Preparing For A Long Hike: Physically, Mentally & Spiritually
It’s been a crazy windy and grey week in SW France.
This morning I met the neighbor and we chatted about it. “Ça me gonfle” he remarked. He pointed a finger at his head and twisted his hand around, making the point that all this wind really drives you crazy after a while. I fully agreed, having tested my mental limits and questioned my will to live more than once by walking ~40km through it during the week.
Step, whoosh, step, wheee….
The only saving grace was that it masked my tinnitus for several hours by replacing one whistling noise with another louder one. A twisted kind of reprieve, I guess? Either way, I was feeling a bit wild-eyed and nutty by now.
But there’s more to it too.
For me this is all part of my preparation work, the steps that will get me to the Camino in a month’s time. I’ve been reflecting a lot on this question this week as I make miles, roam the online Facebook forums, test gear and try to whip my body into the shape it needs to be for what is to come. There are physical aspects that cannot be ignored of course, but the mental ones are so much more complex and individual. How do you prepare for a long hike? How do you get your mind ready as well as your body? I think you learn a lot about yourself doing this initial work. And it’s where I am in my process now.
So today I explore these ideas from the physical to the spiritual, at least the way I see them. At the end of it all I hope I give you something to think about, and then I’d love to hear yours.
Physical Prep Is Important
There’s no doubt that physically preparing for a long hike makes the experience infinitely better.
There is some truth to the fact that “you get fit along the way”. Your body will adapt if you give it time, and by the end of several weeks of hiking the 20km days that seemed so daunting at the beginning will seem rather normal. I say this from actual experience having done a few longer hikes in my time including a memorable month-long expedition to Nepal in 2007 with my friend Leo and his pals. I came back from that trip high on endorphins, 10kg lighter in fat and 10kg heavier in muscle than when I started (yes, it’s possible to be both), with tree-trunk legs that could easily walk 6 hours and scale 4000ft in one day.
That said, I wouldn’t have survived that trip at all if I hadn’t broken-in my shoes and done a modicum of walking beforehand.
You’ll be fine if your gear isn’t perfect (after all, the first pilgrims walked in nothing more than woolen capes and linen robes), you’ll manage if you forget to bring few items (the Camino is perfectly modern and well-supported), but you’ll be miserable if your feet blister up on your first day and/or you seriously injure yourself because you pushed yourself beyond what your body was ready for. It’s also worth noting here that people do actually die every year on Camino. Not many mind you, and not from pillaging or lack of food and water as they might have done in Medieval times, but usually because they did something silly or seriously exceeded their physical capabilities.
Usually the story goes….collapsed suddenly on trail, dead. The Camino keeps a morbidly interesting list of them.
So yes, you need a good pair of shoes and socks that you’ve walked at least 50km in, a vague training plan (even if it’s just a few miles each day to begin with) that ideally gets more serious (6-10 miles every 1-3 days) the closer you get to your hike, and at least a week with your chosen backpack on your back, preferably loaded up to close to final weight. You may not be completely ready by the time you leave and you’ll still end up sore as all get-out at least the first week or so, but you can console yourself with the knowledge that you are way less sore than you would have been otherwise….and still happily alive.
Sometimes the perspective of avoided pain, even imagined, is incredibly helpful. And getting your butt in shape really does exactly that.
Mental Prep Is Also Key (and Very Personal)
Why do this? Why are you going?
I think intent is an important part of any journey because without it the physical obstacles (which you will encounter) can far too easily derail you. After a day of blisters, aching back, pouring rain and squishy underwear you’ll wonder why the **** you’re here when you could be lounging in perfect comfort in a soft sofa with hot cocoa and fluffy socks back at home base. The endless miles of step-by-plonking-step drudgery will suddenly seem pointless, and the initial excitement of being on an adventure will look more like a serious lapse of logical thought.
Trust me, this moment will come.
In that moment the only thing that will keep you from throwing your backpack in the river and hightailing it back home is why you came here in the first place. It can change a bad day into a blip and transform an infuriating obstacle into an over-comeable (albeit not pleasant) challenge. You may have to repeat your chosen “why” like a mindless mantra, and probably have a good internal debate on the matter, but this is when it’s absolutely critical to stay focused.
“I’m here to find my purpose, I’m here to find my purpose, I’m here to find my purpose”
“But why Nina, could you not find your purpose in a hot tub with a nice glass of Bordeaux?”
See, the logic is compelling which is why your reason must be pretty rock solid to begin with. So, setting that intent early on, believing in that intent and placing it in your mind before the first step and every day after is what….I dare say…will give you the strength to overcome those moments and ultimately provide you with what you’re looking for. Either that or the sure and certain lure of a cold beer at the end of the each walking day.
Honestly, whatever works 🙂
Spiritual Prep Is Worth Thinking About
There’s no denying the Camino is a spiritual journey, and this applies whether you’re a Christian or not.
Any long walk will inspire soul-searching, and a walk like the Camino (where many go specifically for this purpose) is even more prone to such things. But IMO whether or not you get anywhere in that regard is seriously dependent on whether you are open to it to begin with. This may seem like a rather fou-fou concept, but I actually feel it’s quite key.
The way I see it, your heart must be open to receive.
This is true whether you’re looking for the presence of God, trying to connect with the Universe, grounding yourself to the earth, or simply looking to connect with other human beings. If your spirit is not open to these things or your heart is closed and guarded, then none of it will happen. On the other hand if you start your walk with an open heart and no pre-conceptions, with the firm belief that things, people and experiences will come to you that are meant to be, then I think they really will.
