by Chris Burkard
November 13, 2020
The latest installment in Medterra’s “Live Harder” series: Stories that illuminate our mission to empower our community – from elite athletes to regular folks – to pursue their dreams and live pain–free.
Eight days, more than 600 miles of primordial Icelandic wilderness, bicycles weighing 100 pounds, countless river crossings and no guarantees. When Chris Burkard calls and asks if you want to go for a bike ride, be advised; it might not be your typical Sunday cruise.
This past August, Burkard and three friends attempted to establish a new mountain biking route across some of Iceland’s most wild and remote landscapes. Their goal? The first ever east-to-west crossing of Iceland by bike.
Burkard is no stranger to adventure in Iceland, with over 40 trips to the Land of Fire and Ice under his belt. But this trip would be like no other; a new route full of unknowns, and only one way to find out if it was even possible. And with that adventuresome spirit, Burkard and his team joined up in Iceland, assembled their bikes, and cast themselves into the unknown.
Thanks to their meticulous planning, fortuitous weather, solid team chemistry and sheer determination, the mission was a success! (Check out the trip track and stats here) But beyond the eye-popping statistics and imagery, Burkard also returned to share why he believes confronting hardship and the unknown is requisite for finding lasting inner peace.
Today, the California native hardly needs introduction. In the past decade Burkard has become a globally-recognized figure outdoors and adventure travel, with over 3.6 million followers on Instagram alone. With roles like senior staff photographer at numerous surf outlets, motivational speaker, global adventurer and author – to name but a few – he has grown his personal brand to dizzying heights. But as a dedicated family man and father of two, balancing all of these interests can be a challenge, even for the most organized and energetic.
But, according to Burkard, it’s thanks to — not in spite of — these challenges, that he’s found his greatest fulfillment and inner peace. Those long days on the trail and in the elements are precisely the fuel he needs to be his best self, both on the road and when he gets back home.
Since I started my career, all I have wanted is to go to more and more remote places. I grew up on the central coast of California, where remote beaches and solitude are your best friend. You learn to be comfortable roaming alone on the beach, instead of being surrounded by tons of people all seeking the same thing. I have found that for me, and maybe this applies to everyone, if we are living too far inside our comfort zone, then we aren’t really living. Living right on the edge is where we learn the most about ourselves.
There is nowhere else in the world that offers the variety of geography in such a small area, so that was really the draw. We wanted to experience as much as we could in a short amount of time by bike.
The trip itself came together really naturally. I had been talking with Eric Batty about his winter fat bike expeditions; I was blown away by the stuff he was doing and wanted to find a way to ride together. He knew I had spent a lot of time in Iceland and knew the country well. He was planning a trip with his sister Emily and her husband Adam, and when I told him about this new route I had been exploring, they were in! Such a cool and beautiful marriage of passion and strengths that brought the team together. I feel like we all really complimented each other.
For food it was a bit tricky. You only pass two gas stations and one grocery store the whole route, and those on the first day and the second to last. So the majority of the time there is nothing. We wanted this to be self supported so we brought 25 lbs of food to be safe. Ultimately we went 6 days without a resupply which was pretty wild. The trail food did get a little old though, hah!
As for shelter the route was designed to stay in a series of mountain huts that were perfectly divided day by day. It broke up the distance perfectly, but we knew that we couldn’t rely on those huts if a bad storm moved in or we had to wait out a swollen, impassable river. So we brought Black Diamond expedition tents to use just in case. We only ended up using them the last night of the trip mainly because we got such killer weather the whole time.
To be honest every single day had a moment like that. Where we just didn’t know what was going to happen with the weather or with the river crossings. There was a lot of anxiety each night when it came to making route decisions. But honestly the group brought so much to the table in terms of cumulative experience that anytime I felt concerned or worried they helped reassure that it would all work out, which was rad. It really became a beautiful exercise in trust. Overall I just would remind myself that every situation, I was prepared for.
The most memorable was also the hardest: passing over the gnarliest river on the north side of the Hofsjökull Glacier. Once past it, which was crux of the route, we all felt kind of invincible. We realized in that moment that the worst was truly behind us and we just started to really enjoy the other little challenges along the way. It was a really special moment to be able to get beyond that.
It was kinda surreal to be honest, it felt fake. There were tourists there and just people kinda scoping out the birds and the cliffs. To pull up on bikes was a trip. A few people recognized us from social media and that was pretty rad but overall it was this sort of quiet, contemplative experience I really loved looking at the crew, looking at the bike; just taking it all in felt special. Iceland is funny, the furthest west and furthest east both felt super unique. They both kinda struck me as these special locations. I felt sort of out of body to finally be there.
Physically, the worst part was the fatigue. I was worked at the end of the trip, both mentally and physically. I just could not recover, and I was in need of sleep and a lot of food. The other big challenge was the intensity of the anxiety each night. We needed to make decisions that would affect our whole trip, and sometimes we knew very little about what the day would bring. I started to get pretty sleepless toward the end, and that took a toll.
Honestly the team got pretty worked. Pushing these heavy bikes works a totally different muscle group so recovery was constantly on our minds. I used Medterra CBD cream every night on my knees, and sometimes wrists and back depending on how rough the trail was. It was kinda weird going to bed at the end of the day feeling tension in places I had never felt before from riding a bike.
I totally feel that way. It’s funny though, life goes in seasons and if there is one thing I have found is that balance is never a real thing we achieve. Life moves in rhythms, sometimes they undulate a ton and sometimes that are tiny waves we barely see. I know that some years and projects require more time away from home and others are very chill. I try to make that time at home as meaningful as possible so I can give 110% on the road. I know that my kids appreciate my passion for what I do but also require my full attention, so I really try to give that to them when I’m back.
The training for this type of stuff is a full time job and afterwards I just get worked and need some time to “fill my cup”. Ultimately, the way I see it is that I need a toolkit that I can rely on to get myself healthy and happy; to get myself back to a creative place. That is always the goal: finding your zen amongst chaotic times. When I am home I really focus on resetting myself and achieving homeostasis before I can be truly ready for another trip.
“I need a toolkit that I can rely on to get myself healthy and happy; to get myself back to a creative place. That is always the goal: finding your zen amongst chaotic times.”
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