On the third day of her walk, a very fit friend (a woman who swims two miles at a time, runs five miles home after a 10-hour work day) said, “I hope you will tell your students the Camino is very physical.” So now you know. Your walk will be as difficult as it is ordinary. People walk all the time; still, it’s difficult to walk between 9 and 20 miles (15 – 30+ km) every day for up to 40 days, even more. But, if you are in reasonably good physical condition and you prepare well and you take care of yourself (and others) along your Way, you will do fine. At 482 km into her Camino one student wrote, “Even on the hardest and most physically grueling days I feel an overwhelming sense of contentment to be here.” (That student took rest days here and there. You might also.) But sometimes “grueling” can mean real suffering. Another student, when he was three days outside of Santiago, wrote about people in his “herd” (the group he found himself in step with): “Claudia, a Spanish girl, has been forced to take a bus due to a mixture of tendonitis and infected blisters. Lara, a stubborn Irish girl I met my second day in Roncesvalles, has blisters all over her foot. Young and proud, she never complained once. Fifteen minutes ago, she broke out in tears across the room from me. Her feet are covered from toes to heels in blisters ranging from a popped cavern of skin under her left toe, to a pus filled infection oozing from the right side of her right heel… I never expected that I would have to see my friends, my fellow pilgrims, suffer much more than I have.” Again, all you can really do is prepare well and take care, rely on others for help and comfort, pay close attention to your condition in all its specifics, seek medical assistance when needed, and remember that the word suffer means, at its root, to allow. Lara’s tears were probably, at some level, a recognition of where she was, a realization that right now she had to live through this.
Useful books: Kelly, Camino de Santiago: Practical Preparation and Background, and Nilsen and Dedman, Your Camino. (See the “Resources” page.)
We’ll spend a lot of time on this excellent, packed paragraph about training:
As you train, monitor three different areas. First, and most obvious, track how much distance you can cover comfortably, how your body responds to breaks, and what kinds of food provide you the energy you need. Second, keep a close eye on your feet, watching for blisters and other hot spots. Your goal here is to gradually build up calluses to help prevent blistering on the camino. Third, test your gear and clothing, making sure your pack fits properly, the weight is manageable, and your clothes don’t chafe. (from Perazzoli and Whitson, The Northern Caminos)
The most important practical matter is that you start walking a lot. A lot! Start gradually but add distance sooner than later. Don’t take the buses from downtown to campus; most of you should be able to comfortably walk that distance by mid-quarter, if not sooner. (You just have to get up earlier, which is another practice you will need in your repertoire while on the Camino.) Start walking good distances no later later than the first week of the winter quarter; earlier is better. On El Camino you will generally walk day after day after day. Whenever it is practicable, learn right now what that “day after day” is really like: take a nice long walk one day, enjoy the solid night’s rest that will be your reward, then wake up and go for another long walk the next day. Buy your shoes and socks (see below) early and walk to break them, and your feet, in. And, as soon as possible, begin walking with weight: Fill your pack, add weight to the pack gradually, along with adding distance to your walks; learn how to adjust the pack (most modern packs have many, many points of adjustment); walk on sidewalks, rural roads, trails, rocky paths, beaches. (Beaches: If you walk on a lot of beaches–the coastal route in Portugal, El Norte along the northern coast of Spain–the cant of the beaches can disable you. The solution: Walk backwards sometimes. Helpful hint: walk with a friend and take turns walking backward.) If you get blisters during your training, be thankful that you have the opportunity to learn how to treat them. (For which, see http://www.peterrobins.co.uk/walking/blisters.html among many other helpful advice sites.) Remember that a blister is actually a burn and must be treated, and respected, as a burn and not just a “sore.” A blister will eventually become a more or less open wound and, as such, a route for infections. Take care, monitor closely and, when possible, keep walking (but, again, “track how much distance you can cover comfortably”).
In 2016, the class heard from the College’s women’s basketball coach. She advised incorporating into your training some running and circuit training in the gym. She said that “before the game, you have to push yourself beyond anything you will ever encounter while you’re in the game. Then you’ll be ready.” Think on that.
Good general advice: Eat well, stay healthy, smile more. Be sensible, in both senses: pay attention to what your senses are telling you about your condition and don’t be foolish. (Another student wrote to say he took better care of himself on El Camino than he ever did in Olympia. You probably will too, but you can start taking better care right now, just after you push away from the screen and stand up on your own feet and remember where they are going to take you.)
