Below is a recap of each day during my Camino journey. Following that, are my final thoughts on my journey. Sorry for the length…to be honest, I could probably write a book.
Thurs – 2/24 – Traveling to Spain
After finishing the final touches on packing and loading music on my ipod shuffle, I suddenly found myself with only 2 ½ hours of sleep. My family took me to the airport in Charlotesville. Along the way, my lack of sleep left me hallucinating that I forgot my GPS World Map for Spain SD card. My SD card did not read “Spain” so I thought for sure that I had left it at home. After dropping me off at the airport, Cory sped home (over an hour) to see if he could find it. Meanwhile, we called DeLorme and realized that I had the correct SD card in the entire time – poor Cory. At the airport, I said my goodbyes to my mom, step-dad, and three children. I was off for Spain. First, I flew to DC and made my connecting flight to Madrid. I mistakenly believed that I would sleep on this long flight to Spain but, as luck would have it, I left three screaming children of my own, and sat next to someone else’s on the plane. We landed in Madrid at 7 am on Friday morning (1 am East Coast time). Needless to say, I didn’t sleep and I was tired.
Fri – 2/25 – Traveling to France
I spent the day on busses and in bus terminals. I took a mid-morning bus to a small city in order to catch my transfer bus to Pamplona. On this leg of my journey, I picked up the local paper for the region and immediately flipped to the weather section. I made the unnerving discovery that a major snow storm would be hitting the Northwestern Pyrenees Mountains on Sunday, my start date. It was evident that I would have to start a day early. What made me the most nervous about starting early was the lack of sleep I was experiencing and not seeing the terrain in daylight. I planned to take Saturday to explore my starting route. So much for the plan. Nevertheless, it was the smart thing to do. So I waited another three hours in Pamplona before catching the final bus of the day to Roncesvalles. Roncesvalles is a very small town on the boarder of Spain and France. Many people start their long hike of the Camino from Roncesvalles in order to avoid the Pyrenees. This was clearly not my strategy. I arrived in Roncesvalles just as the sun went down (7:30 pm). I took a 45 minute cab ride to my final destination (the starting point) – St. Jean Pied de Port, France. I arrived at 8:30 pm, made my way to the Pilgrim Office and then an Albergue (hostel). I obtained my first stamp in my Camino Passport (also referred to as the “credencial”) and was taken to the dormitory of the Albergue. I showered, ate, and reviewed my maps before going to sleep around 11 pm. I was tired and worried about beginning this journey blindly and sleep deprived but these were my circumstances.
Sat – 2/26 – St. Jean Pied de Port to Uterga – 56.6 miles
After a very restless night, I awoke about 5 am and was on the trail by 5:31 for my official start time. The streets of the small French town were quiet and dark as were the other 25+ hours I ran in the early morning hours for the next nine days. I climbed and climbed for the next four hours until I began my decent into Roncesvalles. I already made my first mistake in this early section as I began to follow the wrong trail signs. I climbed at least a mile straight up a mountain before realizing that it was the wrong trail and descended the steep incline the way I came. I remembered Horton’s words only two days earlier “You are going to make mistakes. You will. It is what you do with these mistakes which will make all the difference.” So, I knew I had to look at the positive side to this mistake. It could have been so much worse and it was great that I learned this lesson early in my journey. I had to be more careful and much more vigilant. So far, I was really unimpressed with the markings for the trail. At times, it was nearly impossible to follow the tiny little yellow arrows. They were posted in crazy places, unpredictable places, different places at every turn, and they were faded making them not very visible in many spots…especially in the dark. I was glad to discover (later on) that this would not always be the case.
The entire day was magical and emotional. There I was – capturing a dream that I had been incubating for years. I was giddy with laughter. Along the way, I met some Norwegian hikers. One of them, started the trail as a symbolic gesture of beginning a new life – having only been sober for three days. He was determined to change his life “one step at a time.” I realized throughout this journey that everyone had different reasons to come to the Camino but in the end we were all seeking an experience that would help us 1) to unlock unanswered questions about ourselves and the world, 2) to find some peace and simplicity, and 3) to be changed forever spiritually by coming in closer contact with Our Maker. This was our common bond. The focus might be different but we all had a story and a common reason to be there.
