Needs and knees: Camino training hike #5

The deep need for the Camino experience

Every pilgrim I’ve ever met longs to reconnect with the Camino experience after they return. Sometimes you feel it so deeply, it’s like a physical ache—yet it goes mysteriously unnamed. What is this? Why do I miss it so much? What can I do to make this uncomfortable feeling go away?

This feeling reminds me of the springtime buds about to pop where I live. How uncomfortable to be a swelling flower, furled up and encased in a husk. The Camino revitalizes the soul after years-long winter. Post-pilgrimage longing is an urge to burst into bloom, to be radiantly alive every day, the way we were as pilgrims.

Out of that feeling, at least for me, comes a desire to connect meaningfully with other pilgrims. Nothing nourishes me more than connecting with other souls who willingly challenge themselves and ponder life’s deep questions.

Walking is a kind of meditation. To intentionally walk with others can be a sacred, moving ritual.

Training Hike #5

Distance: 5.5 mi
Elevation gain/loss: 25? ft.
Pack weight: 8lbs

Although the easiest, most obvious choice would be to participate in the monthly event hosted by my closest APOC chapter, the idea of gathering with friends to do longer walks held more appeal.

So, for training hike number five, I met up with two aspiring peregrinas and a veteran. Together, we walked along the interconnected paths and parks of Salem. The weather was astonishingly beautiful for early February.

The walk was full of happy accidents. One in our group realized she needed a hat just as we approached Salem’s independent camping gear store. From a hilltop in one park, a guy practicing his trombone, giving us a free, quarter-mile performance. When we stopped for a restroom break, we broke metaphorical bread by sharing chocolate (maybe that’s even better).

Along the way, we compared the merits of gear options for long-distance walking. The aspiring pilgrims asked wonderful questions about the Camino, probing especially for the meaning, the significance, and the moments that made it so much more than just a walk, but a life-changing, soul-healing experience.

Knees

Addressing my arthritis diagnosis is still a relatively new thing for me. I mean, how can I be old enough to have arthritis in the first place??

After finishing the previous training hike with Nancy, it was clear my knee had had too much. Within a few hours, it tingled, felt mildly warm, and was a bit puffy. I suspect that the combination of a ten-pound pack and almost 1000 feet elevation loss and gain over 2.5 miles had been too big a change from all the mostly-flat walking I’ve done so far.

On training hike number five, I was glad for the flat walking, but my knee was still uncomfortable. A few times, it even hurt a bit. This was new and unnerved me. I can’t be messing with this in Spain. I can’t just walk the way I did last time with only meager training. I’ve got to be ready.

Writing it will make me accountable, so I’m recommitting here to doing my daily physical therapy exercises and taking all of my physician-prescribed supplements. Doing yoga was really helping me too, but I just got bust. So I’m going to do that at least every three days.

I do not want to be caught by surprise while walking the Camino. I want my body to be in great shape before I get there.

On the up-side, I’ve lost seven pounds so far. This is helping lighten the literal load on my joints. I would like to lose another seven before I leave (10 weeks left!), so I might have to forego the chocolate I love so much—at least until I’m walking on the Camino!

Simulating the Camino at home

I loved walking with these ladies and talking about life, our respective journeys, and the Camino.

peregrinas on the train bridge in Salem

The need to connect, to gather, to share unstructured time in community is a deep human need. As hard as it can be to find, all we need is a clear intention to create it. Although not everyone can walk (or return to) the Camino for various reasons, the experience can be simulated or recreated to similar effect.

After the walk, we gathered at my home to share a potluck meal—a cozy end to a beautiful day—all vowing to walk again soon.

A daunting diagnosis: Can I walk the Camino?

“Well, the first thing you’ll want to do is thank you parents for passing this on to you,” my doctor smiled ironically. “Osteoarthritis is usually inherited.”

“I’ll be sure to show them some gratitude,” I grinned back.

“Now, I don’t mean to sound negative,” she continued. “I know you like hiking, but I think you’re going to need to find a new hobby. Your knee just can’t take it.”

*   *   *

A few months ago, I lay in the reverberating MRI chamber wondering what the heck was wrong with my knee. A squishy feeling persisted any time I walked or hiked. Sometimes it ached a bit, so I finally got it checked out. The results came today: arthritis. At forty-two.

This wouldn’t normally be a big deal for this world-class couch potato. I could merely have used the diagnosis as an excuse to take my laziness to the next level.

But, given my recent announcement, these times are anything but “normal.” I’m planning to walk the Camino de Santiago again in nine months! That fact alone would be concerning, but the truth is hiking has become a lot more to me than what my doc called a hobby. Being out in nature is what got my life back on track after falling apart post-Camino. Hiking is what saved me from the most paralyzing depression of my life. Later, when I was whole again, it’s what saved my relationship with Mary. Simply put, hiking is what I do to encounter the Divine and restore my soul.

For this reason and many others, I can’t stop walking. I simply won’t.

“As you know, I walked across Spain two years ago,” I reminded my doc. “I’m planning to go back again next spring and do at least part of it again.”

“Well…” she started slowly, a cautious look crossing her face. “In that case, we need to focus on strengthening the weaker muscles in your quads and loosening your hamstrings. I also have some supplements I want you to start on that can help reduce swelling and support the cartilage.”

Her thought is if these interventions don’t help with my pain and swelling by December, we’ll explore a more aggressive strategy to help the knees become healthier so I can still walk in spring.

I never imagined this — of all things. To be told that I’m physically incapable of walking — or that doing so would be unwise. The craziest part about today’s revelation is that, up until now, I’ve been feeling scared, resistant, and mildly apathetic about the call to walk the Camino again. I haven’t exactly been jumping for joy about going. But now there’s this hurdle. There’s someone looking over my lab reports evaluating whether I should go. I want to spit nails. Find another hobby, my ass!

This new information is changing my formerly-reluctant assent into a defiant just-try-and-stop-me! Something deep within is rising to the challenge.

*   *   *

My mindset is pumped, but the reality of what I’ll have to do to prepare is daunting. I’m one of those excitable types who starts out all gung-ho about a project and then rapidly loses steam — twenty-four hours is a generous window. I have to do exercises every day: Wii balance board games, leg extensions, rolling on a foam thing to stretch my hamstrings (painful!), and a little move I call the stork leg. Daily. Twice daily for extra credit. How on earth will I find the resolve to do this for nine months?

Taking the supplements diligently will be easy enough with breakfast, but it’s the final challenge that fills me with undeniable dread: I have to lose weight. If I’m honest, I need to lose at least forty pounds (and keep it off) to take the strain off my knee. Losing weight takes diligence I do not inherently possess. Oh, that my arms and legs and torso were like Legos, and I could just pull off the bits I don’t need, piece by piece.

Oh, that I didn’t medicate every shift in my mood with sugar, fats, and carbs. Losing weight might be easy if it were just about my meals, but what keeps me overweight is what I eat in secret, in between meals, when no one is watching. Me and food are thick as thieves.

The arthritis was coming, one way or the other. What I didn’t know was saying yes to this Camino meant facing the inherited, intertwined issues of food and feelings. I can curse my fate or deny it, but there that wound is still there, waiting for me to heal it. Further proof, as if I needed any, that the Camino gives you what you need.

So, dear reader, here I am. As you know, I’m embarking on a physical journey in Spain nine months from now. To prepare for that walk, I begin another journey now toward healing and getting healthy in unexpected, potentially-transformational ways. I am equal parts daunted and eager, but one thing is for certain: I’m keeping my hobby.

Want to know why I’m doing the Camino in reverse — and how you can help? Read on!