The preparation for this is very individual.
You might chose to pray, to practice yoga or meditation, or simply write down your thoughts and the questions that you hope to get answered on your trek. Many on the Camino go one step further by bringing a stone that they place at the Iron Cross (Cruz de Hierro) in the Leon Mountains of Galicia. Traditionally it represented their sins (of course), but for pilgrims these days it’s more something they want to leave behind, a burden perhaps, someone to remember, something to forget, or simply something to mark your path with. If you go the French Way from SJPDP you carry that stone for ~530km and then you let it go.
I really, really like that idea….
I think preparing for something like this can make the experience so much more impactful, perhaps even life-changing if you allow it. So whatever process you need to open your heart and mind beforehand, I say do it.
Allowing For Imperfections Is Critical
The perfect hike does not exist. This is important.
A long walk reveals many things, not only our wishes and desires (who doesn’t dream of stunning vistas and interesting friendships?), but also our own imperfections and weaknesses, be those physical or mental. There will be days you get upset or annoyed, days your body doesn’t respond the way you want or seems to let you down, bad weather, ugly views and experiences that are more frustrating than pleasant. Some of the hiking could even be downright mind-blowingly boring.
We must be prepared to accept all of that, as much as we accept the good things that happen along the way, if we are truly to take it all in.
I don’t know how to properly prepare for this one other than just being aware of it. In fact I’d care to venture that not a single pilgrim in the past 1,000 years has finished the Camino and declared “well, that went exactly as planned”, and yet they all succeeded nonetheless. So, I can pretty much guarantee it’ll be the same for you or me.
Knowing that and accepting it is all part of the self-awareness journey that is long-distance hiking. It’s imperfect just like life, and yet it can still be frikkin’ awesome…..which when you really, really think about it is actually pretty frikkin’ cool.
And Some Things You May Not Want To Prep At All
Almost as interesting as the things we prepare for, are the things we do not.
For me I have a very specific delineation that’s carried me through all of my travels, my photography and all my long walks. Whenever I go somewhere new I always want to know all the mechanical deets of the experience. For example if I’m driving I want to know how far, how many sightseeing stops etc. if I’m photographing I want to know the best spots to shoot from, and if I’m walking I want to know how many miles, how much uphill, how much downhill, what kind of terrain etc. This is the mental framework that allows me to prepare. A kind of picture frame that bounds the experience for me. I’m not always in situations where I can get all that info beforehand, but if I can it helps me feel so much more capable for the challenge ahead.
That makes my A-type brain happy.
Then there’s the other side of me, the side that wants to roam like a carefree hippy and feel everything for the first time, to have that raw rush of sights, sounds, emotions and smells that comes from exploring an unknown world. That part of me wants no information whatsoever, at least not about the visuals or the personal experience of what is to come. It’s almost like I require a picture frame, but I want it to be empty so that I can fill it up with no bias or pre-conceptions. So that I can create an authentic painting of my own making, if you will.
That makes my creative side happy.
This Nina-specific contradiction means I spend lots of time reading about other people’s gear, getting the right apps, downloading maps and learning the how-to’s, but I spend very little time viewing YouTube videos of the trail, or reading people’s memoirs of their experience on it (that latter stuff, I’m actually more prone to do post-hike).
“The first day is 24 km of 3-5% uphill along earthen paths with little shade” Very good, very useful
At the peak you encounter an incredible view of….which makes you feel……” Nooooooooo, delete, delete, remove-from-computing-memory. Zip…..zap…..gone.
In other words I love all the details of how, but I desperately and selfishly want to preserve all the mystery of what and why.
It’s kind of a crazy thing really, especially given that I write a blog (and actually love to read other people’s blogs too). I want my own picture-frame to be empty, yet I’m keen to paint it for others? And I still can’t help looking? I can’t quite reconcile these things either, so I settle on the thought that probably not everyone is quite as bizarre as I am. It’s the simplest explanation, so by Occam’s Razer it must be so.
I’m Not Ready Yet
I’m not ready yet, despite the fact that my trek is only 4 weeks away now.
I’m getting in shape no doubt, already 5kg (~11 lbs) down in weight from where I started in January of this year. If I keep this up I should get close to losing the amount I’m going to put on my back, which will allow me to essentially start the trek at net-net zero. My legs have carried all that extra weight for the past 3 years, so surely another 6 weeks on the Camino should be breeze, right? HA, we’ll see.
I’m also mentally coming around, slowly. I’ve certainly got a lot of unnecessary burdens I’d be happy to toss out on my first step, but I may have to pare down the list a smidgen lest the Camino Gods deem it too much. I’ve also got my intent down, and I hope it’s strong enough to carry me through. For the rest I’m just trying to open my heart and let it come to me when I need it. Oh, and I finally found my new backpack (!!!), but that’s a story for another day.
Finally I’m happy to say I don’t know it all. I write these blog posts as much for my own therapy as I do for others so that one day, perhaps a day where things are not going quite as planned, I can read my own words and say “see Nina, I told you so”.
All that to say I don’t know if I’ll ever be fully ready, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be ready to go, and I guess that will have to do.
So what about you my dear blog readers? How do you prepare for long or arduous tasks, hiking or otherwise? I’d love to hear your comments below!