September 2, 2013
It’s been five days since I returned home from my round-the-world adventure. Having walked and cycled about 280 miles of the Camino de Santiago, it’s an appropriate time to share a few thoughts about what I’ve learned from the experience.
#1 – Proper Training is Important but Unachievable
Unless you’re walking the distance you plan to walk each day, and then repeat that for the number of days you plan to walk without a break, you have not trained properly. Add to that the need to replicate the terrain, trail surfaces and weather conditions of the Camino, and the ability to prepare yourself adequately becomes impossible. You may be a stud or studette on your home turf, but the Camino experience is different.
I believe the best way to train is 6 days of walking a variety of conditions and distances followed by a rest day. Most pilgrims, of course, do not have the time to do this (I surely didn’t) so that leads us to observation #2.
#2 – Take It Slowly for the First Week
My hiking/walking experience is primarily in the mountains/canyons of the western US. I typically carry 35-40 lbs and hike 5-10 miles a day. My trips typically last 3-5 days. I have been to the top of Mt. Whitney at 14,500 feet and the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I provide this information as background for probably the most important lesson I learned: start slowly and build speed gradually.
If you review my blog posts, you’ll see that my average daily speed including all rest stops started around 3.5 km/hr for the first five days. After that, it dropped steadily until it bottomed out around 2.8 km/hr by day #10. Now, you may think that 3.5 km/hr isn’t very fast but the fact is, it was too fast for me to sustain for ten days.
Like the disclaimer says, your mileage may vary, but the lesson I learned is to really go slowly for the first week or so. This lesson leads us to #3.
#3 – Do Not Pre-Plan Your Camino
You’ll have to have some sort of plan for travel to/from your start/stop points, but other than that, allow your physical and emotional state to dictate your experience. My buddy Nancy summarized it best: “I’ll get there when I get there.” Easy to say but tough to live by, especially for me. Other than my start and stop dates, I had an intermediate deadline to meet my wife in Burgos on a certain date. That required me to average 13.5 miles/day for 10 days. That mileage was too much for me and I paid the price. Next time I’ll allow at least one flex day per week so that I can rest before I injure myself.
The last night in Mansilla de las Mulas, we met a woman who had pre-planned every hotel, breakfast and dinner on her entire camino. I think that worked well for her but I would have been out big money if I had done that. Start each day with a general objective and then adapt to your body, head and heart speaking to you along the way.
#4 – Beware of the Odd’s and End’s
I carried a Osprey Talon 33 liter pack which had plenty of space for my stuff. In fact, my clothes and sleeping system only filled half of the pack. What filled the rest was the odd’s and end’s – the little stuff that doesn’t weigh much by itself but adds a lot of weight when taken together. I’m talking about toiletries, first aid, laundry soap, power cords, converters/adapters, etc.. A lot of these items are carried “just in case.”
I ended up wearing every item of clothing and all of my sleeping system at various times during my camino. I probably only used about 20% of the “just in case” stuff. When my camino continues, that’s where I’ll focus my weight saving efforts.
I also added water and food items to my pack weight every day. Having bonked during a hike in the Grand Canyon, I tend to carry too much water rather than not enough. That said, is there anywhere I found that I need to carry more than two liters? The answer is no. Regarding food, you can save money by shopping at a supermercado rather than buying food at a roadside bar/restaurant but you’ll have to carry your groceries until you consume them. Consider the weight vs. cost tradeoff.
Adding the odd’s and end’s with food and water will quickly take your carefully planned 15 lb. pack to 20+ lbs.
#5 – Bring the Mayo and Mustard!
Don’t get me wrong. I love sandwiches as much as anyone. But most of the sandwiches you buy in Spain will be dry. That is, devoid of mustard, mayo or other sauces. (Some places will put olive oil and vinegar on theirs.) So before you leave home, pack some individual servings or Grey Poupon (like in the movie), mayo, hot sauce or whatever you slather on two pieces of bread. You’ll thank me for it.
So that’s the practical lessons learned after a half-camino. My next blog will focus on the more abstract things I learned along the way.