Physically Fit Travel: The Reykjavik Marathon And More High in the sky a solitary plane appeared – and then a multi-colored dot. As we watched, mesmerized, the dot drifted downward, spiraling over downtown Reykjavik, over the now-hushed crowd of runners. Soon we could see the skydiver dangling from his chute. But it became increasingly apparent that there was no place to land. And then he was down, hitting a water table, knocking it over, almost hitting us. In typical “Just to it” Icelandic fashion, the Reykjavik Marathon had begun. Without so much as a “Ready, set, go,” some 1500 runners from 15 countries were pounding down Reykjavik’s main thoroughfare. Most were running a 7K; my husband Frank and I and most of our tour group were running the half marathon. Just a handful of hardy souls – fewer than 80, and only three women – would attempt the marathon. As we headed out of town toward the country’s only highway, I drank in the stark brown-grey beauty of a volcano-ringed fjord and thought about this unusual country. Frank and I had first visited Iceland five years before. Reykjavik, the world’s most northern capital city, was small and parochial then – in spirit, if not in size. It was June that first time; the sun set about 11:30 p.m. and rose again at 2 a.m., and there was enough light in between to hike the brown volcano we hoped was truly extinct, and touch the glacier that hugged its side. Iceland is still so geologically “new” it seems to be sitting on a time bomb. Its snow-capped volcanoes erupt often, with devastating effects. Much of the country’s land remains lavastrewn, broken by the same sulfurous thermal plumes that gave Reykjavik – literally, “Smoky Bay” – its name when the city was settled by the Norse in 874. (The pure language of the Norse remains the modern Icelandic tongue.) Iceland was like nothing we had ever seen. When Marathon Tours listed the Reykjavik Marathon in its brochure, we thought it was a great excuse to see the country again. This time it was August when we landed at Keflevik airport, but once again I was struck by the incredible cleanness of the air. Reykjavik’s rainbow-hued roofs and carefully tended gardens stood out in such crisp relief against the cloudless sky that you could almost bite into them. Except for the distant steam on the horizon, Reykjavik is spectacularly smoke-free city; its ancient thermal springs have been harnessed to produce all the heat and hot water the city needs. It was only 7 a.m., but I couldn’t wait to run those pristine streets – especially when I knew my reward would be a hot shower that would never run out. Our rooms at the Loftleidir hotel were spartan even by Icelandic standards. But fixated on food as runners typically are, everyone was enthralled by the Scandinavian breakfast included in our room rate: juice, corn flakes and yogurt, cheeses, lunch meat, breads, rolls and endless thermos pots of coffee on each table. Icelandic portions are tiny by US standards, and prices are very high – kaffi og kaka (coffee and cake) is $12 – so the morning buffet was very welcome. We had three days before Sunday’s marathon, and Frank and I used them to relive some memories. But Iceland’s capital had made a quantum leap in style and spirit – it was now a glitzy, 1980s world city. Where a large open field had been five years before stood Iceland’s first glass and steel shopping center – complete with a Hard Rock Cafe. Instead of conserving our energy for the task ahead, we walked everywhere, despite the typically cool, drizzly weather. When the chill went too deep, we mingled with the natives at Sundlaugar, one of Reykjavik’s two huge, thermally heated outdoor pools. These pools are social centers; as obvious outsiders we were accepted, but the Icelanders paid us little attention. Although Icelanders are taught English as a second language, many won’t speak it. The ancient Icelandic language is almost sacred, and its guardians go to great lengths to keep it pure and unpolluted. When a new word comes along – such as television (sjonvarp) – Icelanders combine existing words (in this case, “sight” and “throwing something”) to cope, rather than incorporate a new one. The night before the marathon, there was a pasta party for foreign runners – about 80 percent of the marathoners and close to 20 percent of the half-marathoners. A cacaphony of tongues buzzed around us, and each person wore his or her most prestigious race T-shirt – for Frank and me, our newly acquired Reykjavik ones. Our tour group – 26 independent souls from all over the states – were there in force. We were ready to carbo-load. But the heaping plates of pasta we’d been dreaming about didn’t materialize – there was barely enough to go around. Our group exchanged glances and headed to a cafe for reinforcements. Race day dawned clear with a temperature of about 55 degrees – perfect. The route followed the shore – for the first six miles, an unbroken expanse of white-capped volcanoes and protected bay – along a wide, paved road completely free of potholes. Relatively flat, the road passed the Hofdi House, the small building at the harbor’s edge where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held their historic summit meeting. Runners have a bond no matter what their language or country; the Icelandic runners were far more forthcoming than the average, somewhat reticent citizen. Frank and I struck up a conversation with an Icelandic mathematics professor who taught at the University of Virginia and was home for the summer. Actually, the professor talked and I listened – to keep up, I was running faster than I should have. I paid for it in the last four miles, as Frank pulled ahead and disappeared down the road. But my new friend – who had never run 13.1 miles – stayed with me as we hit the only residential section of the race. I was lucky to be with a native: The course was sparsely marked, there were few spectators, and most of the 350 runners in the half marathon were ahead of us. The marathoners had the second lap to themselves, since I and the other half-marathoners finished after one lap and collected our little gold medals. We stopped to cheer Mae Ann Garty, from San Diego – one of three women going the distance – as she went by looking fresh and determined. That night, Iceland outdid itself. Our awards banquet was at Reykjavik’s most sophisticated night spot – the black and white and silver Hollywood Disco. There was a roast beef dinner and a dance band. And there was Mae Ann Garty, who at 62 had won the women’s marathon in just over four hours. She arrived wearing her laurel wreath and a face-splitting grin, and never stopped dancing. Monday was a winddown day. For Frank and me it was a chance to rediscover the real Iceland – that part that begins on the outskirts of Reykjavik. With a tour guide and bus, our tour group headed out. Soon we were walking on lush green fields that had known history so vivid it seemed to jump across time. We headed to Thingvellir, Iceland’s most sacred historical site. Now a National Park, it’s where Iceland’s parliament, the world’s oldest continuous legislative body, first convened in 930 A.D. Every summer for two weeks families met on the green plains of Thingvellir to settle grievances, trade, make marriages and elect the law speaker, who recited all the nation’s laws from memory. It was not until 1798 that the parliament was moved indoors, to Reykjavik. And then it was Tuesday, and time to move on. Some in our tour stayed in Iceland, some returned to the states. Frank and I hopped a plane for Luxembourg, taking advantage of Icelandair’s longstanding $10 per person second-leg flight. Our vacation had just begun.