To me, running and backpacking has always been inseparable. Beautiful children, I could never devote enough attention to. I use running to get in shape for backpacking and thru-hikes, while using backpacking and thru-hikes as a way to reflect, recharge and get ready to take on running PRs. With the threshold between fast packing and ultra running being as elusive as it is, it all seems to make sense.
Around 10:15 PM on July 4th, 2018, 8k away from the waterfront, I realized that I would have to start running. You see, two Czech ladies I met in the town of Caldes de Reis were travelling ahead of me by bus, and offered to book an extra hostel bed for me, along with staying up late to let me in. Quite nice of them, since I was attempting to cover the 85k between Santiago de Compostela and Finisterra in one day. Not wanting to make my Slavic pilgrim brethren wait any longer, I broke into a slow-but-steady 9 minute-per-mile jog, burdened only by my eight-pound ULA CDT backpack and the fatigue from having hiked for almost 17 hours already.
My efforts paid off. When I stumbled into town, Iva and Zuza were waiting for me with a bottle of cold white wine and a chocolate mouse with a birthday candle. The day after Independence Day is my birthday, and Camino pilgrim feelings run deep. I had possibly the best birthday experience ever, combining an endurance feat, good people, food, wine and a general atmosphere of celebration and euphoria.
I enjoy endurance. Running and backpacking are my favorite. After a couple dozen marathons and ultras, having thru-hiked (completed the entire route) the Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails, along with the Camino Frances I still want more. This may sound a little entitled, but my Czech friends’ awesomeness, while very much appreciated, did not come as a surprise. I have gone out of my way a few times giving away food, gear or clothes of my back to other thru-hikers or pilgrims. People are nice on long distance trails. It’s a weird parallel universe.
This time, I was walking the Camino Portugues. All Camino trails lead to Santiago de Compostela in Northwestern Spain. In 2017, I walked the Camino Frances, from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in Southern France to Santiago, then to Finisterra, the last bit being a usual addition to reach the Atlantic Ocean. This year, after covering the distance from Lisbon to Santiago in 19 days, I needed a good last hoorah. The Portuguese route was a bit different from what I expected, not precisely my jam.
Camino Portugues is routed mostly on a highway, at least between Lisbon and Porto. In fact, most people walk only the 250km between Porto and Santiago. I ended up walking about 740km altogether, including the final, ultra-distance push to the Atlantic.
The Camino routes, about half-dozen of them, started as a Catholic pilgrimage, offering an opportunity to see relics of St. James at the Santiago Cathedral. I am far from being religious, not even spiritual, but the mass at the cathedral, with the botafumeiro, a gigantic incense thurible, swung around by burly clergy members, is an interesting cultural experience. Beyond any spiritual aspects, the Camino is a great fastpacking opportunity.
Along the way, albergues (hostels)offer affordable, if Spartan accommodation. Fifty person bunk rooms with communal showers and restrooms are standard. After a while, you get used to that, expecting to pay only €5 per night to slumber with a gaggle of other human beings in the same room. The Portuguese route had less infrastructure, in particular, fewer albergues. Often, I had to splurge on €25 per night hotel rooms, or needing to hike longer, in order to find a place to stay. The sole bright spot in the accommodation situation in Portugal was the opportunity to stay with firefighters. Fire departments along the Camino have historically offered to house pilgrims on their way north. I had a wonderful time with the Bomberiros (Portuguese for firefighters) in Provoa de Santa Iria, 27km north of Lisbon. That evening Portugal played Spain in the World Cup, which, of course, was cause for celebration. João Pequeño, a chef by training, who moonlights as a volunteer firefighter, prepared a smörgåsbord of local delicacies. We feasted on all sorts of delicious meats and seafood while drinking local beer in from of the station’s big-screen TV, screaming “goooooooaaaaal!”, whenever the home team scored.
Most of the ancient Roman road from Lisbon to Porto became a modern highway. Walking on it was scorching hot and brutal, with the heat radiating from the asphalt, making me feel like I was walking through a convection oven while keeping a vigilant eye out for approaching cars and trucks. Let us live dangerously, why not. I enjoy a challenge, so covering up with a windshirt, hat and buff, hydrating and slathering on sunscreen became a habit.
The way became better after Porto. More albergues, more restaurants that offered a pilgrim’s menu (two courses of food, bread, wine and dessert for a scouring €12), more pilgrims to share your Camino experience with. My buddy Edwin, a scientist, visiting Europe for a conference in Germany, joined me for the final 150km of the way to Santiago in the town of Ponte de Lima, just south of the border with Spain. Together, we crushed some miles, making friends along the way. People from all walks of life, aged 18 to 80 come together on the Camino. Everyone seems to have at least one thing in common – a love for endurance. That and the willingness to celebrate their achievement upon arriving in Santiago. Edwin and I, along with a couple dozen other pilgrims had a great time toasting our arrival in Santiago with local wine on the steps of the Seminario Menor albergue. It is an old monastery dormitory, converted to house pilgrims. Best view of the city from those steps, really. I conceived my plan to walk to Finisterra in one day there.
Edwin was departing for London, en route back to Portland the next day. Iva and Zuza from the Czech Republic would get me into an albergue at the end of the day. Wojtek and Julia from Poland, along with Kelsey from Arizona made plans to meet me in Finisterra from a birthday beer. Everything was good to go, all I had to do is walk. No need to carry much food – I would be able to buy what I needed from cafes and grocery stores along the way.
I dragged myself out of bed the next morning at 5 AM, determined to start walking before 6. Slowly, but surely, I crept out of Santiago, as the confusing network of cobblestone streets gave way to more suburban blockhouses, and finally countryside pathways. It was all familiar to me since only about nine months passed since my last trek. My phone was connecting to WiFi spots along the way, now, that is consistency! Except for this time, I was going to complete the entire way in under 24 hours, compared to two-and-a-half days the previous year.
Carbohydrates and caffeine in my bloodstream, combined with Die Antwoord, Girl Talk, The Weakerthans and Broken Social Scene in the earbuds helped me maintain a good 3 mile-per-hour pace the entire way. The hills and vistas of Galicia floated by with minimal effort on my part. I did not feel the first pangs of exhaustion until about four in the afternoon, having covered about thirty miles or 50k. An additional stop for some potato chips and a generic cola sometime around 40 miles helped me tuck my ears back and push along through the darkness towards the Atlantic. I was ready to be done, but not until after having some celebratory food and wine with my Camino buddies. I jogged onto the Finisterra waterfront around 11 PM, having covered the 85k in about 17 hours.
Comparing all endurance adventures I have ever experienced, I can safely say that the Camino is easily the most manageable and most accessible. It only requires a month of commitment, compared to four to six months necessary to complete the Pacific Crest Trail. It is relatively “easy” physically and mentally, nowhere near the effort needed to complete or even attempt a 50 or a 100 mile race. Yet, something makes me want to come back. Maybe it is the possibility of covering 85k in a day with relative ease, maybe it is the excitement of travelling through a foreign country on foot. It is definitely the feeling of fraternity with fellow travellers. Whatever it is, I know I will be back on the Iberian peninsula.