Tessa Strain paid a visit to the Utiliv Adventure Festival and found the Faroe Islands to be a trail running paradise
Rugged, remote and – let’s be honest here – difficult to place on the map, the Faroe Islands aren’t a common destination for trail runners. But they absolutely should be. The Faroes are an archipelago of 18 islands located between Norway and Iceland, about 200 miles north-east of Scotland. They combine to create a stunning wilderness of steep grassy hillsides that plummet into sea cliffs without warning – think Torridon in Scotland on steroids. Possibly it’s that off-the-radar status that makes them such an attractive destination – not only can you go hours without seeing a soul, but you wonder whether anyone has ever been there before. It’s tough, it’s brutal, it’s wild, but it is also a trail running paradise.
Útilív Adventure Festival
The idea to hold the first ever trail marathon in the Faroes came about in late 2017 when Theo Larn-Jones (organiser of Love Trails Festivals) visited the islands and wanted to share the stunning scenery with other trail runners. Together with Sarah Pritchard and local mountain man Hans, they set about organising the Útilív Festival. Not content with just a race, they put on a four-day programme in early September 2018, full of activities for mountain lovers and runners to enjoy.
Things kicked off on Thursday evening when reps from Silva UK organised a guided run up Slættaratindur, the highest peak in the islands at 880m. This was well worth the steep climb as the carpet of night-time clouds rolled in against the sunset colours. For those wanting to save their legs, wild swimming and hot tub relaxation was also on offer. Friday was a more relaxing film night, with local stories of sea stack climbs, and swim-runs between islands.
Saturday was race day, with early starts for the two longest course distances (the 65km and the 42km). Both started on the black sand beach at Laynar on the west coast of Streymoy, the largest of the islands. There was a very short road section before passing the first aid station. This one was truly unique as it was run by a local Michelin-starred restaurant. I confess that my concern for surviving the next five hours outweighed the intrigue of testing out the local delicacy, but fellow runners vouched for its quality.
Straight after that first-aid station, the real terrain started. Although the whole festival has a very relaxed feel, these races shouldn’t be underestimated. They’re as tough physically as many on the SkyRunning circuit, but you’re certainly rewarded for the effort. Early morning cloud inversions sit in the hollows with jagged peaks cutting through – a camera really should be on the mandatory kit list.
Both the marathon and ultra-marathon pass through the village of Saksun about two thirds of the way through. It’s on the banks of the long fjord here that the 21km and 13km races start. There was a warm welcome from the local scout and guide groups, who had also produced an incredible spread of home-made cakes. Just what was needed to get over the sting in the tail – the 600m climb that stood between Saksun and the finish at Tjørnuvík.
Every step in the Faroes is hard-fought, and the final descent was no exception. Tricky, steep and rocky; lovers of Lake District fell races would do well here. But if you can stumble to the finish
line then hot tubs, beer and delicious homemade soup await.
The infectious positivity of Theo and Sarah comes across in the atmosphere at the finish line, with every runner cheered in for many hours after the winners had finished.
Once you’ve put your running shoes away, there’s so much more to discover. You could calm down a little and experience the amazing birdlife that lives on the island or, for something a little livelier, the festival offers an after-party that starts in Tórshavn and continues in an on old wooden schooner boat that sets sail from the harbour. And, if you have any energy left, why not try a touch of coasteering, sea-kayaking, or beach cleaning?
It’s an amazing run and experience that truly should feature in your trail running calendar for 2019. The second Útilív Adventure Festival will take place from September 4-8 2019. If you’ve ever wanted to run in this landscape, that’s the way to do it.
See utilivfestival.com for more.
Plan your trip
How to get there
Atlantic Airways fly direct from Edinburgh to Vágar airport, which takes approximately 90 minutes. There are also connections via Copenhagen with Scandinavian Airlines and Atlantic Airways.
There are good bus and ferry services around the islands, but hiring a car is recommended if you want a bit of flexibility to explore. All transport is arranged for the Útilív Festival activities.
When to visit
Tourist season may be an exaggeration, but the longer days between April and September maximise the potential for adventure. The climate is more stable than you would think all year round, dropping from an average of 13°C in summer to 3°C in winter due to the jet stream. The cliché of all seasons in one day is very appropriate for the Faroes at any time of year.
Where to run
The trail to Sørvágsvatn (the lake balancing on the top of the sea cliffs) is a perfect recovery run after the
Útilív Festival, only a short distance away from the airport. If you fancy extending your stay longer, then the
visitfaroeislands.com website has many hiking and trail running suggestions. Do prepare for the conditions and be mindful of private land.
Where to stay
Tórshavn is the place to be for the Útilív Festival, as this is where the buses leave from and the parties happen. There are plenty of options from hostels or hotels to a campsite near the hot tub and wild swimming spots.
Where to eat
Tørshavn has the full range of cuisines on offer, but while you’re in the Faroes you’d be silly not to try the fish. Etika Sushi and the Barbara Fish House are highly recommended, the latter especially for its blue mussels.
Where to drink
The Útilív Festival after-party starts in the Mikkeller microbrewery in Tórshavn and continues on a boat!