Race Like a Viking – Vivian at Challenge Iceland 70.3

Challenge Iceland 70.3 – July 23, 2017

Race reporter Vivian 


The hashtag echoes the slogan, organizer and the weather on race day.

It really was a hella WOW viking race!  (the race is sponsored by WOW Air 😛 )


This is my first Challenge Family race, and I think I picked a special, iconic, extraordinary one – and indeed, quite a challenging one!
I chose to race in Iceland in order to honor my grandpa who was recently diagnosed with ALS.

I enjoyed this ‘most northern triathlon race in the world’ with its pristine and breathtaking views, and surely feel I have accomplished a mini-Norseman. Literally the last letter sent from the organizer said – you can think of this as a mini Norseman –  in order to remind us about the race conditions.

I had no particular target in mind this year except to enjoy myself and have fun with triathlon. I intend to settle in Europe for a while to gain experience for my long term career goal. While looking for the race of year 2017, I thought of Iceland because my cousin who dragged me into triathlon talked about going for this one in 2016. It was already a place I wanted to visit, so I thought it would be even more memorable with a triathlon race.

I was afraid to register because:

#1: not only it would be my first race in the cold, I come from an island where the average temp is about 31°, and it‘s not even 13° in the summer in Iceland!
#2: this time I would race alone  and had no training plan
#3: as a well-organized planning type, I wasn’t big on an event where almost everything was left to chance and I had no clue how to plan the trip
#4: all I had  was my willpower and persistence but what was eating me was the nervousness, the nervousness, and the nervousness………..



((just a quick look at where I used to be, heat and humidity, and most of the races in Torrid Zone where wetsuit – not allowed))


Conclusion : I must love my Grandpa very much in order to hit that ‘Pay’ button 








Okay, so I registered, and started to panic

LOL #1: the very limited information on the official website, the most complete information is the video (http://bit.ly/2hePF50)
LOL #2: everything is TBD or coming soon (ha.. haha.. not really funny lah..)
LOL #3: all I know is I will be doing a 70.3 distance in Iceland.. and thank god at least I know it will be on July 23rd, 2017. The website was not updated from 2016 so thankfully the race day was also July 23rd.
LOL #4: the race briefing…I was glad I was not a first timer.


I tried my best to find any picture or video on Instagram, forums, Strava, blogs (I almost posted on Quora) from the first edition of Challenge Iceland last year, in order to have a glimpse what I might be facing.  There were less than 90 people who participated last year, and  50% were Iceland locals. Eventually, I went for a quick visit in June. I tried to swim and run in Iceland a little bit only because I literally had no clue and I thought it might be the only way for me to feel a bit more calm, in terms of logistics, food resources and that frighteningly unpredictable weather.


The whole thing was very Icelandic in style until the last moment-

#1: the AIG came out a week before the race day… when everything you have to prepare was already set, and here was the information which people usually review and evaluate before registration LOL

#2: the race briefing was, hmmm very casual, and different: telling us everything we need to know was included in the AIG (yeah….. sure), oh but notice (pointing) that the security is the number one concern during the race:  first, during the swim, stop and wave if you need to (you can hold on the kayak and catch your breath once), be careful about bird attacks (there was an athlete who was driven off the road and badly injured by the birds, so protect yourself by keep your head down), and some more unusual signs, advice that I have never seen in the triathlon race before. Finally, the weather forecast in Iceland is simply a reference, it is unpredictable, so thank you for your attention, you may now leave with full confidence and awareness of the danger and beauty.

#3: to be continued.. (the swim plan B was.. 😉 )

12 hours before the race: (http://bit.ly/2tUJWHy) can I not feel nervous?

Race day, cloudy, chilly and WINDY! More precisely, it’s freezing for most of the people who don’t live here. (http://bit.ly/2tUNVUx) but no joke, it is happening >///<

Right before the race was about to kick off, the race director casually called for the last athlete’s meeting and Icelandically announced that the swim would  either be canceled or changed due to the strong wind and currents. They called for a vote! Who prefers cancellation? Who prefers a change? The majority went with the change of swim, and there were no complaints that we had to walk 1.5km to the start.

Swim start: it is definitely the first time ever I felt like I was in such a heroic and splendor scene of “the wind blows, the river freezes, the hero fords, never to return” (風蕭蕭兮易水寒,壯士一去兮不復還 by Jing Ke who was on a mission of assassination and failed in 230 BC (http://bit.ly/2uLkR0H)  accompanied by a young girl playing the bagpipe. Here are the faces before setting off into the water.  There was no excitement or that pump-up music like most of the triathlon races we’ve all been to. (http://bit.ly/2v9NWnl)

Even with the shortened swim (to 1.5km), it was not easier with the even lower water temp (8° where we started, where the melted glacier streamed into the  lake, then 10.5°, then 12° where we exited). The moment we started walking in, I could feel every single fiber of my body resist. My feet were frozen, my face was burned by the cold winds, and I felt strangled by the strap of the neoprene cap, I didn’t hear the gun I was so cold. The wind kept carving out waves making it difficult to breathe the whole way. I swallowed water more than 4 times, with that icy stream seeping through my throat into my stomach, I couldn’t stop the fear in this cold water, and I felt very lonely.


Side Bar /


Here is my experience of Cross Yellow River: (http://bit.ly/2he6kFY) great video as a reference of brutal water, exactly the year I was there (http://bit.ly/2vbZKpk).

They open the dam which causes the river to rise by 1.2m in Qinghai, 2200m altitude,  with the flow approx 3m/sec for the race, temp 3-10°, one lifeguard per swimmer.    

The Yellow River is China’s 2nd longest river and the 6th longest in the world- particularly known for its voluminous and strong currents. But out of the water we dress for summer, nothing compared to the winds in Iceland, and you can see how people dress from the picture below.

Oooops, sorry, back to Iceland.

 I swear (again), I swam for my life, the moment I saw the lonely banner flags by the shore I sang Hallelujah! Shivering from head to toe, but feeling thankful, the water was extremely tasty, the first time I was not thinking about detoxifying from the water. I drank XD and I was not the last one out of the water!!! (31:55)

While I was secretly singing the lauds for finishing the swim leg, which scared me the most, I went through the longest T1 ever, with all the triathletes in a mess, deciding how much and which clothes they should put on. Windproof jacket? Gloves? Sleeves? Extra leggings and socks, etc? The organizer kept reminding the triathletes to not worry about the time and to put on enough clothes for the bike. I was almost seized with a cramp in my leg while taking off my wetsuit and neoprene socks. My body wouldn’t stop shivering so I had to ask for a cup of hot tea, and my hands were numb so I couldn’t properly pull out the clothes I prepared in the bike bag. I hadn’t realized how long I had been in the zone until my Shanghai friend who happened to sit next to me was screaming: “oh my, 10 mins in T1, I must have set the race record!”

While she seemed to have a solid swim and she is usually top 2 as AGer in IM 70.3 races and used to be on a France cross-country national team in her teens, long story short, a very competitive triathlete especially in the run leg.

I finally made my decisions and ‘dressed up’ for the bike with a personal record at T1 (8:45)


With this T1 time I could have an instant noodle/nouilles instantanées as a reward… and believe me, I had a friend who was in swimming national team who did that because he was the first out from the water with big win.. LOL yes, in China.


An absolutely amazing scenery for the bike with conditions that I’ve ever faced before. Not that it’s not steep enough, not that it’s not cold enough. Besides the endless rolling hills that I can never stay in one gear for long, and my body was soaked with cold water, the over 100km/h winds came  from literally all directions.

The Pro Male Champion from 2016 and the overall first AGer out of the water were both literally blown off the road.  Here they are in the medical tent.

I was pushed across the road into the opposite lane several times, definitely a ‘breathtaking’ terrifying experience.  The scenery is way too attractive to distract you from the race.  It’s the first time I understood the rule of ‘no camera, smartphone, etc’ during the race.. You literally wouldn’t be able to stop yourself from capturing the gorgeous view. (1:46:41 45km)

Unfortunately, while fighting with the crazy winds, I had a small problem and slipped on the gravel (only glad it wasn’t lava stone).  My shoe un-clipped and my old injury on my left ankle took all my body weight to keep me from falling over. I had a much tougher second half on the bike, and a very painful half-marathon run.

What’s worse is a back pain came out of nowhere not too long after the turning point. The cold and wind aggravated the pain. But I still had energy, I was not tired yet, I refueled along the way. My back kept throbbing. I needed to ride with straight back and stretch swaybacked to make myself slightly more comfortable for few seconds. I was frustrated, every single pedal brought pain from my hips. Did I do something wrong while assembling my bike?   