Shoes: The most important decision you’ll make is what shoes to wear. I met a German pilgrim who walked in flip-flops and white Crocs. (He wore his nice new hiking shoes for 20 km on his first day and gave them up.) REI recommends “trail running shoes” for hiking; making them as waterproof or water-resistant as possible is good. But most people choose a fairly sturdy hiking shoe. Waterproofing is useful. Regardless of the shoes you choose, break them, and your feet, in. (In 2016 I wore broken-in hiking boots most of the time and well worn trail running shoes the rest of the time. Both pairs wore out. I also carried very light sandals [Xero Shoes] for end-of-day, in-town wear.)
Socks: Do not walk in cotton socks. Many people wear two pairs of socks: thin, water-wicking “sock liners” and wool socks over that. This scheme sometimes reduces blisters because the liner sticks to your foot and the over-sock sticks to your shoe and the two socks rub against one another instead of your shoe rubbing against your padded-by-one-sock skin. (“Wrightsock,” a brand name sold at REI, combines liner and a synthetic outer sock into a single sock. This is not a recommendation, just a mention.) As you begin walking in your chosen socks and shoes, pay very close attention to how your feet feel. Examine them closely after every walk (and during the walk if anything–any little tiny thing and any thing of any other size–asks for your attention). Use a mirror so you can survey your whole sole. Wash your liners every day. (Some people change their liners and/or their socks at mid-day so they have two, or more, pairs to wash at night.) Wash your wool socks often.
Clothing: Quick drying material for pants, wicking “tech” material for everyday shirts, layers of wool, if you can afford it, for warmth (e.g., t-shirt, long-sleeve shirt, light fleece jacket), rain gear (e.g., light rain jacket or poncho and rain pants), hat (for both sun and rain protection).
Pack: Most modern packs are fully adjustable. Experiment with how your pack rides on your hips, shoulders and back. Seek advice from others, including the College’s Recreation Center. Your pack will need rain protection, either from your poncho or from its own rain fly. Most walkers use the general guideline that your pack, loaded with everything except food and water, should not exceed 10% of your body weight. Lighter is … wonderful.
Sleeping bag?: A decision to make. Most are heavy and most of the time you will be sleeping in albergues, pilgrim dormitories, where paper mattress covers and blankets (but almost never sheets) are typically provided. Many walkers carry only a sleeping bag liner (silk will provide an extra measure of protection against bed bugs) or a light “sleep sack” (a sleeping bag rated for 50-55 degrees F).
Bed bugs: You should also take a few easy minutes to learn about bed bugs and what to do in case you learn about them the hard way. And, with regard to all practical matters, keep in mind that the hospitaleros in albergues, the convents and monasteries, and other pilgrim dormitories have seen your problems hundreds of times before and can help. Smile, ask.
Electricity: Europe uses 220v electricity. If your appliances (especially phones, etc.) can adapt themselves to that voltage (most can, but read the fine print) all you will need is a “southern European” adapter plug ($2 – $4 at Target and elsewhere). Most businesses, bars and restaurants and some albergues have wi-fi (pronounced “wee-fee”). Check for any extra fees imposed by your data plan for travel outside the U.S.
Rain Gear: Did you read a little too quickly through the part about rain gear? Have a look at the annual rainfall in Spain.
The rain in Spain falls mainly in Galicia, especially on Santiago and Finisterre. (If the rain in Spain ever falls in the plain, like the old song claims, it’s because the winds off the Atlantic blow it there from Galicia.) That dark blue in the northwest corner of Spain indicates 2500+ cm of rain each year, almost 100 in.; not quite as bad as Forks, WA, but wet. The north coast of Spain, along which runs the popular Camino francés as well as the “northern caminos,” is just a little less wet than Galicia. Dress for rain and enjoy the sun. The good folks at Pilgrim House in Santiago (19 Rua Nova) said there’s a good way to predict the weather there: “You flip a coin. If it comes down, it will probably rain.” But it can be exceedingly beautiful there too. You can get historical averages in monthly weather calendars at many weather websites, including Weather Underground.
Thus says the Lord:
“Stand by the roads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls…”
Jeremiah 6:16, ESV
(Be sure to read on to see what the people said to Jeremiah. You probably know the prophets didn’t get much respect.)