I continued through Zubiri, Larrasoana and the gorgeous Pamplona before finishing in Uterga (ten miles outside Pamplona). After a long day, I discovered what would be a consistent theme and issue…there are few hostels/albergues and hotels open this time of year and the weather would be inhospitable. Arriving in Uterga and discovering that there wasn’t any lodging, forced me to take a cab to the next town (six miles away). I showered, ate, called home, and crashed around 11 pm. Not bad.
Sun- 2/27 – Uterga to Logrono – 54.1 miles
I awoke at 4:30 am and caught a cab back to Uterga . I started the trail by 5:15 am. It was pouring rain, cold, dark, and very unfamiliar. By the time I reached Puente La Reina, 6 am on Sunday, the teens were just leaving the bars and nightclubs (common for daybreak on Saturdays and Sundays). There I was running through the streets of this large town, following little yellow arrows with a backpack, trail shoes, poncho, and a headlamp as the trendy adolescent in all their glamour and bling made their way home from a night of dancing and partying. This would be another reoccurring theme over the next week. People just thought “who is this crazy runner with the poncho and headlight?”
The towns and landscapes of the day were beyond enchanting. I was mesmerized and in a spiritual zone seldom experienced. By the day’s end, I reached Logroño where I took a cab to meet my mom, step dad and five year old Ryleigh at their hotel. I celebrated seeing a familiar face and was relieved to a giant hug from Ryleigh. Sleeping in the comfort of a hotel wasn’t bad either.
Mon – 2/28 – Logroño to Tosantos – 51.1 miles
Again, a cab was beckoned to pick me up at 4:30 am to downtown Logroño and drop me off in the freezing rain, sleet, and frigid weather of the early morning. By sunrise, the temperature dropped into the twenties and the sleet turned to snow. To worsen the situation, the wind reached gusts over 30 mph and running directly into it proved to be a great challenge. The high winds blew the ice and snow into my face for hour after hour and made for a very intense day. One section forced me to run in five inches of very thick mud which stuck to my shoes for every step during a nine mile stretch. I felt like I was wearing snow boots. I ran in snow and high winds for the entire day. My ending point was Tosantos (just west of the larger town of Belorado).
Tues – 3/1 = Tosantos to Castro Jeriz – 56.0 miles
The day the injuries began… After spending the morning climbing in the hills of fog and sheep pastures, I descended into the large city of Burgos – finding my way through the chaos of big city life. Noise, people, traffic, and twisting streets…proved to be more difficult than I climbing my highest peak. I ran to escape the busy life that Burgos represents. Since my morning descent from Olmos, my ankle was screaming in pain. Tendonitis had most certainly set in and I had another marathon to go before the day’s end. After several hours (and a few tears), I rolled into Castrojeriz. It was a beautiful end to my most difficult day. The mysterious and picturesque medieval town sits at the bottom of a mountain with a Moorish castle. At the base of that gorgeous site was an even prettier one…my smiling daughter holding up a welcome sign. I slept in an adorable inn (hostel) that had a quaint restaurant and bar below street level. The thick stone walls surrounding this cave like structure gave me the feeling that I had traveled back to ancient times. It was an amazing and memorable place.
Wednesday – 3/2 – Castro Jeriz to Sahagun – 53.5 miles
The next morning I decided to begin a little later. The lack of sleep over the last few days had started to really take its toll on my mental ability to tough through the pain. At 5:30 am, I took off for the hills. By 10 am, I was in Fromista and the flat, monotonous “meseta” landscape became my running terrain for the next two and half days. It was as flat as Kansas and although the weather was still cold, it was a welcome change to the last two days. Sadly, my left front hamstring became the next and most debilitating injury I would endure on this run. Even more depressing was that I wasn’t even half way to Santiago de Compostela yet. I ended the day in the large town of Sahagun.
I met my family and was greeted with big hugs. What a blessing! Javier, the manager of the public hostel, was incredibly encouraging as he looked at my injuries and briefed me on the rest of the 200 mile journey that still lie in front of me. The optimism was exactly what I needed. He had complete faith that I could do it although he never heard of anyone completing the trail this fast (even on bike!). The hostel resided in an old 16th Century church. As there wasn’t any heat, I made a cave of wool blankets and slept like a baby…ready for a 4 am wake up the next day.
