The Camino de Finisterre in a Day, an Ultra-running Love Story

Some Background

The Camino de Finisterre is a continuation of the Camino de Santiago, which finishes the trail by covering the 90ish kilometers (or 55 miles) between Santiago and the furthest western point in Spain, at Finisterre on the Atlantic Coast.  A lot of people don't do this part of the trail, but to me, it seems like the most poetic finish to the Camino.  Santiago's great and all, but why stop there to see a saint's fake bones when you can finish out watching the sun go down in a spot that Europeans used to believe was the end of the earth:
  

On the Camino de Santiago, Angel and I 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 had it in our plans after we made it to Santiago to take a rest day and then to run the 55 miles to Finisterre in a day, as a nice little capstone on our Camino, and a chance to really suffer and test ourselves after having covered 500 miles on foot in the previous 4 weeks.

And throughout the vast majority of the Camino, things went remarkably well, and our plan looked completely do-able (if not quite reasonable by normal standards of reasonable-ness).  We had no injury issues, no real sense of feeling overtrained/miserable, and were generally loving our experience.  By the last 150 miles or so, we were running about three days ahead of our schedule, and had settled in to a routine of 20 - 25 mile days, which was completely comfortable by that point.  Then, I don't know if it was a fast downhill we'd done the day before, but two days out from our planned arrival in Santiago, I developed what felt like a pull in my right quadricep muscle, at the attachment of the interior of the knee.  I tried to run through, then walk through, but the pain kept increasing, to the point that - by the time we reached a town called Melide 50k from Santiago - I was cursing and throwing things around.  (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".) for a rest day.  After some RICE'ing, the next day I still couldn't run on it without pain, but it generally didn't hurt to walk, except on steep downhills, so we moved on for our first complete day of walking the whole Camino.  We approached it as hiking practice for our upcoming 100 miler, and kept a good pace, but didn't run at all, and finished the day after about 30k.  The next day, headed into Santiago, there was some improvement, and I was only feeling pain on downhills.  We ran probably 5 flat kilometers, but primarily walked the final 20k - mostly out of caution, and because we were hiking in to Santiago with friends anyway, so there was no reason to hurry.  We got in to Santiago in the morning, and spent that evening and the next day resting, with the tentative hope that the Camino de Finisterre one day fun run plan was still possible.

The Camino de Finisterre

By the morning of our planned departure, my leg had been pain free for an entire day, so it seemed like it was going to work as long as I approached the run cautiously - I was planning to run flats and gradual downhills, walk uphills, and walk steep downhills cautiously (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 about 5:30 am from our hostel just next to the cathedral in Santiago, optimistic.  And for the first part of the day, no problems.  It was dark, and we were moving at a slow pace, but by 8 am we'd covered about a half-marathon, and arrived in the first town with any open restaurants to grab some breakfast (Negreira, I believe).  I had a chocolate croissant thing and some coffee, and then went to the toilet to do what you do on the toilet.  When I stood up I felt the quad pull again, and cursed a little bit.  We paid our bill, and by the time we walked out of the restaurant, I was limping and couldn't bend my leg without pain.  After a couple minutes of walking I broke the news to Angel, that I thought I'd be walking the rest of the way.  I kind of lied and said that it felt okay when I was walking, but just hurt when I was running, but I wanted to see if it would work itself out.

Prior to the run, we'd discussed our plan, knowing that I might re-aggravate my injury, and we had initially agreed that if I couldn't run, Angel would still 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, as well as using the day as a long training run for the Cascade Crest 100, and a 40 mile hike with a whining baby wasn't part of that vision.  When I told her I couldn't, she said she would stay with me for awhile to see how things went, so we hiked on for probably 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 immediately started crying, and so did I.  Without saying anything more than "I don't want to finish without you," we both were feeling the significance of what was about to happen.  When we started the Camino de Santiago a month earlier, we had fully expected to need to split up at some point so that we wouldn't drive each other crazy, and so that each of us could have some personal time.  We hadn't spent all day every day together during any 6 week period during our 11 year marriage, so we expected that it might be stressful to try to do so now.  I don't know if it was the daily dose of runners high, or the magic of the Camino, but we hadn't at any point split up - we ran the entire 500 miles together, and this was going to be the first time we had separated.  And so, we hiked on together a little while longer, crying.  Once we'd composed ourselves a bit I told her that I thought I would be able to finish that day, walking.  She said that if I really thought that I would make it, she'd stay with me.  And with that, the arbitrary goal of finishing that day became irrationally important to me.

