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Walking El Camino Is the Way
Some benefits of hiking (not running) el Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain
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Saludos desde España. I am finishing a special trip to Northern Spain and welcome the opportunity to write about travel again. More than a decade ago, I was a travel blogger. Building a house, followed by the pandemic, put our family’s travel on hold; this is our first trip abroad since 2015. Next week, I’ll write more about Colorado life & running. If you are interested in receiving occasional bonus posts and an invitation to a monthly online meetup—and my deep gratitude—please consider upgrading your subscription to paid.
I passed a sign along the Camino de Santiago on Monday afternoon—one of countless markers that show a yellow scallop shell against a blue background and a yellow arrow pointing “The Way”—that indicated only about 50 kilometers remained until arriving at Santiago de Compostela, the destination for pilgrims since the 9th century to visit the remains of the apostle St. James.
“I could run it in under 6 hours,” I thought, imagining my pace on a relatively flat path close to sea level. But a 50K speed-oriented run would be antithetical to the purpose of the westward walking pilgrimage through Northern Spain.
I wouldn’t run because my daypack would bounce, my ankle-high Hoka hiking boots would feel clunky, and my hiking pants and fleece pullover would make me overheat. But fundamentally and honestly, I had zero desire to run. I was in a flow of walking methodically with a barely elevated heart rate.
This walk along parts of the Camino de Santiago had nothing to do with “training.” It was about slowing down to stroll and explore a different way of being, seeing, and experiencing a journey. So much of my locomotion on trails and roads is athletic and counts as part of training in preparation for a running goal. I needed a break from that way of moving—a travel experience that prioritized learning history, tasting food, being with my husband, and getting to know others along The Way.
I hiked solo for several miles—our group spread out—and welcomed the solitude so I could marvel at the intensely green, damp surroundings and feel the wind and mist on my face. My ears listened to birds’ melodies while my eyes studied ferns unfurling and furry moss coating rocks. My nose inhaled the fecund scent of damp forest and fertilized garden soil. Passing other pilgrims, I understood much of their Spanish but couldn’t make out the conversations in Galician or Portuguese. With each, I exchanged a “Buen Camino.”
I doubt I would have filled my senses that way if I were preoccupied with training.
I thought about running because a serious female runner in our group insisted on running while the rest of us walked, which made me ponder my relationship to running and my struggle with slowing down.
I’ll describe her below, but first, let me share more of our trip through images.
To clarify, we did not walk any of the 500ish-mile Camino routes in their entirety (multiple Camino routes lead to the destination of Santiago de Compostela). We joined a nine-day small-group tour to sample segments along the Camino del Norte, Camino Primitivo, and Camino Francés, and our walking totaled only a little over 40 miles. It felt like an ideal way to see and learn about the regions during a shorter trip.
We started in Bilbao, where art is everywhere around the Guggenheim Museum, and we’ll return there Thursday for one last day.
The first part of our walk, along the coast, brought us close to numerous horses and cows whose clanging bells enhanced the idyllic landscape. The foals were adorable.
Of course, I ate heartily. Too much salt, meat, cheese, and wine. The closer we got to the region of Galicia, the larger the portions grew.
In addition to hiking, we had tours with local guides around ancient ruins and inside cathedrals. My head spun with facts about the Romans through the Renaissance.
I couldn’t get enough of the spring blossoms—wisteria, calla lilies, lilacs, snapdragons, roses, geraniums—coming from Colorado where snow and mud still dominate the landscape. Every rose bush and potted geranium reminded me of my mom, who died nearly a year ago, because she cultivated them around my childhood home of Ojai. I felt her presence in the flowers and inwardly connected with her, and missed her, when I admired them.
To Run or Not to Run
Some mornings or late afternoons, I also took off for 30 to 60 minutes to run by myself, when our group wasn’t walking. I ran to explore more of the areas where we stayed and to sweat out the prior night’s salty food and wine. And, I wanted to maintain fitness because I have a big Grand Canyon excursion in three weeks. I also took time to do some strength and mobility exercises in our hotel room.
The most memorable run took place on top of a 1.25-mile Roman wall encircling the old part of Lugo and its cathedral. A perfect path, wide enough for a wagon or car, laid on top of the wall. I ran two laps and then ran around a nearby park, enthralled by the rock work and trying to picture the wall in the Roman times and Middle Ages.
But walking the Camino dominated each day. The noun camino means “way” or “path” and is related to the verb caminar, to walk. Not correr, to run.
Why am I belaboring this point? It has to do with an older woman in our group who’s very nice but who got under my skin as a serious runner. Her behavior actually kept reminding me of the Serious Runner satirical Instagram account.
She showed up to our first group meeting wearing a Boston Marathon shirt and broadcasting her desire to run. Every day on the portions we walked, she repeatedly broke into a run to get ahead. Then she’d run back to our group and run farther back on the trail, then speed up to return to us as if doing strides. She even announced when her heart rate got around 140.
When we’d reach the shuttle bus to transfer to another Camino segment, she’d look at her watch and run extra out-and-backs while we stood around, no doubt trying to round up her mileage. When our guide joked that we’d all gain weight this week, she said, “Oh, no, I can’t! I have to run.”
She and I had some pleasant conversations, often related to running. She’s in her 60s, which made me admire and respect her longevity and dedication as a runner. But, observing her was like holding a mirror to my own compulsive tendencies, or seeing an exaggerated version of myself in a decade.
I’d be walking along, lost in thought or observing the scenery, and she’d distract me by running past our group. Seeing her, I couldn’t help question whether I should run, too, and whether I should train more like her to avoid declining as a runner as I age.
I tried to tell myself “to each their own” and applaud her zeal. And yet, her focus on running for the sake of fitness and mileage totals, rather than merely walking like a traditional pilgrim on the Camino, affected the route’s meditative, laid-back vibe, at least in my view. And I’m embarrassed to admit, my ego couldn’t help dropping comments to let others in the group know that I too run marathons and ultras, as if I needed to one-up this other woman.
Ultimately, I made peace with my feelings—Get over it, I told myself, and good for her—and enjoyed slow hiking for hiking’s sake, and for all it allowed me to see and feel. I appreciated that she made me ponder the pros and cons of a rigid dedication to training and to realize I want to run less seriously and more joyfully, and likely with progressively more hiking mixed in, as I grow older. I’m already doing that as the years pass.
I have a feeling I’ll never quit identifying as a runner, I’ll just reach a point when I’m older when virtually all my miles keep one foot on the ground at all times.
Going with a group
When my husband and I took our two kids, then ages 8 and 11, on a nomadic year-long journey around the world in 2009-10, we used to shake our heads at the groups of tourists following a guide through historic plazas or onto tour buses. Group travel looked awful, and we congratulated ourselves on going our own way, on our own made-up itinerary.
Since then, however, we’ve experienced several high-quality small-group trips with companies such as Backroads. I’m so grateful for this trip’s group and its guides, organized by Active Adventures. It’s quite expensive, but we stayed in premier hotels, had almost every meal included, and didn’t have to plan any of the logistics. The key, I think, is to choose a well-reviewed tour company with groups small enough to fit on a small shuttle or van, not a big bus.
Our group totaled only nine—a couple, another couple and their adult daughter, and two guides in addition to my husband and me. Of course, with group travel you risk being stuck with problem people, such as the person who’s chronically late or frequently complains, or with a so-so guide. Thankfully, we haven’t had that bad luck.
Best of all was our main guide, Camilo Sousa, an elfin spirit and longtime hiker who’s passionate about every aspect of the Camino. He’s also a regional celebrity, because he hosts a long-running TV show called Mochileros (Backpackers). Several times, passers-by recognized him and asked to take a selfie by his side.
His gift as a storyteller recounting tales laced with legend and hyperbole kept us captivated and laughing. He never looked at his phone, except to coordinate with the shuttle driver. I watched him always looking around, highly present in each moment, frequently stopping to share and celebrate special features along the Camino.
I decided I’d like to hike and live more like him when I return home.
And now, I am off to join the group on a final excursion to Fisterra, the Galician spelling of “fin de tierra,” the westernmost point of mainland Spain where many pilgrims continue on to extend and finish their journey.
I’ll miss these days on the Camino, which provided an escape from anxiety about the news and my to-do list. Each “Buen Camino” exchange with a stranger on the trail restored my faith in humanity a little bit. I’m already thinking about long hikes with my husband for summer and beyond.
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See my Instagram for more from el Camino de Santiago!