Yes, don’t laugh. From the very first time I took someone’s dossard accidently and ran my first triathlon race, I had never known how to fully disassemble and assemble the bike, ugh.. and I had never changed a flat tire although I have the full kit in my tool bag.

I did have a test ride after I assembled it. The wheels stayed on and the handlebar was not moving.. .and the bike machinist charged me 2000isk to double check my work………

I really need to work on the riding position, perhaps?


I disappointedly finished my bike with a PW, insanely 20mins more during  the second half and I suffered badly from the pain, but undoubtedly, the magnificent beauty redeemed all. (3:45:26)

I smoothly got out of my shoes, but completely opposite from a ‘Hallelujah’ when my left foot landed on the ground, I was sure that certain content not appropriate for the children slipped out of my tongue.

A detour in T2 as the organizer insisted the triathletes change in the tent with the non-stop gale. I again felt cold by not pedaling anymore, but what’s more challenging this time is the swelling left ankle. I couldn’t put my left foot into my  shoe. The volunteer asked me if I wanted to go to the medical tent. I honestly wanted to, especially when I had to loosen the shoelace in order to tuck my left foot in. But I had already lost too much time. I had to start running. It was the first time ever I had to run with extra long sleeves and gloves. I almost changed my socks too..  The final battle to race like a viking, I stepped out of the changing tent. Another personal record in T2. (3:46)

In less than 400m, I sobbed with tremendous pain thinking,  just finish it. The power of the nature at Challenge Iceland is already the biggest self achievement.  Don’t worry about anything anymore, only some last hills and winds (still! can you believe it?) left out there. A Shanghai friend watching us on side gave me the last trace of drive: I had to keep going! Although it is as lonely as it was on the bike.  

I was barely running, not even close to jogging, with a decision to not look at my watch anymore. I moved for another couple hundred meters and the pain was so bad I was starting to rethink whether to finish or not. Another Shanghai friend who won overall female came in the other direction (about to finish). She yelled at me with her branded encouraging smile: c’mon vivi, c’mon, you that vivi!



I couldn’t give up!

I already conquered the wavy icy water, furiously crazy gusts of wind, I couldn’t give up at this point.

I think this is how I’ve been with the sports since I was a little girl. I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists with full determination to carry on. I can’t recall anything on the run anymore except to keep myself moving and not stop. This is also the first time I didn’t look at my watch the whole way until I got the last loop band with 3km to go thinking where am I? what time is it? I don’t see many people anymore, etc. mince! No matter how difficult it was, I can’t have another record finishing 70.3 with more than 7 hours! I started to run, I tried, I felt effin painful, I ran, I tried, it’s effin painful ahh, I tried to run, and I finally see that red arch dancing in the wind (yes, still windy, it’s the word of the day), I sprinted, I sprinted, the first time in Challenge Iceland I cared about the numbers on the clock, I sprinted.

I finished, I failed in my last approach. 7h00m56s, another personal worst of all time. LOL


I didn’t have any tears in my eyes, but a fathomless feeling from the bottom of my heart.

I wasn’t upset about the performance, I wasn’t thinking about the pain, I wasn’t happy about WOW what a girl, you made it!              

But something else…like that beautiful bagpipe, lingering in the air..


p.s. 1 Grandpa was misdiagnosed by certain misleading symptoms, although it is still an incurable disease after all, at least it’s been in the sphere of public knowledge. God bless him
p.s.-2 the awards ceremony and after party was very, Icelandic as well 😉
p.s.-3 how bad was the ankle one day after the race, with the finisher medal as proportional scale
p.s.-4 Icelandic way of dress-up: warm knitting hat with Oakley sunglasses (even at 12am), warm scarf and The North Face summit series protect you from the wind, while 2XU compression leggings brings you a better recovery and the ballerina woolen leggings keep you warm, the beach sandals are considerable when you can’t fit your feet into the over-ankle shoes anymore.




The following days after the race were sunny, sometimes cloudless, but still windy (!) as you can tell from the picture with an Icelandic beer reward.

In order to not break the record for the length of a race report, I decided not to continue with stories from my post-race trip in Iceland, LOL, although the journey isn’t over, I am still sifting through the emotions. Lots of thing went completely south for me, and I in turn was broken. But every moment before, during and after has been full of richness and laughter and growth and moments in life I wouldn’t change for anything.

What I’ve taken away is so much more profound.

photo/video credit: Arnord Bjornssen, Runar Andrew, Katrine Amtkjaer, Marco Muhlnike