Walking, Hiking & Trail Running

Interview | We Speak With The Icelandic Ultra Runner Who Went Running In The Desert

In 2018, Elísabet Margeirsdóttir became the first woman to finish the 400km Ultra Gobi in under 100 hours

You there, reading this now, what is the furthest you’ve ever run in one solid lump? 5km? 10km? Half marathon? Full marathon maybe? Unless you’re in an extremely select core of elite ultra runners, your answer to this question is unlikely to be “400 kilometres… in the Gobi Desert.”

Step forward Iceland’s Elisabet Margeirsdóttir, who last year became the first woman on the planet to finish the infamous endurance race known as the Ultra Gobi Marathon in under 100 hours. Her time of 97 hours and 11 minutes, to put it in context, was a whole 20 hours faster than the woman who came in second (Xing Ruling of China who finished with a time of 116 hours, 16 minutes and 50 seconds).

“Her time of 97 hours and 11 minutes… was a whole 20 hours faster than the woman who came in second”

In a bid to find out more about what motivates someone like Elisabet, who by day works as a nutrition professor at the University of Iceland, to run huge distances at extreme temperatures (over 25c during the day, and as low as -15c at night, during the Ultra Gobi), we decided to reach out and see if she’d be cool with answering some of our questions. She was.

Hi Elisabet. Thanks for agreeing to speak with us. Bit of a broad question first up but what is it that you love about running so much?

What do I love about running? I guess it’s the feeling of being outside. Mostly I do trail and mountain running, so just being outside in the mountains is what I love to do. And I love to do races. Running has been part of my life for almost 15 years now so it’s a big part of me and I can’t imagine not doing it. It’s something I need to do almost every day. It’s my passion.

The Ultra Gobi sounds absolutely insane. What was that like to take part in?

It was really brutal and, I must admit, I was really scared at first when someone started talking to me about it. I was really scared. It didn’t feel like something I wanted to. But then when I got the invite to do the race, something changed in me and I just really wanted to see what it’d be like to compete and run this long distance somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

“It was really brutal and, I must admit, I was really scared at first”

I prepared a lot for it, and I mean a lot. So when I was on the starting line, I really wasn’t afraid of anything. It was just about running a really long way until I was finished.

Were there moments during the Ultra Gobi when you just thought “I can’t go on here”. Did you hit that wall at any point?

For me, there wasn’t any like big wall but there were times when I thought… this isn’t healthy. Times when I thought… I’m not sure it’s a good idea for me to continue this race. It was really cold. I’m used to cold weather here in Iceland but this was really cold.

For most of the race, we were above 3,000 metres altitude so everything was just… I mean, the bottles actually froze. I was wearing five layers of clothing, and you’re just carrying so much stuff with you.  You have a very heavy pack on you because it’s so cold that you have to carry all your clothes with you.

“For me, there wasn’t any like big wall but there were times when I thought… this isn’t healthy”

There are moments during the night when you have to cross rivers and your shoes just get absolutely frozen. And because it’s a self-navigated race, I was carrying my handheld GPS all the time. During the night, I was going over these sand dunes and small hills and the track that the race gave out wasn’t that accurate… just point to point and you’d end up running a line over lots and lots of dunes and hills. It was tiring.

Don’t get me wrong though, it was a lot of fun doing this. Trying to navigate through this terrain and all that, but also it made this race really difficult. Because you had to use your mind, you had to stay completely focused throughout. The fact you have to take care of yourself is what I loved about the Gobi Race.

There were rest stations every 40km which helped.

How much rest did you get during the whole thing?

I didn’t sleep much. I’d say all together, I got four hours sleep over the course of 97 hours. It’s not much. It’s just laying down for like 50 minutes or so where you could get into a small tent at the checkpoints. And yeah, just small naps here and there and also to save your feet.

“I didn’t sleep much. I’d say all together, I got four hours sleep over the course of 97 hours”

Because I’m much more used to doing these ultra trails where you have these big mountain climbs going up and down, this race was the flattest one I’ve ever done. The whole thing was almost completely flat except sometimes there were these dunes and small hills. There was nothing really. My feet weren’t used to running on terrain like this, and for such a long time.

When it is so dark, and so cold, and you haven’t really slept… what makes you carry on? What stops you from stopping?

There are a few things but mostly you carry on because you can’t do anything about it. You have to continue. You just have to continue. I was trying to go as fast I could the whole time but sometimes I was going slower because my feet were hurting a lot. I had made the decision to finish this race. The only thing that was going to stop me is if someone from the medical team told me not to continue.

“You can’t do these kind of races unless you see the humour in it”

I was taking good care of myself and I was really well prepared for this. Just the desire to finish this race somehow was huge. A lot of people were following me, so that also gives you some more energy. If you know you have a lot of people cheering you on, you don’t have a choice. You just want to finish, even though you’re hurting a lot.

I should also add… I was having a great time. Even though I was hurting, even though there were a lot of things bothering me, I was having fun out there. You can’t do these kind of races unless you see the humour in it. You just have to keep your mood good. If you start to get annoyed, or angry, then it’s going to be really tough to finish.

While researching the Ultra Gobi, I read a lot of stories about people hallucinating or seeing things that weren’t there. Did anything like that happen to you? 

I was definitely seeing some hallucinations but nothing serious. Definitely during the later parts, and during the night, you start to see people. Like I would run past a tree, or some sign or something, and think I was running past a member of staff or something. If I saw some lights somewhere, I would think that there was a window. But nothing horrible thankfully.

“I was definitely seeing some hallucinations”

When you get tired on these long races, and start seeing stuff, it’s a good idea to take a 10 to 15 minute nap and then usually you’ll be ok.

How do you follow up something like the Ultra Gobi? Where do you go after a race like that? 

This Gobi Race took a lot out of me. It had quite a big impact on my life.

When you’re from a small country like Iceland, nobody has run this far in a race before. Like, in one go. So after the race, I didn’t really race. I was telling people about it. It was a long time before I could let go of the Gobi Race. I was still talking about it, and giving some talks about it, and I was really, really, tired. My feet were not ruined but I had to take a couple of months off. It took me a while to get back into going for new goals.

“This Gobi Race took a lot out of me. It had quite a big impact on my life”

My biggest race this year [in 2019] was the UTMB [Mont Blanc]. One day in the summer, I just woke up and had my motivation back. So I was able to really do well at UTMB. That was the only big race I did this year though. The Gobi Race takes so much out of you, it took me a long time to recover from it. And, of course, I have to balance these races with my full time job.

Do you prefer running in extreme conditions and environments?

I think it’s more interesting. I think if you can pick a race, or a goal, that is far away. And if you take it on, it should be something that really gets you excited and one that you think is really interesting. It shouldn’t just be any old race that everyone else is doing, it should be something that you find really interesting. If you have the time to prepare, it makes the whole process more fun. You have to think more about mental focus, more about having the right gear, you need to train and be smart about how you approach it.

I like challenges like the Ultra Gobi because you have to deal with more factors than just you and whether you can run fast. You have to have the right gear, and you have to push yourself.


Elisabet Margeirsdóttir is a 66° North ambassador and wears Polartec NeoShell.

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