Over Christmas, my friend announced that she’s planning to run the London marathon in April. She’s running for a cause important to both of us: her mum passed away from breast cancer three years ago, the same cancer that took my own mum.
My first thought was extreme respect – running for 26 miles straight is no easy task! – but then I felt a little deflated. If I was ever going to run a marathon, this would be the race and the charity I’d choose, but there’s no way I’m in a fit state to entertain the idea.
But couldn’t I do something different instead?
Walk first, run later
Putting one foot in front of the other is something I’ve been doing a long time. Long enough that over the last few years I’ve begun to take more interest in the art of walking.
In South America, particularly, it was hard to avoid.
I hiked the Salcantay trail for three days to reach Machu Picchu in Peru; climbed down the bottom of the Arequipa canyon and back out again; and took part in a spiritual ceremony in Bolivia that required walking in a circle for eight hours under a full moon.
I also spent two separate occasions walking along the blockaded highways of Bolivia and Peru carrying most of my possessions due to transport strikes and belligerent locals. Not exactly the most joyous of walking experiences, but experiences nonetheless.
For most of these walks I started out with my usual array of fears. We’re talking heights, narrow ledges and the possibility of falling, coupled with general embarrassment levels of whether I’m actually fit enough to last the distance – and yet nothing significantly terrible has ever actually happened.
Interestingly enough, I’ve found that although I’ve inwardly balked at the idea of these walks/hikes/treks, every single one has left me feeling strangely exhilarated at the end. Giving me a sense of achievement which meant all the more because I never really expected to succeed.
So with that in mind, it’s about time I took things a step further. It’s time I listened to that small portion of my brain which has spent years deliberating over whether I can handle El Camino de Santiago this year.
So what’s the Camino de Santiago?
The Camino has been a pilgrimage route since the 9th century, when the remains of the martyred Saint James were reputedly carried from Jerusalem and buried in today’s Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia in northwestern Spain.
And for some reason, pilgrims have been walking The Way ever since.
There are a number of different routes, but the most popular, known as the Camino Francés, begins at the foothills of the French Pyrenees and ends at Santiago, Spain. That’s a distance of almost 500 miles, or 800 kilometres, across the entire width of the country.
Most ‘peregrinos‘ (pilgrims) who walk the Camino Francés take approximately four weeks, which evens out at 10-15 miles a day. But the beauty of walking a route like the Camino is there is no official schedule. As long as you’ve got your own time to spare, you can start walking from any place on the various trails and can take as long as you want on your journey.
The eventual aim is to reach Santiago’s cathedral, but apart from being stamped as an ‘official’ pilgrim once you arrive in the city, it’s not even obligatory to end in Santiago.
I’m not a religious person, but luckily religion isn’t a prerequisite for the people who walk the Camino.
Searching through the hundreds of online forums dedicated to the journey throws up a multitude of reasons for walking: a search for peace and enlightenment, the loss of someone close, getting closer to nature and more in touch with oneself, and the sheer challenge of it are all common reasons to walk.
And obviously a lot of people just want to get a bit more fit.
Why I think it’s a good idea to walk for a month straight
As for me, there’s a variety of reasons. First off, I really want to challenge myself with something – something big, something different to anything I’ve done before.
From what I’ve gathered, there’s a profound simplicity about the Camino which allows you to disassociate yourself from your normal life. My ‘normal’ currently means working for a masters degree, a cafe job, freelance writing and running this site, all set in the frenetic pace of London. Since moving back here, I find myself rewriting the same to-do lists into different notebooks yet never feeling like I’m getting anything done. A brain that’s constantly in ‘scatty and disorganised’ mode brings nothing but stress, and the idea of having nothing ahead of me but walking, thinking and more walking is like a breath of fresh air.
Mentally at least. I guarantee I’ll change my tune pretty quickly after the first blister.
I’m aiming to walk the Camino
in May, (update: I’ve had to change my plans somewhat so I’m now planning my Camino for September) which gives me eight months from January to prepare myself. In regular life, I’m not the most fit or active of people; I work from home, in a position so sedentary that my toes are perpetually cold, and my daily exercise involves whizzing a fitness hoop around my midriff and trying not to hit the sofa.
Prepping for the Camino means a lifestyle change – one that I’m more likely to adhere to as I have the compete fear of a month of walking at the end of it. There’ll be a lot of walking to and from university classes in hiking boots, weekends spent on more challenging hikes around England, and deliberations over moisture wicking shirts, zip off trousers and wide brimmed hats.
At the very least, it’ll mean less money spent on London transport, and more understanding of London’s streets; at the most, I’ll get the faintest idea of what it’ll be like to spend most of my waking moments walking.
Then there’s the travel aspect. I’ve long said I’m a proponent of slow travel – but then again, I took about twenty flights in 2014. While my ex-boyfriend often said this was a problem because of the air pollution factors (and he’d have a point), I think about it more in terms of being increasingly unable for my mind to digest those huge distances that my body travels on a plane. It’s like cheating on the travel experience.
With every type of transport I take, I eventually find myself staring out of the window at the scenery flashing past and imagining what’s going on in those places I’ll never get to see. Walking on foot is the slowest and most intense way to absorb the world around you, and doing so across the entirety of Spain is a challenge I’m totally fascinated by.
And let’s not forget it’s the perfect chance for me to keep up my Spanish skills by exploring the rural landscape, chatting to locals and translating those important looking signs along the way.
Jokes aside, I know that a walk of this magnitude is no easy feat, and I’m more than a little terrified by the prospect of doing this. But there’s got to be a reason why so many thousands of people attempt the Camino every year and love it, right?
My real reason for walking the Camino
As I said earlier, I’m not a religious person, but my mum was. At least until her first bout of cancer she was a Christian, and throughout her life she believed wholeheartedly in the goodness of people. I’ve been slowly dealing with her death for the last six years, much like my friend has with her own loss, and it’s high time I attempted to kick that cancer right back where it hurts.
So if my friend can mould her body and her mind into running charitably for 26 miles, I can do the same for walking. I’m attempting the Camino for my mum, and to raise money for Breast Cancer Research. I’ve set up a JustGiving page and though I’m not aiming for a particular amount, every bit obviously helps.
They say that the thoughts and conversations you have on the Camino stay with you forever. I know I can’t plan out what those will be, but I’m sure my mum will be a large topic regardless.
I haven’t yet decided if I want to blog daily about this journey – like Kim from So Many Places did – or if I’ll abandon the tech and go back to scribbling notes on paper each evening. I’ll work it out later. At the moment I’m veering towards the latter, and a chance to become completely absorbed in the Camino life.
But that’s for a later date. My major reason for announcing this challenge was to make sure I can’t back out – and also to ask for help. I need input from you guys!
Help me prepare myself! PLEASE!
Any good walking routes you know about in England that I should practice on? Tips for how to train, and what to pack? Those clever tricks for avoiding blisters? And if you’ve actually walked the Camino before then (at the risk of sounding like a fangirl) TELL ME EVERYTHING.
I’m a total newbie going into this, but I still believe I can do it.
I hope you guys have a bit of faith in me too.