The Camino de Santiago is a personal pilgrimage, yes, and it’s also a physical, logistical and emotional challenge. None of those things can be separated.
The most elegant way to prepare for that package of things is to replicate the Camino’s elements during the training process. That’s why, for my peak Camino training, I decided to organize a series of backyard microadventures. I didn’t just want to grind out miles, so I went on a five day wandering pilgrimage around Seattle, a place that feels as much like home as anywhere in the world. I incorporated Camino elements to make the training process meaningful, and to prepare myself for what the experience will be like when I get there.
This post is meant to help if you’d like to make your own Camino training something interesting. A pilgrimage in itself, one could say. Or, I guess, if you want to spend a nice week just wandering around Seattle.
What is the Camino again, in brief?
It’s a little bit confusing, but “the Camino de Santiago” is not actually one trail. It is a network of at least 281 routes through 29 different countries, all of which converge on Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, Western Spain. Santiago was one of Medieval Europe’s most important pilgrimage sites, and in recent decades there’s been a significant revival in interest in the routes, and hundreds of thousands of people complete some stretch of official Camino every year.
In 2013, my wife and I completed the Camino Frances - the most popular route crossing from Western France to Santiago. This year we decided to go back with my mom for her 70th birthday, and complete the coastal route of the Portuguese Camino, starting in Porto and covering around 174 miles between there and Spain. I was in great shape last Camino. This time I’m a decade older and a lot less fit, so I needed to be more intentional about my training. I also wanted to enjoy the process, so I decided to put together a strategy that accomplished the most important goals in any Camino training program:
Replicating Camino conditions
Having a meaningful experience in training.
Enjoying the process
It’s fine to be pragmatic, but why not enjoy yourself along the way? Why not let the lessons at home carry over to the experience abroad? Why not burn some of the Camino experience into your everyday life?
A Portuguese Camino Training Program via Local Microadventure
The Camino is a ramble through European countryside along routes that pilgrims have been walking for thousands of years, and it’s easy to romanticize. (That’s fine - romanticize away!) However, walking long miles every day for weeks on end really is hard. It exposes you to the possibility of trip-ruining overuse injury, hypo- and hyper-thermia, blisters, strains, and misery. Plenty of people jump in and survive without intentional training, but you really do want to have a baseline level of fitness to ensure that you have the best experience possible.
What is the Portuguese Coastal Camino specifically?
It’s known as one of the more accessible routes. It’s not short, but it’s also not insanely long. It’s not totally flat, but there are also not a lot of big hills. It’s meant to be very beautiful - one of the nicest Camino routes. There are plenty of hostels (called albergues) and restaurants so you don’t have to stress about food or accommodation. It’s a lot less busy than the Camino Frances but it’s popular enough that you’ll meet plenty of other pilgrims along the way. The route is set, but it’s also customizable and you can jog over to the more traditional inland route of the Portuguese Camino if you want, or add on the Spiritual Variant, which is meant to be the origin of all the Caminos. It features a mix of terrain, walking through cities, towns, countryside, and along beaches and coast. In September when we scheduled our trip, it will be quite comfortably warm, with temperatures in the 70s and 80s Fahrenheit. We have 16 days, so we have to be fit enough to walk 10 - 15 miles a day factoring in a rest day or two. In short, it’s very much doable, but you still need to train.
Reasonably enough, most people prepare for the Camino by following a hiking or walking program. Personally, I enjoy running, and it’s a shortcut to fitness that’s easier to integrate into day to day life for me. So about five months before our scheduled Camino, I started working through a 16 week half-marathon training program. It’s nice to have a basic structure, and that got us roughly to where we needed to be a month out from our trip.
That’s the boring bit though. The fun part was that, after completing the half-marathon training, about three weeks before our trip, I put together a series of 4 - 6 hour walking adventures through Seattle.
What you need to plan for
When you’re trying to create an experience that will prepare you for the Camino, the things you need to think about are pretty much the same as on the trip itself:
For my approach, I wanted to have the experience of multiple back to back days going distances similar to the Camino, without breaking myself. So, I walked between 10 and 15 miles every day, hung out with friends along the way, and generally built my own little mini-pilgrimage within the city. I wanted it to be a nostalgia trip as well as a nice urban hike, so I visited a mix of new places and old haunts.
