- Tim Mathis
The Camino de Finisterre in a day: An ultra running love story.
Santiago: The starting line for the Camino de Finisterre
When my wife Angel and I decided to run the 500 mile Camino de Santiago across Spain, we had no goal but to enjoy ourselves and to move at a leisurely pace mixing in running and walking as our bodies and whims dictated.
Throughout the route, though, we knew that when we made it to Santiago, we planned to take a quick rest and then attempt to run the 55 mile Camino de Finisterre in a day. This final section of trail completing the traverse from the eastern border with France to the Atlantic Ocean would be a nice capstone on our Camino experience, and a chance to really suffer and test ourselves after having covered 500 miles on foot in the previous 4 weeks.
This section isn't officially a part of the traditional Camino Frances (the most popular Camino route), but it's common practice to walk it as a wind down after arriving in Santiago, across 3 - 5 days. It's a relatively relaxed portion of trail, with a lot of beautiful scenery, old coastal towns, and plenty of stops along the way. For us it would be a ridiculous, celebratory endurance challenge.
Throughout the vast majority of the Camino, things went remarkably well, and our plan looked doable (if not really reasonable by normal standards of reasonable-ness). We had no injury issues, no real sense of feeling overtrained or miserable, and were generally loving our experience. By the last 150 miles, we were running three days ahead of schedule, and had settled in to a routine of 20 - 25 mile days, feeling completely comfortable.
I don't know if I got overzealous on a fast downhill on a particularly hilly section, but two days out from our planned arrival in Santiago, I developed a strain in my right quadricep muscle at the attachment of the interior of the knee. I tried to run through it, then walk, but the pain kept increasing. By the time we reached a town called Melide, 30 miles from Santiago, I was fueling my run on cursing and temper tantrums. Angel accused me of being a drama queen, but what she didn't understand was that with this minor muscular injury, all of my life dreams had been destroyed.
Angel, reasonably enough, talked me into stopping there:
"But I don't want to! I want to keep walking and finish out tomorrow!"
"That's stupid. We're three days ahead of schedule and there's no reason to hurt yourself."
After some RICE'ing, a rest in a decent hotel, and a massive dinner of boiled pulpo (octopus), the next day I still couldn't run without pain, but it also generally didn't hurt to walk. So, we moved on for our first complete day of walking on the whole Camino. It felt like defeat in a way, but we finished the day after about 18 miles of hiking. The next day, headed into Santiago, there was some improvement, and I was only feeling pain on downhills. We ran three flat miles, but primarily walked the final section. We were hiking in to Santiago with friends, so there was no reason to hurry anyway. We arrived at the Cathedral in Santiago in the morning, and spent that evening and the next day drinking and resting, with the tentative hope that our Camino de Finisterre one day fun run would still be possible.
The Camino de Finisterre
By the morning of our planned departure, my leg had been pain free for an entire day, and it seemed like it was going to work as long as I approached the run cautiously. I was planning to run flats and walk uphills and steep downhills (which had been the worst stressor on the quad). There wasn't a terrible amount of elevation change (about 4500 ft up and down across 55 miles), so I figured that if I could run half of the day, we'd finish easily within 12 - 13 hours, even with some breaks at restaurants. We started at 5:30 am from our hostel next to the cathedral in Santiago, optimistic, and for the first part of the day, we had no problems. It was dark, and we were moving at a slow pace, but by 8 am we'd covered a half-marathon, and arrived in Negreira, the first town with an open cafe to grab some breakfast.
I had a chocolate croissant and some coffee, and in a fateful moment went to the toilet to do some important business. When I stood up, I felt the quad pull again. My stomach dropped, I cursed, and I cycled rapidly through the stages of grief, settling on denial before exiting the stall. We paid our bill, and by the time we hit the trail, I was limping and couldn't bend my leg without pain. After a couple minutes of walking I broke the news to Angel. I told her that I'd aggravated my injury, and thought that I'd be hiking the rest of the way. I was struggling with any movement, but I lied that it only hurt when I was running, because I wanted to see if it would work itself out.
We'd discussed our game plan in Santiago, and we had initially agreed that if I couldn't run, Angel would go on ahead and I could either move at my own pace or take a night in an albergue to let things heal. She wanted to enjoy herself and use the day as the key long training run for our upcoming race at the Cascade Crest 100. A 40 mile hike with a whining baby wasn't part of that vision. When I told her I couldn't continue running, she said she would stay with me for a few hours to see how things went, and we hiked for 5 miles, mostly in silence.
I knew that I was holding her back, and that she was feeling a need to run, and at one point after an hour and a half or so, she turned to me, and kissed me, and I asked "So, what's the plan?"
She started to cry, and so did I. When we'd started the Camino a month earlier, we had fully expected to split up at times so that we wouldn't drive each other crazy. We'd never spent so much time together at any point in our 11 year marriage, and we expected that it wouldn't be a good idea to try to do so under stressful physical conditions. I don't know if it was the daily dose of runners high, or the magic of the Camino, but we hadn't separated between St. Jean, the start of our Camino in France, and Santiago. And so, we hiked on together another mile, crying.
"I don't want to finish without you," we both agreed.
Once we'd composed ourselves I told her that I thought I would be able to finish that day, walking. I told her that if she wanted to carry on running, I'd keep moving as quickly as I could, and either stop at a hostel if I needed to, or meet her at the room we'd booked in Finisterre that night.
She said that if I really thought that I would make it, she'd stay with me.
And with that, the idea of walking 35 more miles that day became irrationally important to me.