Thursday – 3/3 – Sahagun to Hospital de Orbigo – 55.9 miles
I was on the trail by 4 am and headed into the dark. Each town has its own symbols and “tricks” to follow through the bustling streets, and it is important to know this secret especially in the dark. Sahagun’s secret was in the shape of the top of the towering light posts. In the corner of the tallest part of the post was the shape of a scallop shell signaling that the pilgrim should follow those particular lamp posts.
The worst part of this day was nausea and having to find my way through the craziness of the big city of Leon. I’m sure my upset stomach was the result of the environment around me. Leon, like Burgos, is a major city and the number of people, buildings cars, street directions, and noise was overwhelming for someone that is just trying to escape it all. Although I was supposed to end in Villadangos del Paramo, I got a second wind and decided to push on another seven miles to Hospital de Orbigo where my family awaited. It was a difficult day and while the pain was intensifying significantly I found myself much more capable to work through it as my hours of sleep increased.
It was also extremely comforting to see my family as they reserved a nice room in a hostel. They tended to my needs, and shared comforting and encouraging words from friends and family at home.
Friday – 3/4 – Hospital de Orbigo to Camponaraya – 50.2 miles
I hit the mountains before Galicia on this day and I was feeling back in my element again. The terrain was difficult but I was where I belonged and loving the idea of escaping the cities, towns, and civilization once again. As I climbed, I came across the cute Foncebadón village (all three houses) containing the cutest little hut for lodging hikers. The fire was inviting and the hot organic tea was a perfect recipe for getting me though the second half of my climb. The snow and wind were relentless but with a couple hours I began to descend on an aggressive downhill trail littered with icy rocks, slate, mud, and boulders. Although the run was technical, I greeted the change of scenery and terrain with open arms. It was a great day.
I came into Ponferrada (a walled city containing a castle) about 5:30 pm and felt I could and should go on until the sun went down so I ran though the city into the borough of Camponaraya where I ended my day. My family picked me up and took me to a hotel for the evening. I ate and slept very well. I was feeling great about only have a weekend of running before I would reach my destination.
Saturday – 3/5 – Camponaraya to Sarría – 53.7 miles
I took a cab back from my hotel to Camponaraya in the very early morning hours of Saturday. Off, I went into the dark once again. This was my last day of big climbs and descents. My first mountain ascended 2,000 feet and came right back down again only for me to begin my biggest climb of the day – up to the snow covered O’Cebreiro. The 3,000+ ft of ascent took me high above the valley into a small snow storm. As I approached La Faba (still six miles from t he summit) the snow on the ground was over a half of a foot and it was coming down hard. The wind blew sideways and the snow made visibility very difficult. Surprisingly, throughout this entire storm, I was the most at peace and happy than any other time on my entire journey. The beauty around me, the trails without a trace of footprints, the snow and ice gathering on the evergreens enveloped my small self. It was calming, serene, and too pretty for words. At the same time, I couldn’t see more than twenty feet in front of me but I knew well enough that I was walking along a cliff with a good 200 foot drop to my left.
O’Cebreiro was an adorable village at the top of the mountain. Children were outside having snowball fights and parents were in the one and only local café drinking lattes. I refueled with some hot tea and toast and began my nine mile jog along the ridge of the mountain. Eventually, I began to descend again, followed by some boulder hopping. Twenty miles later I hit my ending destination for the day in the city of Sarria. Sarria is seventy-two miles from Santiago de Compostela. This is where most people begin the trail to Santiago. Funny enough, this was the city that signified that I was almost finished. I was 9/10 done with my journey and I was ready for the home stretch.
Sunday – 3/6 – Sarria to Arzua – 49.95 miles
This day was my shortest mileage yet but my most difficult day mentally. Although the temperatures reached in the low sixties, it was hot! I haven’t trained in this weather so I wasn’t used to the heat and I certainly wasn’t dressed for it. I had to carry more water and tend to some nausea. Nevertheless, after another day of climbing more than 7, 000 total feet, limping though my injuries, and enduring some unexpected heat, I arrive in Arzuá. I was only twenty six miles to go until reaching Santiago de Compostela.
My family awaited my arrival in Arzuá and reserved a spot for me at one of the local hostels. We had a wonderful dinner at a local pizza restaurant. Their support was priceless.
At this point, I had a decision to make:
1) I could rest for a bit and continue on through the night in order to finish under nine days. This was easy enough to do (a marathon in 11 hours) …or
2) I could sleep the night and awake at my normal time for a non-stress and non-rushed marathon.