Each day I tried to hike in the heat to replicate Portuguese coastal conditions as much as I could. The weather mostly cooperated - it didn’t rain at any point so I didn’t get that experience, but I did get plenty of heat and sun, which was good. I carried the rough equivalent of the gear I’ll take on the Camino, and tested out two pairs of shoes on various types of terrain (I wanted to choose between Brooks Ghosts vs. Brooks Cascadias). The route was primarily sidewalk but I was also able to work in a significant amount of trail and even a bit of sand at the beach. Seattle’s a hilly city, but I didn’t go out of my way to find extra hills because the Portuguese Coastal Camino is relatively flat. I went alone, but spent one day walking a very busy loop at Greenlake to replicate the experience of walking in a crowd similar to the one heading into Santiago. I bought food and found water along the way, and slept in unfamiliar (although not unpleasant) environments at friends’ houses, basing myself first in South Seattle, then later at a different friend’s place in the north. I often used public transit to get between the start and finish of my days, but for half of the days I walked straight out the door and got on my way. Seattle’s a safe city, but so are the vast majority of places in the world if you stick to wandering during the day. I didn’t do any night walking, but I don’t plan to do that on the Camino either.
Seattle’s a great walking city so you could do a lot of things with a trip like this. I’m a relaxed guy so I didn’t spend energy organizing a formal route. Instead, I decided to approach it according to the model of wandering pilgrimage. It’s not what the Camino is, but it’s a time-honored style of travel: pick a location that’s important to you, wander around for days, and see what happens.
How did I decide where I’d wander, specifically? I found transit hubs (light rail stations, normally) and walked between places I wanted to visit. I knew where I’d start and finish, but not where I’d go in between. I made sure to walk at least 4 hours (not including breaks) to get in the miles. On the final day I walked a set circuit, but I didn’t decide on that until the day before I did it. In short, I followed my heart.
Here’s a snapshot of what each of my days looked like, with some very brief notes about whatI took away from each of them.
Day 1: Melting Pot Seattle
My route on the first day involved walking out our friend’s door in the south of the city and towards downtown through the Rainier Beach, Columbia City, Rainier Valley, Central District and Capitol Hill Neighborhoods. In Seattle, like a lot of places, the most legitimately interesting parts of the city are the suburbs. On my way to downtown, I wandered past African markets and Mexican groceries and Vietnamese restaurants and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. It’s a part of the city that I’m not sure I’ve connected on foot before. Seattle has a reputation as a homogeneous city but this is the most diverse part, and it felt like it. Until I got to Capitol Hill, the neighborhoods felt very international. On the bus back, I was the only white guy, as far as I could tell, which is an unusual experience in central Seattle.
What did I get from this? On Day 1, I took away a sense of being out of my element. It’s the thing I like about the city. You could be anywhere in the world.
Day 2: Tourist-facing Seattle
Today I immersed myself in the Seattle that tourists see. I walked to the light rail station and took it to Pioneer Square, the oldest part of Seattle. I walked to the spectacular Central Library, through downtown and along the piers and waterfront parks. Then I made my way through the Queen Anne neighborhood to maybe the most famous view of the city at Kerry Park. I worked my way back through South Lake Union - a neighborhood entirely dominated by Amazon - and back downtown through the Pike Place Market.
What did I get on Day 2? You have to find the sacred in the profane. Based on my previous Camino, one thing about pilgrimage is that everything seems normal at the time you experience it, but some experiences you’ll look back on as life-changing. Wandering through tourist traps keeps you from getting too high minded. It keeps you grounded in reality in a way. Some day maybe I’ll look back on this as important?
Day 3: My Seattle
I rode the train on Day 3 to Capitol Hill, which is my Seattle. This is the neighborhood where Angel and I lived in for 13 of the most important years of our life. It’s where I became an adult, really. My route took me from there to the University District, where both Angel and I studied, and near the hospital where I worked for a decade. It was a nostalgia trip, but I also visited Bruce Lee’s grave, where I’d never been, and some of Seattle’s most pleasant parks: Volunteer, Interlaken, the Botanic Gardens, and the Center for Urban Horticulture. I finished with a walk through the University of Washington Campus, sneaking in to the Suzzalo Library, one of the most spectacular buildings on the West Coast.
What did I get out of this? While Capitol Hill is one of those great, busy, eclectic neighborhoods that all cities have, today was actually a bit more tranquil than the last two days because I spent so much time in the parks. I’m a nostalgic kind of guy, so I basked in old memories and reflections about the way that Seattle has shaped me through the years. This experience is different from the strange world you enter when you travel to walk the Camino. It’s the familiar world, but I was doing something strange there, just wandering around.
Day 4: The quirky, sprawling old suburbs.