I had dealt with strains before, and I knew that continued movement isn't a great recipe for healing, but I had also been around ultra runners long enough to know that, sometimes, when you keep moving, things turn around. I decided to keep going forward as quickly as I could without sharp pain, and see what happened. My walking pace is generally pretty fast, and after a few hours I realized that we were moving around 3.5 miles/hour, which would still get us to Finisterre before sundown. More importantly, it would get us there before 10 pm when the front desk closed at the hostel where we had a reservation.
The pain was manageable, so for a big portion of the day our spirits were high. We'd turned a minor injury that had threatened to screw up the biggest day of our trip into a shared struggle, and a significant moment in both our running lives and our relationship. Angel took on a pacing role, and I tried to stay positive and remind her of how much it meant to me that she'd decided to stay with me, despite the fact that I was turning a nice run into a long, grueling hike.
The weather in Northern Spain during the summer usually involves cool mornings that gradually heat up throughout the day, with the worst of the heat coming between 2 - 6 pm when things start to cool down again. True to form, throughout the morning the weather was pleasant, and we were able to complete a marathon before noon.
We were fit for ultras - the fittest we'd ever been in our lives. "We only have a 50k left. We can do a 50k any day of the week."
By 2 o'clock though, we were setting out on the longest section of the trail without accessible water - 8 miles through a beautiful but shade-free canyon. Temperatures were hovering near 90 degrees, and we were exposed to open sun for hours during the hottest part of the day. I don't know if it was the cumulative fatigue of walking with an altered gait, the heat and sun exposure, or a failure of my nutrition plan, but I really started to struggle. I was stumbling along, contemplating death from heat exhaustion, and making my peace with giving up. By the time we reached an albergue at the exit of the canyon, my feet were swollen and blistering, I was lightheaded, I had a weird rash on my legs, and I had decided that I couldn't safely continue.
Angel was still feeling strong and was anxious to keep moving. I considered the situation. It was 8 more miles to the next albergue, but the worst part of the heat had passed. The afternoon was shifting into evening, the sun was getting lower in the sky, and I had been able to lower my core temperature dumping buckets of water on my head. I drank a Coke and two cans of Aquarius sports drink (a sort of Spanish Gatorade), and I started to think that I might be able to move on. I didn't want to let Angel down at this point. I felt wrecked, and I was exhausted, but my injury hadn't gotten worse. I didn't seem to be experiencing any real worrying signs of heat stroke, and I began to reconsider the possibility of continuing.
The decisive moment occurred when an older American pilgrim, conspicuous in khaki, a sunhat and recently smeared sunblock approached us. Clearly not reading my "Holy Hell I'm miserable and I think I might die in the desert today" social cues, he started attempting to strike up small talk in a thick Texan accent: "Hey! What part of Brooklyn are you from?! My kids live in Brooklyn! What do you guys do?! I'm a theology professor! How's the walk going?! Okay, well, I'll probably see you ahead if you can keep up with me and we can talk more! I'm really moving fast today!"
We were not in the mood for friendliness at that point, and we took his threat of rapid movement seriously. We left the albergue as quickly as we could to stay ahead of him. It felt like we we were starting to pick up our pace after a long period of lagging through the canyon, and we crested a hill and moved along a busy highway for a mile as the air began to feel slightly cooler - comfortable almost in the clothes I'd soaked prior to leaving the albergue.
The theology professor wasn't lying - he was a fast walker - and on the flat we could see that he was just a few hundred hundred yards behind us on the trail. There was one more available restaurant stop before we set out on another high, hot, exposed section with no water sources, but we decided to push ahead so he wouldn't catch us. He screamed something at us that we couldn't quite make out while he was near the restaurant: "Hey Seattle!! Hmmphmph hmohphre right way stock up?!! I want to hike with you!!"
It was a risk to skip the shop and the opportunity for another cold drink, but I swear that I could hear the theme song from Halloween playing in the distance as we waved the theology professor off and started pushing through an uphill. At the top, I realized that for the first time in 27 miles I wasn't having pain in my quad on the flats, and I started to jog again. "Dammit! I'm running!" I didn't make it far - maybe a kilometer before I started to bonk and my injury flared up - but it was far enough that we'd distanced ourselves from any threat of having to be pleasant with talkative theology professors. More importantly, I started to feel confident that I was actually going to finish.
During this final exposed stretch in the sun, I again ran out of water, and again started to feel miserable, but my blister care had worked passably on my feet and by then we were within striking distance of the sea. We got our first glance, in fact, at about 4:30 pm - 11 hours after we left Santiago.
From there, I felt like this the rest of the way:
But we hiked on. We reached the first town on the Atlantic coast - called appropriately enough, Cee - by 5:30. We stopped for food and a drink, and to celebrate the fact that we had now traveled from border to border in Spain on foot, before pushing on. The 8 remaining miles to Finisterre were grueling, but we passed beside a beautiful cove and trudged along a highway before finally reaching our hostel at 9 pm, an hour before checkin closed and 15 1/2 hours after we'd started. After hobbling to an American diner for burgers, we collapsed into bed.
The Camino de Santiago is a lot of things to a lot of people. For Angel and I, the first 500 miles were pure fun, and one of the most enjoyable travel experiences of our lives. The 55 miles on the Camino de Finisterre, though, were pure agony. But it was also a section of trail that will represent something really important in our relationship, as a place where Angel drug me through a challenge that I didn't think I could complete, and where we both committed to suffer so we could share a significant experience together rather than apart. It left me feeling like (reasonably or not), together, we could do whatever we want to in life. It's a day that I think back o when I question my ability to get through difficult situations, and when I start to notice that I'm taking Angel's place in my life for granted. It was suffering, it's true, but it was also real pilgrimage.
If you ended up here because of outdoor adventure, check out my book The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. If you ended up here because of religious pilgrimage, check out I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation.