Camino de Santiago: Live the Moment

Live the Moment.

Sitting at a café eating pulpo and drinking coffee at the Muxia in Spain (known as the edge of the world) the day after finishing my 160-mile journey, I noticed a tattoo on our server’s wrist that perfectly summarized what I couldn’t find the words for: Live the moment. An emphasis on the action of life, not just the mere observation of it.  

I had just run the Portuguese route of the Camino de Santiago, a historic spiritual pilgrimage and was contemplating the significance. Many had walked “the way” before me. Some as a Catholic journey of the soul to seek forgiveness of sins, some as a vision quest inspired by Paulo Coehlo’s books, and others to find healing in some area of their life like Emilio Esteves’ movie The Way.  I felt deeply inspired to do this run, knowing of it for many years, yet did not have a specific purpose of why.

My husband and I had gone to Portugal in the spring for our 10 year anniversary. I had fallen in love with the country immediately and in researching travel sites had also found the less known route of the Camino through the northern coast. I committed to running it in October with about 5 months to train. The plan was to run about 12 miles a day, which was a big undertaking for me since I had never come close to that type of multiday mileage.

In my early twenties I had shattered my tibia plateau and had been told by my orthopedic surgeon that I would never be able to run again.

Thankfully, I had an awesome PT who on my first visit asked, “You need to run, don’t you?”   The answer to that question was and still is “yes”.

Indeed I was able to run, but even he had cautioned that I should keep it to 3-5 miles a few days a week at most. Fast forward about 20 years to 2016, I was having a great season and decided to run a half marathon at the end of it and felt great, proving to myself I could go further.

Running a half marathon is one thing, running a half marathon every day for two weeks was going to be another. About a month into my training I had a setback pulling a muscle in my calf. That is how I met Danny. I told him my goal and he worked with me to strengthen and heal my calf as well as to increase my cadence, moving my foot strike forward to gradually help me build my mileage in a softer way on my body.

The Camino was flatter and at a lower elevation than my training ground of mountain trails, but it also featured miles and miles of cobblestone roads, uneven boardwalks, and tight urban areas with lots of traffic.

On the second day I decided to veer from the official route, resisting the traffic and cobblestone and ended up on a beautiful, firm white sand beach that went on for miles. I tucked my shoes in my running vest and ran next to the ocean barefoot.  It felt amazing. Encountering a similar situation with high traffic, no shade and cobblestone country roads the following day, I decided to try it again. This time, I ended up on miles of loose rocks, similar to that of the shale on Lone Peak. Not wanting to back track, I decided to push forward anyway, figuring I would hit another boardwalk at some point soon. A couple miles later, I found the new boardwalk that was being constructed as part of a project to create a connected system from Porto to the Spanish border.  My feeling of smugness for having outsmarted the route for a second time was abruptly dropped when I got to a river crossing where the boardwalk stopped and there were construction workers building a bridge that was about 15 feet from being completed. Looking at my satellite maps and guidebook, I saw no other option than to head up a steep cobblestone road, backtracking to find the official bridge across.

At this point my Achilles started to ache. I kept going with a walk/run mix until I found the bridge and went across the river.  The route went back inland from there, but I could see a road that went back to the beach and decided to take it, thinking that the cold water would help. Limping by the time I made it the mile or so to the ocean, I called my husband to come pick me up. I had run 10 miles, but had only made 5 miles of progress up the coast.

As I headed towards the ocean, I saw a beached dead whale. I thought to myself, really? If this was some type of symbolic quest, what in the world did that mean? An old man was there who spoke no English, so we tried to converse about the situation and through my few Portuguese words and hand gestures understood that the whale had died in the ocean and had washed up to shore that day.  I went to the next break and stood in my ice bath of an ocean, feeling defeated.

After contacting Danny as well as a family member orthopedic PA who is also a runner for their advice and support, I was determined I could do it, but would need to make a few adjustments. Thankfully we were just outside a larger city, so I was able to grab their recommendations of anti-inflammatories, KT tape, and a pair of 10mm heel drop running shoes (high heels compared to my 4mm drop flats). With my updated first aid kit and advice to walk the steeps, walk a warm up and take an ice bath every day, the run went from an excuse to see the coast of Portugal by foot to requiring all of my mental strength in hopes of finishing.

The next day I walked 5 miles on the shoreline from our rental back to where I had stopped the previous day. The following day, I walked 2 miles and ran 5. I could run. That was all I needed to regain my focus and belief that I could do it.

For the next few days I ran until my Achilles would suddenly scream and then walk another mile. Somehow I always made it to where I needed to get to and the right people always turned up- from a police officer who gave me directions when I was lost, then continued to check back on me to make sure I was ok to the most wonderful hosts at a bed and breakfast we stayed at who opened up the pool for me after it had been closed for the season to take an “ice bath” at the end of my run for the 3 days we stayed there. Joy resurfaced, paired with the pain.

Cautious, now, I did not stray from the yellow arrows and blue shells that pointed me in the right direction. The previous detour had me doubting my inner compass until one day I was at a crosswalk at a busy road. Perhaps because I grew up in Montana and didn’t need to learn this survival skill, I have never quite gotten the hang of crossing busy roads. I was thankful when there was another pilgrim who was walking the Camino who arrived at the crosswalk at the same time that I was running up to it. We talked for a minute while waiting to cross. He asked me when I planned to arrive in Santiago, Sunday I replied and asked him the same- his answer, Saturday. The competitive edge in me sparked. If he could hike it in one less day than my plans, surely I could run it by then!

We crossed the road, and I began to run a couple blocks, only to find that I needed to cross back over the same road to the side I had began, realizing the importance of listening to my intuition. I started thinking about how I could mange to finish a day earlier, knowing with my injury that I’d need to push it more than I had been. At this point I came to a beautiful little stone bridge where my husband was picking me up on the other side of and saw a flock of swans swimming by. I took it as a sign and felt confident in my decision.

The following day I ran 17 miles, then 16, then 15. Through a rainstorm, through hillier terrain, through multiple cities, growing stronger in all aspects, with those last 3 days being the longest daily mileage of my journey. I walked the final two miles into Santiago with my husband who had been my support not only on the trip, but throughout my entire season of training. As we arrived to the finish, the Catedral de Compastela, there was a man playing Fur Elise on a grand piano in the plaza and I broke into tears.

The following day we drove to the Muxia, sometimes added to the journey by pilgrims as the “true” finish to sit on the shore and let it all soak in. Huge waves were crashing into the rocks we sat on, yet the air remained still all around us.  The immense energy of the ocean, the rocks and the air was a perfect mirror to how I was feeling. This challenging adventure had changed something in the core of me, where I felt absolutely calm, yet knew that it had also initiated waves of chaos all around as my life would now need to shift to match the strength, grace and confidence that had grown within me.