Hail the winter days after dark

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Iceland. It’s icy.

This isn’t about to become a lifestyle blog.I like this blog having a clear purpose and my life isn’t really one anyone will be aspiring to. But, a lot of factors of my lifestyle do impact on my anxiety and some of the bigger non-running events probably warrant a post. This is part travel write-up of my recent holiday to Iceland, part mini-commentary on how mental health links into that.

At the end of 2015, I convinced my friend Chris that he wanted to go to Iceland with me. Chris has many good qualities as one of my best friends – mostly that he always seems willing to order pizza – but my favourite is that he’s really easy to talk into travelling. The conversation went something like: “Do you want to come to Iceland with me for my birthday?” “Yeah, sure”. Simples. I’ve also played a very similar game about Japan next year which has worked out in the same fashion. And so very hyper and a little drunk at New Year, we booked a holiday for the week before my birthday.

Holidays work nicely for me as a marker. Just as parkrun is a weekly beacon, I need points marked out in the future to be heading towards. Throughout the first couple of months in a new job where I’ve been tired, ill, stressed, I’ve been aiming for Iceland. They also make for a good distraction technique because I can throw myself into research and planning whenever I’m feeling low. The flipside is that a lot of anxiety is derived from not being in control of situations and therefore airports especially are basically hell for me. I’m not relaxed about travelling to places, there’s a plastic wallet of paperwork (boarding passes, hotel reservations, car hire etc), all in chronological order of when it will be required. I presume Chris doesn’t mind my military precision because he keeps agreeing to go on holiday with me and I do calm down a lot once we actually get somewhere. I think he’s relieved someone enjoys organisation.

We flew from London Gatwick to Keflavik, about 50km along the coast from Reykjavik, where we were based. A poor start in that as soon as we went through customs in Iceland, I realised I had left my coat on the plane. It is sub-optimal to be coatless in Iceland. It’s also a particularly nice coat that when bought, I joked that I would have to wear until my 30s to justify the cost. At home, something as simple as this could have induced a bad panic attack but I think this proves that having the right people around me can have a significant effect on my reactions. One of the reasons I suspect this friendship works so well is that Chris absolutely refuses to pander to my anxieties. He’s known me since we were 11 and in that time as part of the Core Alix Support Team has had me wailing down the phone over horrendous breakups, stressful jobs and fights with my parents. He’s supportive but incredibly practical, and if I try to have a breakdown over a lost coat, I know full well he will laugh at me. Sometimes that’s really what I need, to appreciate that I’m being utterly ridiculous.

With me tweeting easyjet for help and the promise from Chris that we would come back to the airport in the morning, we went and collected our jeep and hit the road to Reykjavik. We had booked a room through airbnb (where did we all stay before airbnb?!) in the centre of Reykjavik,IMG_20160226_111936 close to the Hallsgrimkirkja which is one of the few notable landmarks in the city. Handy for us because it meant that whenever we were driving home, we just headed towards it! Come the morning, we drove back to Keflavik and retrieved my coat. This was actually all very painless, we were so quick that we didn’t even have to pay for parking. As we were already on the road, we decided we would do the famous Golden Circle tour that day instead of on Friday as we had planned. With Chris taking on all driving responsibility, it was up to me to navigate using the world’s most unwieldly and oversized map and a bunch of directions I’d hurriedly printed off before leaving for the airport. Apprehension all round.

First stop was Þingvellir (the Þ is like a th). Þingvellir is a national park where Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament was formed in 930. It’s also supposedly very interesting from a geological perspective because there are cracks all over the region where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet.

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Horse whispering

It was hard to see any of this because there was so much snow! Chris read all the information boards and tried to tell me some history. I was too busy jumping in the snow like a small child to listen. We got back on the road to see the geysers of Haukadalur but en route, there were many Icelandic ponies. Chris asked if I wanted to pull over to see them and did so rapidly when he realised I was liable to throw myself from a moving vehicle with excitement. Fun fact, you can’t import animals into Iceland so if an Icelandic pony leaves, it can never go home. Unfortunately you can’t fit a pony in your hand luggage.

