 1,000 participants on some years, the team’s goal is to keep the run “intimate, unique, and special,” he emphasizes.

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With three trail running distances, 12K, 24K, and 50K / 7 miles, 15 miles, and 31 miles, the event welcomes every ability. “Our focus isn’t about who wins the race. Of course, we celebrate and reward that. But our bigger goal is to get people to sign up and challenge themselves; to come and be winners for themselves, not comparing themselves to others,” explains Olgeir.

More than just a race, Dyrfjallahlaup fosters a festival-like atmosphere, featuring stand-up comedy, live music, and culinary delights, as highlighted in its recent docu-video. The goal is clear: to provide participants with an unforgettable event, not just a quick "eat and run" experience.

This emphasis on celebration extends to other trail running events across Iceland, “There are a few other trail run races here in Iceland that also put good thought into creating a fun event,” says Olgeir, who is keen for even more events to put on this format at their races.

“Other races, for instance, that share this vision and format include Hólmsheiðarhlaupið in Reykjavík, which was selected as the best trail run two years in a row in 2022 and 2023. They also have good food, music and events after the runs, as well as one in Akureyri called Súlur Vertical that has a nice festival feeling to it,” he explains.

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Iceland: A Trail Runner’s Dream

One of the incredible perks of trail running in Iceland is the opportunity to explore a diverse range of landscapes depending on where you choose to run. Take, for instance, the Icelandic Highlands, home to the renowned Laugavegur Ultra, a highlight of the trail running calendar. Here, participants embark on a 50K journey from the Highlands' base, Landmannalaugar, to a picturesque spot in Þórsmörk. It's a challenge that draws elite runners from Iceland and beyond, showcasing the country's rugged beauty.

In the East, where Dyrfjallahlaup unfolds, the scene is vastly different. With fewer crowds and tourists, runners are treated to a truly local and authentic experience. The trails here offer a unique glimpse into Iceland's quieter, more intimate side.

The trail running scene is huge in Iceland. We have a five-month window in which to squeeze in all our trail running events. There are maybe 10 different races every other weekend during that time.

Venture to the North or South of Iceland, and you'll encounter entirely different landscapes. From majestic volcanoes to vast glaciers, thundering waterfalls to serene rolling green hills, each region offers its own distinct charm and challenges for trail runners to conquer.

“The trail running scene is huge in Iceland,” says Olgeir. “We have a five-month window in which to squeeze in all our trail running events. There are maybe 10 different races every other weekend during that time. Around 10 of these big race organizers coordinate to make sure our events don’t take place on the same dates or are too close together because of the large distances between each race,” he says, describing the good nature and friendliness of the trail running scene in his home country.

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Joining Icelandic trail runs like Dyrfjallahlaup immerses you in the country’s rich culture and natural wonders. With a welcoming atmosphere and support for runners of all levels, these events invite participants from around the world to become part of Iceland's vibrant trail running community.

As the trail running season beckons from May to September, kicking off with the highly anticipated Puffin Run in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland is readying itself to welcome runners looking for adventure amidst its expansive landscapes. “If you’re up for a challenge then head over,” Olgeir says with a grin. “You don’t have to be a runner, just come and participate.”

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