A Runner Walks the Camino

I am in the midst of training for my next marathon in November.  I promised myself I wouldn’t complicate my training schedule this time by running lots of half marathons or taking a vacation where I couldn’t get in any training runs.  Then an opportunity landed in my lap, challenging my promise to myself.  A friend, Doro, told my husband she was planning to walk the Portuguese Camino alone.  When my husband heard this, he volunteered me to join her.  He knew I wanted to walk the French Camino route (also known as the French Way) but he didn’t want me to go alone.  Teaming up with Doro would enable me to walk a Camino route without him worrying about me.  

Before I agreed to this adventure, I checked with Coach Jenny, my running coach, for her approval.  A trip of nearly 3 weeks, 2 months before my race, would require some extra planning to ensure I was race ready.  Coach Jenny understands my desire for adventure and asked me a simple question: “How would you feel if you don’t go?”  That was an easy question to answer.  I would be kicking myself.  Who knows when the opportunity would come along again.  With that, I bought a plane ticket and started working on Camino planning.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Camino, or more officially the Camino de Santiago, it is a network of walking routes ending at the Cathedral of Santiago, Spain where the remains of St. James are located.  People have been making pilgrimages to Santiago for hundreds of years.  Because there are many routes that lead to Santiago, the symbol for the Camino is a scallop shell.  The most popular route (and the one depicted in most films about the Camino) is the French Way from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France.  It is also the longest route at 500 miles, over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain, and takes about 4 weeks to complete.  The Portuguese Camino route Doro and I took starts in Lisbon, Portugal, although we only officially walked the route from Valença, Portugal to Santiago.  Each route is marked by yellow arrows.  Pilgrims only need to follow the yellow arrows to reach the Cathedral in Santiago.

Each pilgrim carries a credential, a passport of sorts, they have stamped at various places such as churches, hostels, hotels, and restaurants that cater to pilgrims.  A pilgrim must walk a minimum of 100 kilometers from their starting point to Santiago without using any transportation (i.e., cars, buses, trains, planes) and have their passport stamped at least twice a day while traveling in Spain.  (Pilgrims are also permitted to travel by bicycle and horse with slightly different rules.)  When they arrive in Santiago, they visit the Pilgrim Office to present their credential and apply for a Compostela, a certificate of completion.  In 2018, 327,378 pilgrims were received at the Pilgrim Office in Santiago.  Of these, 306,064 completed the Camino on foot, 20,787 pilgrims completed the Camino on a bicycle, and an amazing 79 did so in a wheelchair.  Over 56% of the pilgrims came via the French Way and over 20%, the Portuguese route.

Our typical day involved getting up before dawn, quickly packing up our things, and heading out wearing a headlamp to light our path.  Buddhists speak about being in the moment and observing the world around you.  As I walked, I became keenly aware of the sights and sounds around me, like the sounds of roosters crowing, owls hooting, and the tip-tap of my hiking poles.  When the sun came up, we enjoyed breathtaking views of farmland and vineyards with their elaborate dry stack walls, stone houses, ancient Roman bridges, and quaint fishing villages. We walked through forests of eucalyptus and pine trees, along rivers where schools of fish swam and ducks frolicked about.  At the end of the day, we washed our clothes, and nursed sore muscles and blisters on our feet.  Seeing fellow pilgrims hobbling to dinner reminded me of what many runners look like after a marathon.

What pleasantly surprised me was the relationships we formed with other pilgrims we met.  Although everyone was on their own journey, we often encountered the same people each day.  We would share food and water with each other at rest stops.  One night when we stopped in Mos, Spain for the evening, I looked out on a plaza where pilgrims of several nationalities had gathered to relax after a difficult day hiking in the heat.  I watched strangers become friends as they talked, laughed, and enjoyed a beer or glass of wine, cooling off their feet in sandals, many with toes wrapped in band-aids.  It was everything the Camino began to mean to me – people coming together in a spirit of good will and friendship.  Indeed, over our last 5 days, Doro and I spent part of each day with a lovely family from Italy who I am happy to say are now dear friends.

Forging friendships with other pilgrims

I can’t tell you why I felt a need to walk the Camino.  When I learned about it several years ago, I knew it was something I needed to do.  I have watched several documentaries about the Camino, most of which followed pilgrims on the French Way.  I am not a religious person and neither were many of the pilgrims I met on my journey.  But in the high pressure world we live in today, I think we all shared a need to hit the reset button, to return to a simpler way of life, to examine what is truly important to us.  The Camino is an appropriate place for that.  Carrying all your belongings each day as you walk makes you aware of their weight, both figuratively and literally.  There were things I brought along with the belief they were critical to my success, yet I never needed them.  In hindsight, I would have gladly traded them for more protein bars or Q-tips (which I didn’t pack because I was worried about weight).  The contents of my backpack made me consider how important each item inside was to me.  It is a question I continue ask myself now that I am back home.  What is really important to me?

We finished our Camino with our new Italian friends in front of the Cathedral (photo credit to Andrea)

Each pilgrim experiences the Camino in their own way.  As a result what they take home when they finish is unique to them.  I am still processing what I discovered on my Camino and expect I will for a long time.  It was not only an adventure but also a personally enlightening experience.  While my marathon training may have taken a hit, I am glad I said yes to the Camino.

Interested in finding out more about the Camino?  Many people are familiar with the film “The Way” with Martin Sheen, a largely fictional account of a father completing his deceased son’s Camino journey.  I prefer documentaries and highly recommend these films:

“Life in a Walk” which follows Yogi Roth and his father as they walk the Portuguese Camino.

“Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago” which follows the journey of a group of pilgrims on the French Way.

“I Will Push You” – the incredible story of two lifelong friends, one of whom has muscular dystrophy and is confined to a wheelchair.  When he tells his friend he wants to go on the Camino, his friend agrees to push him on the French Way.  This is one of the most powerful stories of love and friendship I have ever seen and my favorite Camino story.