After larking about with the ponies for a bit, taking a few selfies and several attempts by ponies to eat my mittens, we finally carried on to the geysers. We watched Strokkur, the most reliable of the geysers erupt a few times; every 5-10 minutes it shoots about 20m of water into the air and it really is spectacular.

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I’m battling adverse weather

There are a number of tiny hot springs in the same area so we wandered around a bit while I concentrated very hard on not falling over and breaking a leg so close to Bath Half when I’ve been fundraising. After lunch, we drove the 10 minutes up the road to the (mostly frozen) Gullfoss waterfall. I have honestly never experienced weather conditions like it. It was so windy that we couldn’t walk in a straight line, I was being blown almost a metre sideways with every couple of steps and the cold meant that taking photos left my hands in pain for minutes afterwards. It was entirely worth it for the absolutely staggering views which I’m still amazed are real because every perspective looked like something out of a fantasy film. You’ll be pleased to know that my day of navigation was on the whole, very successful.

The next morning, we walked around Reykjavik. It had snowed quite a lot in the night so I was once again living in fear of falling over, an activity I manage frequently in far less perilous conditions back home.

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Sun Voyager

We headed down towards the harbour, slowed by my inability to not take photos of the sea every 30 seconds. Iceland still permits commercial whaling and it was quite unsettling to walk through the harbour and have whaling boats on one side of us, with whale watching boats on the other!

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Snowbathing on the beach

There wasn’t a huge amount to do in Reykjavik so after stopping in a cafe for a while, we decided to head back up the hill and take the car to the outskirts of the city to an observation deck with 360 degree views and then on to the geothermal beach which was a really good afternoon considering it was a whim, rather than something we had intended to do. That evening we boarded a coach and headed out into the wild in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights, after it had been cancelled the night before due to the snowy conditions. 5.5 hours on a coach. The things we put ourselves through. Sadly, most of western Iceland seemed to be covered in a thick blanket of cloud so there was nothing to be seen but we actually had a fairly amusing night due to our guide telling us a lot of odd stories about his childhood and the region. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see the lights but the rest of the trip was so spectacular that it didn’t really diminish it.

After getting home at about 2am, we set the alarm for a little after 7am. Oof. Neither of us are morning people at the best of times but I had insisted on booking our trip to the Blue Lagoon for 9am so that we had masses of time before the airport. The joys of being an anxious traveller. Although my main worry was obviously that I was missing parkrun at that time. IMG_20160227_120108.jpgThe Blue Lagoon is actually a manmade geothermal spa but it’s similar to the natural hot pools that can be found across the country. The minerals in the water are supposedly very good for you, although as Chris learnt, they are less beneficial if you get them in your eye! In hindsight, going early was probably the right thing to do because it was much quieter than when we left at lunchtime. With a few hours left, we drove along the coast to Keflavik, then on to Gardur, for the sake of something to do. Turns out, there is not much to do at all but we wandered about on the coast and drove along to a lighthouse. Chris learnt some more facts that I’m sure were very interesting but I promptly forgot them as soon as he told me. The lighthouse was built in 1897 and somebody had to live in it to wind the light. Something like that. After that, we dropped the jeep back and went to the airport to come back to London. Birthday trip over, Iceland crossed off the travel bucketlist, a lot more silly in-jokes and memories created with my best friend.

Despite loving holidays and them being very good for me, they are still a challenge with anxiety. Most things I love in this world are. As an only child, I find sharing my space very difficult, I’m used to being alone. Much as I adore Chris, being around someone near constantly for 4 days is really tough but I’m very lucky that we have the sort of friendship where we don’t feel compelled to talk. After 15 years, I’m comfortable to be around him and not have the pressure of making conversation the entire time which makes it a lot easier for me to cope. The key factor in my resilience is my energy levels and as I get further into a holiday like this, the more tired I get and the more I start to struggle. We structured the trip quite well so we got the most tiring bits out the way early on and Chris is very relaxed and knows I don’t cope brilliantly (or at all) with exhaustion so although I was a bit delirious by the journey home, I managed to stay in fairly good spirits throughout.

If you’re still wanting more photos, I posted far too many on Instagram. Now, if anyone wants me, I’ll be distracting myself from a horrendous week at work by planning our holiday to Japan.

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