Sunday, June 22, 2008


"This is a great moment, when you see, however distant, the goal of your wandering, the thing which has been living in your imagination, suddenly become part of the tangible world. It matters not how many ranges, rivers or parching dusty ways may lie between you; it is yours now for ever." Freya Stark

Time magazine described the camino as the "Himalaya of Hiking trails". (July 5, 2004)

Although it cannot be even remotely compared to climbing Mt. Everest, most camino trails are pretty long hikes as hiking trails go being ± 500 miles or 800km on the Camino Frances - 600 miles on the Via de la Plata - and, if you plan on walking from Paris, Le Puy or Vezelay, you'll walk double that distance. (By comparison the linear distance between the Himalayan camps to Everest is not great - just over 8.5 miles or 10k - but it is the altitude gain in the mountains that is the most difficult).

Just as dozens of climbers don’t reach the summit of Everest, each year hundreds - if not thousands - of pilgrims do not achieve their goals of walking the entire route, from their chosen starting place, to Santiago de Compostela.

Many pilgrims underestimate the physical challenge of walking for between 5 and 10 hours every day for 4 to 6 weeks with a backpack on and are unable to maintain the pace they set for themselves. They have to resort to catching buses or trains in order to keep to their schedule.

Others suffer blisters, tendonitis, cellulites, strained muscles, shin splints, stress fractures, twisted ankles or knees, broken limbs, colds, flu or sheer exhaustion on the trail. Many have to stop walking, rest up for a few days or go home.

Some just give up when they realise that they are not enjoying the self-inflicted regime of rising early, eating frugally, walking in rain and mud one day and in dusty, blistering heat the next. They can’t adjust to walking in a foreign country, eating different food or sleeping in cramped, noisy dormitories.

On one of the camino Forums a young woman who started in St Jean Pied de Port gave up three days later in Pamplona. “It was just too big for me” she wrote “I struggled on the mountain. I didn’t like the refuges. I didn’t like the food. I just forgot why I wanted to do it in the first place so I have stopped walking but I will visit some of the towns along the way and then go home.”

Nobody in their right mind would attempt to climb the Himalaya without serious training and preparation. Besides collecting and testing the necessary clothing and equipment, and doing lots of physical training, mountaineers and long distance hikers should be mentally and psychologically prepared.

Although hundreds of reasonably fit people walk the camino every year without a heavy regime of training beforehand, the majority of us need to develop our fitness, to be physically strong and to be mentally, psychologically and spiritually prepared. You’ll have a much better chance of enjoying your pilgrimage, of coping with the crossing of two or three mountain ranges, of withstanding the extremes of climate, the change of food and water and of maintaining your focus if you are walking fit, mentally strong and spiritually prepared to accept all the gifts the camino has to offer.

You wouldn't leave by car on a 1000km journey without having a service or at least checking the oil, water, tyre pressure and filling up the tank. Make sure that you are in top physical shape for the long walk. Ensure good health by eating a balanced diet, lots of fruit and vegetable and increase your protein intake to build more muscle, and calcium to strengthen bones. This is not a sprint or a marathon where you need to bulk on carbohydrates. A course of multi-vitamins might balance what your body is lacking. Try to regularly get a good night sleep. Your body recovers while you are sleeping and depriving it of sleep will result in exhaustion and sluggish muscles.
Besides your daily walking training, do specific exercises to strengthen back and shoulder muscles. Whilst watching television, lift weights – perhaps leg lifts with a heavy towel across both feet - to strengthen tummy and torso. For shoulders and arms, hold a 450g tin in each hand and do weight training for arms and shoulders. With arms outstretched on either side of the body rotate the tins to the count of ten; then bring hands to shoulders to the count of ten; bend your arms and bring elbows and hands together, level with shoulders – open and close to the count of ten.
Before you go treat your feet to a pedicure so that toenails are short and problem spots are dealt.

Here is an article on multi-day walking that might be useful:

Multi-Day Walking Tactics - Dave Spence
It is one thing to walk a marathon or half marathon for a single day - blisters can be endured to the finish. But to pick yourself up and do it again day after day requires more training and planning to be able to finish each day in good enough shape to keep going.

