Iceland’s Church Run

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by Rebecca Maybury

As most readers will understand, runners have a slightly warped definition of the word “vacation.” This is precisely how I found myself awake hours before dawn on Boxing Day during a recent family holiday, about to embark on a 14.5 kilometre run around Reykjavik, Iceland.

In the spirit of inclusion, I had invited the entire family to join me, but only one showed even the slightest enthusiasm. As the rest slept off the overindulgences of the previous few days, my cousin Matthew and I zipped across the frozen Icelandic tundra in our rental car. Destination: Seltjarnarneskirkja, a church sitting atop a hill on the outskirts of the capital.

Since the early 2000s, Trimmklúbbur Seltjarnarness—the oldest running club in Iceland—has established a Boxing Day tradition in the form of their Kirkjuhlaup (“Church Run”). While the city sleeps, those still capable and willing to attempt moderate exercise don their high-visibility cold weather running gear for a free, social 14.5K running tour of the small city. The mission is to run past 14 churches, chapels and places of worship, before returning to Seltjarnarneskirkja for hot chocolate and cookies.

Minister Sr. Bjarni Þór Bjarnason kicked off proceedings with a short festive greeting and hymn. With the striking of the last chord, the congregation of carol singers morphed into a stampede of runners and thundered off through the icy streets toward the city centre.
Stops included the imposing Halgrímskirkja and nineteenth century Reykjavik cathedral, but some were more niche: The Chapel of Fridrik (who founded Valur FC, a local soccer team) as well as the Theology Department of the University of Iceland. To stretch the concept further still, we visited a plot of land that will one day see the construction of a temple dedicated to the Nordic Gods Odinn and Thor.

In the early days, the Kirkjuhlaup was a small affair exclusive to club members, but since 2010 it has been open to the public and is growing each year. At the most recent run, there were nearly 500 participants, including the President of Iceland himself!

The Church Run is worth remembering if you ever find yourself in Iceland’s capital city over Christmas—particularly if your definition of vacationing is similar to mine!

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