This essay is by Maria Ordovas-Montanes, who participated in this summer’s Iceland Trail Running + Wellness Retreat for women.
At the start of the year, I was seeking some kind of running adventure abroad. But did I want a training camp, running holiday or a retreat?
A running camp would hopefully help me run faster over longer distances, but would I miss out on enjoying the scenic panoramas depicted on the websites?
Would a running holiday leave me wanting more in terms of instruction?
These questions led me to research trail running retreats where there would be time to take pleasure in the scenery, stop for photographs, and stretch outside my comfort zone, knowing I would be supported by a group of like-minded runners.
I ultimately chose the Iceland Trail Running + Wellness Retreat with Run Wild Retreats instead of a training camp. With anticipation of the summer’s adventure and during the course of an unfulfilling training cycle, I experienced a shift from viewing running in a goal-time fitness context to viewing it in a wellness context.
While preparing for a spring 10 kilometer road race between February and May, I struggled to find joy in the process, simply pounding out the miles on familiar routes and looping around the track every Tuesday, rather than exploring new terrain.
Niggles of pain popped up in my legs and I worried about attaining my sub-50 minute goal when I was barely making the target split times for 400 and 800 meter intervals. In the race’s final 2 kilometers, I was still hopeful of finishing under 50 minutes, though a painful side stitch and interfered with steady breathing and optimal form.
Absent was the bliss I had felt during two low-key trail races I had done the previous autumn and winter.
“I won’t train for another road races until I find that bliss on the trails again!” I thought to myself as I approached the finish line. To my surprise, I finished with half a minute to spare, though it cost me a month of feeling burned out and I did not resume my normal-distance runs until over two months later.
It finally dawned on me: What was the point of meeting my time goal if I didn’t enjoy the process leading up to it and was exhausted for weeks afterwards?
I was not feeling the wellness effect I desired, and was keen for August to arrive so I could revise my relationship with running: from one of chasing personal bests to one of enjoying the experience and the scenery where my own two legs could take me.
In the weeks leading up to the retreat, I knew I did not want to specifically train for any personal best times in the near future, and maybe spend a year focusing on finding the joy in running again. I was hopeful that retreat leaders Elinor and Charlotte, and the attendees would have the right tools and strategies.
Gathering in Iceland for the retreat’s start, the other retreat participants and I learned about one another’s motivations for running in the first place and what brought us to this retreat. Some were running towards specific long-term goals, and others were “running away” from life’s stresses. Some had chosen Iceland in hopes of seeing puffins (it was not the right season for the northern lights).
The common thread in everyone’s story was seeking a more childlike approach to running, free of beeping fitness watches and full of pure enjoyment in the movement and landscape, and we also wanted to challenge ourselves in a supportive group setting.
The routes we ran that week were indeed challenging, but all attainable and magnificent. Prior to this, I had done up to 400 meters (1,300 feet) of elevation gain in a single run, and would run flat routes for several days afterwards to recover. I surprised myself at the retreat, however, when three of our runs averaged 685 meters (2,250 feet) of elevation gain, and we had no days off in between. How was it that I was running over harder terrain and at higher elevation than I ever had before, but not needing time off?
Part of it was in allowing myself to slow down over difficult stretches. Our Icelandic running guide, Gunnur, said she’d reduce the pace if she didn’t hear chatting, because that meant we were going too fast to control our breathing and talk. This sometimes involved power hiking to conserve energy over steep inclines. On one such peak called Valahnúkur, I was humbled by how hard I was working even at a hiking pace.
Iceland’s novel landscapes—from black sand beaches to powerful waterfalls, to sparkling glaciers—provided a wonderful distraction from the split times reported by my GPS watch. And I wasn’t the only one!
Some women who had taken off their watches for the week say they felt “liberated.” This freedom allowed us to focus on the enjoyment of moving from point A to point B through gorgeous scenery and in no way resembled a race or training session. We had space and opportunity to focus outward and savor the panoramas and on support each other. We also had space to focus inward with our breathing, form and intentions.
After the retreat, I felt surprisingly refreshed despite having run over 40 miles in one week. In fact, I was eager to explore new trails at home in the U.K. I now feel stronger running uphill with shorter strides and I feel taller as I think about bone-stacking from Charlotte’s mindful running form clinics.
Perhaps the most joyful and return-to-childhood moment came a few days after returning home when I abandoned a standard running loop and detoured in order to river swim during a downpour.
For now, my intention is to run to enjoy nature and the seasons; in a few months I will think about working in some hills as I prepare for another retreat next year!
Curious about the Iceland Trail Running + Wellness Retreat?
About the Author
Maria Ordovas-Montanes is originally from Massachusetts and has crossed the Atlantic to do her PhD in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford. When not at the microscope, Maria spends most of her time rock climbing and running – the closer to sheep, the better. Other activities she has picked up during her time in the UK are rowing, acroyoga, SUPing, surfing, and moonlighting as a theater critic. Her favorite part about running in the UK is the parkrun community and she is on a quest to do an event starting with every letter of the alphabet.