I took a couple of days off, and we shifted our base to the northern part of the city. When I started back, I left from our friend’s house in north Ballard and made a loop, walking to Fremont, and the famous Troll and Vladimir Lenin statues. Then I walked along the Burke-Gilman trail - a bike path that I’ve run or ridden a hundred times - through Golden Gardens, up to Carkeek Park, then back home.
What was this day? Today was a confronting mix of things. Fremont and Ballard are quirky, wealthy parts of the city. They’re neighborhoody and pleasant. There are also a striking number of people sleeping on the streets. That is true in a lot of the city, but the contrast is notable here between the sprawling, expensive old suburbs and the hordes of people living in parking lots in tents and ruined RVs. This is the US. It’s a value of walking. You see things on foot that you don’t in a car.
Day 5: Circling the Lake
On my last day, I walked a mile and a half to Greenlake, circled it three times, then walked back. Why? I wanted an experience of being in a crowd because that’s often what the Camino is like. Also, walking around things is a classic pilgrimage ritual. Muslims circle the Kaaba seven times on Hajj. Buddhist pilgrims circle sacred sights as a way to honor them. The practice even has a name - circumambulation. I figured it’d be a good way to conclude this little journey. Greenlake is a pleasant, leafy park that’s always heaving with locals. There’s a classic 5k loop that people jog or walk as part of their daily routine. It’s one of Seattle’s beating hearts, especially on a nice summer day. It’s a perfect place to circumambulate.
What did I get from Day 5? A sense of flow that comes along with not having to think about route choice. I thought i’d find the crowd at Greenlake overwhelming but it was actually the most pleasant, stress-free day of the entire experience. I had that thing where you lose track of time, and drift off into your thoughts. Between loops 2 - 3 I forgot how far I’d gone, and I was sad when it was over, which I didn’t expect. Part of it might have been the sense that I was going along with the flow of the crowd. I expected not to see the same faces each loop, but some people were there as long as I was getting in their runs or workouts. There’s an image of pilgrimage as an individual journey, but there’s something magical about walking along in a crowd that’s headed in the same direction.
It felt like an appropriate way to end this little experience, and bridge over to joining thousands of other pilgrims on the Camino.
Going in to this experience, my goals were to make sure I felt physically fit for the Camino, test out my gear and my fitness, spend some time in the sun, and have a bit of a pilgrimage experience in a place that I know very well. I wanted to test my own theories, and have an unusual experience in a familiar place.
I came away with a lot that was practically valuable. It was a nice reminder of what it’s like to spend multiple days in a row walking through civilization, on varying surfaces, and adjusting on the fly. It got me out into a bit of heat and sun (although Seattle’s not exactly balmy). It allowed for a lot of reflection, boredom, and fun - just like a real Camino. I got sore feet, but slightly less so in the Ghosts than the Cascadias, so it helped me make my shoe decision. It confirmed that my pack will work, which wasn’t a huge surprise. It helped me accept the fact that I’m going to be sore and tired, even if we’re ‘just’ going to be walking 10 - 12 miles a day. It also was a reminder that 10 miles a day is much easier than 15 or 20.
It was also a confirmation that intention matters. Just by saying, “I’m going to think about home on this walk,” I reflected a lot about the role that Seattle’s played in my life thus far, which made the experience meaningful. It’s not my goal with this article, but I’ll probably write up my more internal, narrative reflection at some point. (Join the mailing list on the home page and I’ll let you know when I do!)
What were the challenges?
Frankly, there weren’t any major challenges, which reassures me that this sort of experience is a great idea for people preparing for a walk like the Camino.
I did learn that trail runners on city streets aren’t the best option. Navigating transit took up a lot of time but keeping the walks to 4 - 6 hours meant that wasn’t a major problem. I completed my 5 days across a week with a two day break in the middle, but you could organize something similar across three weekends to similar effect, or do some of the walking after work if you’re 9-5 like most normal humans.
What are the key things to know if you want to replicate this experience in your own area?
This is kind of anticlimactic, but it’s true - just do it. Organizing a wander really doesn’t have to be that hard. There is something nice about just walking out the door and deciding where you’ll end up on the fly. Some places are more amenable to this sort of thing than others, of course, and if you don’t have access to transit you might think about loops or out and backs from your house or your car. The experience didn’t feel like training, and felt like an experience itself. It prepares you naturally for what the Camino will be.
For another, more hardcore example of this sort of thing, check out this article on a friend’s 300 mile Portland Thru-hike.