I've dealt with strains before, and I know that continued movement isn't usually a great recipe for healing, but I also have been around ultra-runners enough to know that, sometimes, when you keep moving, things turn around.  (We kept thinking back to a lot of advice we've gotten especially from Ras and Kathy Vaughan about just continuing through pain with the expectation that it frequently goes away or improves if you go long enough.)  So, from there, we started to embrace the 35 miles of hiking that we had ahead as a training experience.  I would move forward at as fast a pace as I could without sharp pains, and we'd see what happens.  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 in to Finisterre before sundown, and more importantly, before 10 when the front desk closed at the hostel where we had a reservation.  The pain seemed to be getting slightly worse for awhile, but I was able to avoid sharp pain on everything but really steep downhills (there were only a few), so for a big portion of the day our spirits were high.  We'd turned a stupid 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(ish) mornings that gradually heat up throughout the day, with the worst of the heat coming between 2 - 6 pm before things gradually start to cool down again.  True to form, throughout the morning the weather was pleasant, and we were able to complete a marathon before lunch time, which was a big deal - again channeling Ras Vaughan - "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 water sources (about 15k), and through the hottest section of the course (a long section through a really beautiful river canyon, which didn't have shade), with temperatures near 90 degrees.  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.  By the time we reached an albergue/restaurant, my feet were swollen and blistering, I was lightheaded, I had a weird rash all over my legs, and I was genuinely thinking it was a bad idea to continue ("This is the last albergue for 15km").  Angel was still feeling fine though, so after some foot care, a coke, some gatorade and dumping a bunch of water on my head, we got up to push on.

At that point, one of the decisive moments of the day occurred, when an American pilgrim, clearly not reading my "Holy Hell I'm miserable and I think I might die in the desert today, but I'm going to finish this damn walk" social cues started trying to strike up small talk: "Hey!  What part of Brooklyn are you from?!  My kids live in Brooklyn!  What do you guys do?!  I'm a professor!  How's the walk going?!  Okay, well, I'll probably see you ahead!  I'm really moving today!"  We were not in the mood for friendliness at that point, and we took his threat of rapid movement seriously as we started to pick up the pace again after a long period of lagging.  After a bit more walking we exited the canyon and moved along a busy highway for awhile, and could see the American several hundred meters behind on our tail.  There was one more available stop for water and food 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 could swear that I heard the theme song from Halloween playing in the distance as we waved him off and started pushing through an uphill - a personal strength after all of our ultra training in the Cascades. 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 that far - maybe a kilometer or so before I started to bonk again, and before I started having enough increasing pain to scale back to a walk, but it was far enough that we'd distanced ourselves from any threat of having to try to be pleasant with talkative strangers.

During another 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 started:

   
From there, I generally 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 about 5:30, and stopped for a quick food and drink break (and to celebrate the fact that we had now walked from border to border in Spain), and pushed on.  The 15 km route from there to Finisterre was beautiful but gruelling, particularly a final stretch after we passed this cove and walked along the highway for several kilometers before finally reaching our hostel at 9:00, 15 1/2 hours after we'd started. 


It seems that, whether or not you set out on the Camino with a set of problems to work out, you come away from the experience with at least one epiphany.  We didn't really approach the Camino with a need to solve any dilemmas, or sort out any major life challenges.  But the major lessons I came away with, which this day highlighted, have to do with my relationship with Angel.  We were together for the entire trip, and her decision to stay with me through the sufferfest reinforced for me what an amazing wife I have.  The fact that we completed the route that day (at a pace that would keep us under the cutoffs at a lot of trail races, even!) also reaffirms my belief that I'm much stronger with her than without her, and that together we can do whatever we decide to do.  The Camino de Finisterre was one of the most beautiful sections of the entire trip, and I'm positive that I'll look back on the day that we did it as the most significant. 

Comments

Freaking Awesome Tim! Let me be the first (on this blog anyway) to congratulate you on your achievement. Let also be the first to tell you that you should take injury advice from people like Ras with a BIG grain of salt. :) Sounds like you dodged a bullet on this trip and I'm glad your quad is healing. Knowing when to say when is tough, x 10 when you are attempting to do stuff like run ultras or run across an entire country! Kudos to you and to Angel for all kinds of reasons.

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