I did the camino… my way

“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.

Happy me just before reaching Santiago, with one of the infamous camino I’d been following for weeks.

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.

Day one, climbing up from St Jean Pied to Port to Orrison. Misty and murky. There were gales and snow to follow.

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.

Yellow arrows marked the way… but sometimes they went overboard!

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.

Some of the cool buildings along the way, this one in Pampalona.

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.)

Cool iron sculpture outside of Pamplona with the first day of sun on the camino.

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.

Was good to be reminded that I was sometimes in Spain. A good old fashioned protest in Logrono.

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.

Long beautiful, well maintained trails on the camino…. even though they were sometimes a little bit too long and well maintained.

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.

Best day’s mountain running – snow capped peaks and lovely heather at 1,550m.

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.

What kept me going on the camino. Lots of cafe con leche.

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.

Cool mountain village, O Cebreiro, on the camino.

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).

Before heading out of Burgos. The albergue was just beside the cathedral.

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.

Beautiful mountain running day on the Camine Frances, the alternate route coming out of Villafranca de Valcarce.

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.

20 thoughts on “I did the camino… my way

  1. Hi Moire. Great blog. Read this a while back when the Camino first caught my attention. Planning to run it in May for my 50th birthday 😀 provisionally 16 days but will just see how it goes – want to ‘experience’ it at the same time. How did you find the Inov8’s on Tarmac. I’m planning on wearing my trusty Salomon Speedcross but the amount of tarmac concerns me.

    1. Hi Richard, to be honest, you could probably wear road runners for the whole trail. There is nothing gnarly about it – all very well maintained. And yes, there is a lot of tarmac, especially in the middle. I always wear Inov8s, even on the road. It was more the long distance day-in day-out that caused blisters etc. In my experience, Salomon always has more cushioning that Inov8s anyway, so should be grand. The key thing is just having a light backpack – nothing worse than having something heavy weighing you down.
      Enjoy the run and the red wine!

      1. Thanks Moire. I’ve done several multiday events so know how to (hopefully) preserve my feet! I need cushioning for Tarmac so am hoping the Salomons will be OK. Got the typical ultrarunner’s collection of backpacks – it rivals my wife’s handbag collection 😉 – planning on being around 4kg plus water & day’s food.
        Looking forward to the wine 😀

  2. I understand that a good portion, more than 50% of the camino is pavement. Did you find that so? Did your body suffer more as a result of the harder surface?

    1. Yes Meg, a lot of the camino de frances is on pavement and tarmac. I think my body just suffered in general… from the tarmac, the bag, the long distances, the long flat parts. Though I was very glad I wore Inov8 running shoes and not boots – I think hiking boots would have killed me on those long pavement sections.

      Overall, I just made sure I did 30 minutes of yoga every evening when I got in. It kept everything stretched, stopped most pains, and I’d guess prevented most injuries. I would highly recommend it.

  3. Hi Moire ,Well done , thinking about doing the same in september, at the planning stage, i would be obliged if you could forward me any information in relation to this , particular hotel cost ,hostel cost easy or difficult in finding somewhere to stay when you arrive at your destination after each day , how regular is bag transfer, etc

    1. Best thing to do is to get a copy of A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Santiago (2012 edition) by John Brierley (ISBN: 978-1-84409-575-9): http://tinyurl.com/87tvqtc Inside he tells you where all the hostels are and what facilities they have. They also have maps inside to let you know where and how many hostels are in each village.

      In terms of bag transfer, I have no idea – I never used the service. However it seemed to be pretty easy to get as there were posters in most of the hostels advertising this.

      Other specific information I found from this forum: http://www.caminodesantiago.me/

      Best of luck!

  4. A nice report Moire. Its sounds very inviting (in parts). Other parts are just too flat and straight 🙂

  5. Fair play Moire. That’s incredible. I did a week or so on it years ago with some friends and loved it so much. Hoping to get back someday soon.

  6. Awesome! Sounds like you did a lot of km’s every day. You sure made up for not doing much trail running in Cambodia 🙂

  7. Love experiencing it through your words and great photos! You look refreshed and vibrant in every one–amazing considering the physical feat! When you write about the clearing of the mind it reminds me of my Nols trip in Alaska–I loved the completely blank mind that comes from the routine of the trail…soon soon soon I will get out there again! Until then keep writing so I can live vicariously!

  8. sounds like you had a blast – despite the blisters and little pains. and very much sounds like the way to do the camino!

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