• Do not skimp on building up your mileage to be able to complete the required distance.
• Walk your long distance workout (3/4 of the longest distance you will be walking), have a rest day and walk it again. Observe any new problems that may develop.
• A month before the you go, try walking your long distance workout on back-to-back days and see what problems you may develop.
• Test your clothing, shoes, pack, diet, snacks and fluids thoroughly on your long distance training days in advance of the event. Do not use anything new or different during the walk.

• When you're on a multi-day walk, you have to carry everything with you on your back - and a common cause of suffering and lack of enjoyment is simply that people carry too much. So, the basic rule is: accustom yourself to modest needs, and travel light. If in doubt, leave it out. Total packed weight therefore, ca 5kg (7kg with sleeping-bag), which, together with the weight of your sack, should just squeeze into airline hand-baggage. To this must be added when walking any food and drink; 1 litre of water weighs ca 1kg but is essential in hot weather.

• Pay careful attention to foot problems. These are the stoppers. Learn how to prepare your feet to ward off the blisters.
• Many long distance walkers have to stop because of overuse injuries. The most common injuries seem to be stress fractures of the feet and or lower leg. Consuming a diet high in calcium both before the trip and during the trip will help reduce the incidence of these types of injuries.

• The focus of a well-designed walking training programme must include a great amount of "impact" activities, like walking, running or skipping. Forget cycling and swimming except to add some variety, these non-weight-bearing activities will not help to significantly develop bone density. 3-4 days a week should be spent engaged in vigorous weight bearing activities. The principal of specificity states that the adaptations to training will be specific to the imposed demands. That means if you want to get the best results you need to do activities that are most similar to the activity you want to increase your performance in.

• In addition, weight-bearing activities used, as training will stimulate specialised cells called osteoblasts to lay down stronger bone. This increase in bone density in the lower leg = decreased risk for stress fractures.

Are you mentally prepared for a multi-day pilgrimage walk and all it entails? Can you ‘switch off’ from your regular life for 30 days or more and forget about the responsibilities of work and home? Are you prepared to live out of your comfort zone? Are there certain characteristics in people that irritate you – that make you say, “I can’t accept it when people……?” Can you overlook your companion’s frailties or habits? What are your hopes, fears or expectations? Just as with the physical preparation you will need to prepare mentally for walking day after day in all weathers, all terrains in a different country even when you are feeling below par or when you start to question why you are doing this journey. You will have to be prepared to accept the hospitality of your host country without criticism or complaint. Some of your overnight accommodation might not fulfil your expectations. How will you react to cramped dormitories, lumpy beds, unhygienic ablutions and rowdy tourists? Restaurants, shops and other public facilities might not live up to your standards. “Pilgrimage” is a metaphor for life and there will be good and bad days, unplanned for difficulties, upsetting and distressful times – just as there are in ‘normal’ life. If your expectation is that the walk is going to be a constantly happy traipse through picturesque countryside, enchanting villages, quaint towns, ancient cities with exotic locals and charming little bistros and restaurants – you are quite right. But there will also be busy, dirty highways, uncaring motorists and surly innkeepers, industrial approaches to cities, churlish waiters and poor food. Can you accept the good with the bad? Turn these negatives into positive lessons. They will give you an opportunity to consider the privileged life you have back home, how good our roads are, our standards of accommodation, our friendly waiters and shop assistants. Make a pledge to be a good pilgrim. Sign a contract with yourself before you go:

I undertake to be a good and supportive companion; a grateful visitor, a thankful pilgrim passing through foreign lands. I will be friendly and kind to all I meet and will be a good ambassador for my country. I cannot control the places, events, people or experiences I encounter but I can control the way I react and interact in these circumstances. I will not criticise or complain if things are not up to my expectations. I will endeavour to walk this ancient pilgrimage trail with appreciation and joy, always mindful of the millions who have walked before me and of the multitudes that are still to follow. I will walk this way with integrity and will keep an open mind to all the lessons it can teach me.

