“So where have you flown in from?”, the woman beside me asked. I had just arrived in Dublin Airport and was heading straight home on the bus. “Spain”, I replied with a fleeting smile. “Were you working there?” she asked, idly making conversation. I thought the truth might shut her up. “No, I’ve just run 900km across Northern Spain”. “Oh”, she replied, before starting to tell me in great detail all about her own trip.
The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is an old pilgrimage route used during the medieval times. Though the starting points are various, all the routes convene on Santiago de Compostela, in north western Spain.
The most popular camino route starts from France in a small mountain town named St. Jean Pied de Port and travels west across the north of Spain. With its origin in France, this route is known as simply Camino Frances. And it was there that I started the Camino on Thursday 26th April.
I had read a lot before starting the Camino de Santiago de Compostela about how it should and shouldn´t be done. There was reams of information on what to bring, how far to go each day, where to start, where to stay. After suffering from a deluge of forum addicts´ opinions, I figured that I had to work out for myself what I wanted to get out of the camino.
I´ve been living in Cambodia for nearly the last 2 years. And though it has been a great experience, what with its flat terrain and hot weather, it´s not the most ideal place to do my sport of choice, ultra mountain running. So I wanted to get a detox from it all, and to do days on end of long distance running across hills and trails in a cooler climate.
I also just wanted to get away and think. Like everyone, I´ve questions about what I should do, where I should live, how should I be. I thought some time away on the camino might give me a chance to think about deeper things in life.
The guidebooks suggested that 33 days were sufficient to cover the 790km trail from St. Jean Pied to Port to Santiago, with distances walked each day ranging from 20 to 30 kilometres. I figured I could do more than that and budgeted 24 days. I also thought it would be nice to camp, to have a bit of space for myself. However the guidebooks didn´t sound encouraging. Camping spots looked far and few between along the trail, and it would have meant carrying a tent and sleeping mat in addition.
When it came to what to bring, I skipped that section in the guidebooks. I had enough experience of mountain marathons and backpacking to know what to put into my bag. I left out the walking poles, brought shoes instead of boots, and made sure that all my gear was ultra lightweight. (In a separate post later, I´ll write exactly what I packed.)
The first day I set out from St. Jean with the plan to go up and over the mountain pass and to stop in Roncevalles. I still hadn´t worked out how I wanted to do the camino. Was I going to walk it like most other people? I had already researched about running the camino and found numerous negative posts criticising people for hurrying through the experience. However I´m a terrible walker. I get bored and sore feet. And I hadn´t properly ultra run in nearly 2 years, ever since I arrived in Cambodia and came upon its hot, flat terrain. So I decided to take it as it came.
I planned to take the first day easy and to do the stage as advised. But when I got to Roncesvalles, 27km later, it was only 1pm. The hostel didn´t open until 4pm, and I was freezing from the cold and wet weather I´d encountered on the mountain top. My teeth had started chattering, so I decided to go on. I finally stopped after 46km of fun trail running. My plan to walk the camino was out the window as of Day 1.
And so it continued. The 2nd and 3rd days, I also covered around 45km of trail. It was only after the 4th day that I realised I hadn´t even gone a quarter of the way. And it was beginning to hurt. I kept on jogging the trail, walking when I felt like it, hurtling downhill when I could. And I figured that I was having too much fun going at this speed to care about what others thought.
There were other advantages too of jogging the camino in my way. It meant that I spent the whole day alone on the trail, which was perfect for me. Going at a faster speed than others meant that no one kept up with me. Instead I stayed in albergues (or hostels) in the evening, and made brief acquaintances then. Many on the camino remember it for the strong new friendships they make on the trail. I rarely met anyone twice, and thought this may seem antisocial, it was totally perfect for me.
The other advantage of running the camino was that I got into albergues early in the afternoon. Despite many saying that April/May are quiet months, it seems that rule is disappearing. Books and films have been made recently of the Camino. Europeans are seemingly holidaying closer to home. For these reasons, many albergues would be full up by the time it hit 4pm. I would therefore run from 7am to 2pm for around 40km, and stop wherever I had reached.
With all the time I had alone running on the trail, I thought I would solve all my worldly problems. However, instead of thinking through all my dilemmas, they simply seemed to go away. My head became clearer and clearer over the days, and I soon began to think of nothing at all. Maybe it was from exhaustion. Perhaps it was from being “in the zone”. Or maybe it was from all the red wine I was drinking in the evenings with my 10 Euro “menu del dia”. But I simply stopped wondering or worrying. Life began to just boil down to getting up, packing my bag, running, enjoying the trail, finding a bed to sleep in, eating, and doing it all again the next day.
Despite all the eating and drinking on the trail, I still also managed to lose weight. It took a few weeks to appear, but suddenly one day there was a mirror in the hostel, and I saw part of my stomach had fallen away.
But it wasn´t all wonderful trail running, gastronomic experiences, miraculous weight loss, and zen enlightenment. The camino hurt. First I got blisters, on my little toes first, then my middle toes, and then my heels. Then my calves began to hurt, then my shoulder, then my achilles. I permenantly patched up my toes and after a few days they were pain free. My legs never forgave me, and it was only after I religiously did 30 minutes of stretching every evening that I could face the next day. That and a few surruptious neurofene tablets to take the pain away. And then there were the bugs that were floating around the bunk beds. I woke one morning to the guy next to me coughing his lungs up. I picked up his sore throat, which became a cough, and then a runny nose. I made daily trips to the Pharmacia to pick up the next remedy.
I worried that my body would fall apart before reaching Santiago. I heard tales from other walkers of others who had succumb on the way. Some had gone home from bad blisters, tendonitis, colds that developed into lung infections. Some had refused to go home and took a bus every day to the next town, hoping that by having 24 hours rest they would be grand to go the next day. But in end, I made it, all in one piece and without taking a single lift. I got into Santiago on Monday 14 May, covering the 790 kilometres in 19 days (then went on to Finisterre and the Atlantic Ocean and added on another 100km).
There´s no right way or wrong way to do the Camino. I ran around 40km a day with a 7kg pack. I ran on my own. I slept in hostels at 5 Euros rather than 35 Euro hotels. I ate more than most. I drank far too much wine and enjoyed every drop. Others bike the Camino. Some bring along donkeys or their dogs. Most start from other towns closer to Santiago. Some do it on their own and make friends as they go along. Others do it with another friend or spouse and grow closer as a result. Some use hiking poles and sticks. Most wear boots. I saw two wearing vibram five fingers. Some do the camino all in one go. Others do it in stages and take a few years. Some take advantage of bag transportation services that are available on the trail.
Some are there for religious reasons. Others are there for fitness. I met one man fundraising for the hospice that looked after his wife until she passed away last year. One lady was doing it so that she would arrive in Santiago for her 40th birthday. An Australian I met was doing it because all his sons had done it. One American woman told me she was doing it to get an ass like J-Lo’s. One had read a book about it. Someone else had seen the film. One ex-US army guy I met had done the camino 16 years ago and wanted to do it again. Some kept a journal. All I could manage was a twitter. It wasn’t until I finished the camino that I felt like blogging about the experience.
The way I did the Camino was right for me. I got my time out. I got to do lots of running. I got to eat lots and lose weight. And I got to travel a world famous trail and to see Spain in a way that many can only dream of.