Before I walked the French Way (Camino Francés), I knew two friends who walked the route just months before me. Lovely Jen walked in the spring of 2013 and spread her trip over 7 weeks, walking the extra 100km to the coast. Amigo Number 2 walked in the summer of 2013 and spread her trip over 4 weeks. They both very kindly gave me similar advice for my own journey:
- Pace yourself
- Your body gets stronger as you go
Different women, different trips, taken at different times of the year. There’s no comparison between them but they were the people I knew to walk it most recently so I couldn’t help but pitch myself against them in some way – rightly or wrongly.
I certainly wasn’t physically fit enough to follow in the footsteps of Amigo 2 – that would have meant walking 30km every day for 30 consecutive days, in 40 degree heat. (Celsius).
But I didn’t want to be away for 7 weeks, either. Somehow, it felt like just a bit too long for me. I had a strong inkling that I needed 6 weeks away so I was willing to heed that – but what amount of time *should* I have taken?
How long does it really take to walk 500 miles?
In the month before I flew, I scrambled around trying to get my gear together, while packing up a job, and saying goodbye to friends I wouldn’t see for a while. I clearly remember bumping into a former boss who, as it happened, walked the French Way years before me, over two summers.
How long are you going for?
I’m hoping to go for 6 weeks, all going well. (Inside, I realized that if I broke an ankle on Day 3 that would be the end of it, so I rarely spoke about what I planned to do but more so about what I hoped to do.)
Ah, you’ll do it in 5, he replied.
Without realizing it, he’d set a bar for me and I could feel myself rising to the challenge. From that moment on, I still felt I needed 6 weeks but silently hoped to “do it” in 5 weeks so I could fulfill that expectation.
Logically, I knew that he wouldn’t care how long it took me. I’ve never seen him since so it’s not like we’ve had that conversation where he might have quizzed me and judged me on my performance. So why did I care about fulfilling his expectations? I still wonder.
I booked a one-way flight to France and at the time, I didn’t have a return flight. I wanted to be sure I got over the Pyrenees alive and well. I wanted to be sure I really could walk for miles and miles, day after day, before I booked my return flight. So, flying on a one-way ticket was a prudent move in that regard. It also meant that I didn’t have the same pressure as other people around me to arrive in Santiago by a certain fixed date. In theory, I had all the time in the world. Husband encouraged me to walk comfortably and safely, and not worry about how long it took me. And because I’d resigned from my job, I couldn’t say that I had to get back to work by a certain date. True, the finances were carefully planned but I had a bit of wriggle room if I needed it.
I’m sure there were people who wondered whether my marriage with Handsome Husband was on the rocks after a few short months – after all, why else would I book a one-way flight to another country and leave him home alone for weeks on end?! If anything, Happy Marriage got stronger because of the camino experience, so I didn’t care what anyone else thought. Husband and I knew the real reasons for my walking and I had his full support. I didn’t need anyone else’s approval.
Himself and I were to celebrate our *first* wedding anniversary in early October. If I took anything longer than 5 weeks to walk, I would miss that special date. I felt I really, really needed more than 5 weeks, but was it right to celebrate our anniversary apart, with me rambling around in Spain?
I asked Handsome Husband what he thought.
Being the cool and unflappable guy that he is, he told me:
Don’t worry about the wedding anniversary – we’ll have fifty more of them!
And with that, he sent me packing!
We talked about maybe meeting in Santiago for the anniversary. Wouldn’t it be great to be reunited after all those weeks apart? Wouldn’t it be cool to be in a vibrant, colourful city? Wouldn’t it be a massive high for me to walk all that way to join him? There were lots of reasons why it was a great idea and the pilgrims around me latched on to the romance of the story.
Every time I’d bump into my new friends, they’d ask about Husband and our anniversary plans in a few weeks. And without realizing it, this was the raising of a second bar – another challenge to walk the 500 miles in 5 weeks.
I felt the pressure of it.
And honestly, that pressure followed me every day across Spain. Himself told me not to push myself to hurting, but I felt the pressure to get to Santiago by a certain date – and that depended on me covering an average of 25km every day, whatever the weather, whatever my physical condition. There was no wriggle room.
Separately, some of my camino friends told me I was too hard on myself and pushing myself too much. I didn’t agree. Some part of my psyche took over and my mission was one of endurance, not enjoyment. I wasn’t so happy with that attitude at the time. And yet, if I hadn’t been bull-headed and hard on myself, I’m not sure I would have made it to Santiago.
I wanted to walk it all. I didn’t want to take buses or trains to help with timekeeping or even with injury. I met people who took buses because of tendonitis and I thought they were being far too soft on themselves.
I wanted to carry my backpack myself. I didn’t want to avail of the mini bus services that carry backpacks for a fee. And in the meantime, my left arm went numb with the pain of carrying a backpack that just made me hurt.
I just wanted to “do it” a certain way, but there were times that “my way” was unforgiving on my body. I had limited patience for self-pity and pain, and I felt that the only way I would get to Santiago was to keep going – whatever the weather, whatever my condition.
So every day on Camino, I walked with a medium-to-high level of inflammation – all day, every day, for weeks on end. I woke to it in the morning, I walked through it all day, and fell asleep to it at night. Pilgrims around me took pain relief even in the early days. I never really considered taking anti-inflammatories until 200km from the end, when I reached a breaking point. By then, I’d done so much damage to my feet that there was no way I’d complete camino unless I had some medicinal support. By the end, I didn’t care how many horse tranquilizers I took – I just needed to keep going.
I felt the pressure to “do it” but I didn’t walk 500 miles in 5 weeks.
I did walk 500 miles in 6 weeks, and that included 4 rest days along the way.
I couldn’t compete with the people who walk it in a month. I couldn’t compete with the Brierley Brigade. I shouldn’t have tried to compete at all but I felt a judgement on my shoulder all the same – whether it was my own or someone else’s.
I didn’t make it all the way to Santiago in time for our wedding anniversary. I also didn’t fulfill the challenge my former-boss had unknowingly set.
And most of all, I didn’t walk at *my* leisure. I didn’t walk according to my body’s preferences. I walked 500 miles in five and a half weeks because my mind whipped me to do so. I walked it in this time because my spirit urged and pulled me on. I walked it in that timeframe because I didn’t know how to stop and I didn’t want to stop. I am proud of my walking but I pushed my body way too hard. A recent injury reminded me what it feels like to be in pain and inflammation every day. It’s not fun – and I did that to myself every day across Spain.
If I’d stopped every time I felt tired, or sore, or because I just felt like it, I think I might have needed more like 8-12 weeks to walk those miles. That would have been a more comfortable pace for me. That would have minimised the injury and inflammation. That would have been a very different experience – so different, that I can’t even imagine it.
How long would *you* need to walk 500 miles? How long would you need to *comfortably* walk them?
And what are your experiences of pushing your body too hard?