By being physically and mentally prepared, you will be more receptive to the spiritual gifts of the trail. It is difficult to appreciate a stunningly panoramic view if your back aches, you have a stinging blister on your heel and you are still smarting from the rude remarks of a waiter or shop assistant. All your energy will be focussed inward, to the physicality of your situation.

SPIRITUALLY Spirit (n) L. spiritus - breath, courage, vigour, the soul of life. There is spirituality on any trail, especially those that take you into wilderness areas. People talk about feeling energised when they are in the mountains or on the seashore. Bracing mountain air literally fills one with vigour (the soul of life). Are you ready for the spirituality of the pilgrimage? Television has brought many of the beauties of the world into our living rooms so we might feel that they are familiar, commonplace. Can we look at the view through the eyes of medieval pilgrims who had never seen such sights as mountain ranges, waterfalls, hills covered in poppies? Look for the beauty in everything you see. Not only the natural sights like mountains, misty forests and vineyards but also in the faces of the people we meet, voices, cowbells, church spires, Roman bridges and walls. The beauty will balance out all the ugly sights we see – rubbish tips, car graveyards, congested traffic.
Spirituality has religious connotations. One can feel it in the Pyramids of Giza, in Inca temples, in Buddhist Tibet and in the Christian churches and temples of Europe. Medieval pilgrimage trails in Europe are based on the faith and belief of millions of people who were seeking absolution for their sins and the intercession of saints so that they would be assured of a place in their heavenly home. The churches, cathedrals, abbeys, monasteries and convents are not tourist attractions but holy structures, witnesses to the 2000 year old faith of the Catholic (universal) church. Even if you are not a part of the Catholic church or do not adhere to any organised religion, open your mind to the spiritual experience of the churches and cathedrals. Be open to the prayers and blessing of others. A 1000-year old pilgrim blessing in the monastery at Roncesvalles, Spain, states:

“The door is open to all, sick or well; not only Catholics, but pagans also. To Jews heretics, idlers, the vain, and as I shall briefly note, the good and the worldly too.”

The idea of your walk started as a seed – planted and waiting for germination. All the preparation has helped it to grow. Now is the time to nurture it and feed it so that it evolves into a strong and beautiful experience. The way we experience it can bear fruit, not only for ourselves in the lessons we will learn but for what we will pass on to others who want to follow.
We have a responsibility to ourselves and our companions to be prepared, to step out of our comfort zones, to walk with an open mind, to embrace the beauty, to turn negatives into positives, to have a sense of humour, to be kind to each other and to strangers and allow them to be kind to us.

One thing is certain on any long hike you will be walking in the sun and in the rain. Chances are it could be cold and wet on the occasional rainy day and if the contents of your pack and your rain gear are not waterproofed, everything you possess might end up soaked. With careful planning and packing, walking in the rain can be an invigorating rather than a miserable experience.

· Pack everything into plastic zip-lock bags, even the little things like medicines and cosmetics etc.,
· Have a waterproof inner liner to keep all your goods dry.
· Make sure that your backpack cover is large enough to wrap around the whole pack.
· Gaiters, ankle or knee high, will keep the water out of the top of your shoes.
· A rainproof, sweat-proof jacket and over trousers or a good hiking raincoat that covers your backpack are essential.
· Most rain jackets and ponchos have hoods but a wide-brimmed rain hat will also keep the rain off your face.
· If you stop whilst walking, be careful not to put your pack down on a wet patch of ground. Water can easily soak into your pack.
· If you have no option but to walk in the rain, change your attitude towards rain and concentrate on the good things.
Be aware of the changing tapestry of the landscape; the deeper colours of the hills and the trees, soaked clean by the rain. Everything is greener, more lush and alive. Crops stand taller, trees no longer droop; rivers and waterfalls change from sedate to spectacular. Take deep breaths of the cleaner, washed air. You will feel revitalized and more energetic walking in the cool rain. Do you remember playing in the rain as a child? There was nothing better than skipping and dancing while raindrops spattered on your face making your skin glow and eyelids flutter. And what joy to stomp in the puddles – exhilarating!

PS: Enjoy your preparations and all the planning but leave yourself open to the unexpected - you never know what the camino might have in store for you!

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