It was important to me that my mom, step-dad, and Ryleigh have the opportunity to be at the end to see me finish. They had sacrificed so much to be present during some tough days that I owed it to them to make it easier to be in Santiago when I finished. So I made the choice to wait until morning to finish my last leg. Finishing during daylight would make things easier for those I love. I knew that this was the only decision that I would never regret.
Monday – 3/7 – Arzuá to Santiago de Compostela – 26.8 miles
I was up and running the dark trail by 5:30 am. I limped my way through the twists and turns of the trail…only a few more hours of following obscure signs, faded arrows, and dark alleyways. As the sun came up, I was exhilarated. Though the pain was grueling, I was too excited to pay attention to my screaming body. By 11 am, I arrived at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Bagpipes were blaring and tears rolled down my face. I did it! I proceeded to celebrate my journey with my amazing family. Without them, my journey would have been tougher and much more grueling. I am blessed beyond belief.
507.8 miles in 9 days, 5 hours, and 29 minutes
(total running time = 4 days, 15 hours, and 14 minutes)
REFLECTION OF THE ENTIRE JOURNEY AND EXPERIENCE:
I came to Spain to experience the Camino de Santiago. The Camino attracted me because it is a beautiful region of Spain that I have not yet experienced and it is an ancient pilgrimage trail. I have heard so many great things about it, and it seemed like the perfect challenge for this stage in my short running experience. Overall, the terrain was much easier than anticipated. I decided to run, rather than hike, 800 km (from SJPP to Santiago de Compostela) for a couple reasons: 1) I didn’t have a lot of time to take off from work and away from family so hiking it wasn’t an option for me; 2) I love to run; and 3) I couldn’t find any established record of the fastest running time so I thought I would make that mark.
I felt great in several aspects including: my energy, stamina, endurance, and the ease of the terrain. Unfortunately, my body began to break down on day four. Between strained muscles and tendonitis, my time slowed even as my energy level increased. Mentally, I became stronger as the rest of my body became weaker. I learned a lot about myself. I learned that even when I felt that my body would limit me, I could go on… and I did. There was one moment that I can remember specifically when I stopped into a little café in Argosta. I needed some caffeine and some warmth after my first dark and cold fourteen miles on this particular day. As I got up from the bar stool and headed out the door, my leg pain shot through my spine and traversed what felt like my entire body. I was literally paralyzed with pain. I called out loud for the Lord’s help, grabbed my rosary and thought out loud “I will run until I can’t run, walk until I cannot walk, and crawl when I can do nothing else.” After about fifty yards I got myself into a painful but tolerable gallop… I spoke out loud “I am not alone. I am not alone. This too will pass. I am not alone. I am not alone.” I somehow went on. …for three more days…I went on. It is unexplainable. The pain and swelling never ceased but my desire and my will and my mental tenacity conquered it. What a lesson in tolerance, patience, and faith for me. I called for God’s help…I would say over and over again “I believe. I believe. I believe.” And it made all the difference. I constantly reminded myself that He was with me and He gave me the strength, endurance and tolerance to make it. In the end, I must agree with the words of one pilgrim. “The way to Santiago is as life itself, it is as He who give us support, it is a marvelous experience. It has no end, because when you arrive you realize that you have to keep on walking towards St. James, towards your inner self, towards the Lord. This will only be finished when the life that we enjoy day by day comes to an end.”
My journey of adventure, love, faith, compassion, and living a passion filled life continues and I will soldier on proudly with the hope that I can make some small difference on this planet. My accomplishment is trivial and insignificant. It is especially meaningless when I view the deeds and achievements of those around me. I pray that I can be an instrument of some good as I continue this journey.
To summarize my thoughts, I would have to say that I have affirmed my believe that all things are possible though faith. Additionally, I am forever changed spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically. I value this experience and welcome this change.
Lastly, I need to recognize the great work of the International Rescue Committee. Please watch one of their youtube videos to see how the IRC directly helps and supports all people suffering though homelessness caused my natural disaster, ethnic cleansing, political unrest, civil war, and other devastating situations. Their work of over 75 years, their proven track record, and their efficiency of funds are proof of the difference that they make to millions of people around the world. It has been a privilege to help such a worthwhile cause. So far, together, we have raised more than $3100. This will feed over 620 refugee children for over one month. What a blessing!
I love you my friends and family and I am grateful to be on this journey with you….