Gleb Walks the Camino
Gleb passes Alto del Pedron
Editor’s note: Gleb Velikanov, a regular at PRC group runs, hiked the Camino de Santiago across Spain in September of 2017. He walked 550 miles in chunks of about 15–20 miles per day. Gleb sent us dispatches periodically along the way. We've collected them here in five posts for you to read. Gleb is a veteran of more than two dozen marathons, a dozen ultras, and three through-hikes. In April of 2019 he will walk the Arizona Trail and share his experience there with us. Read about his previous adventures at poindexterendurance.com.
Post No. 1: Decision
Post No. 2: Departure
Post No. 3: Water like Wine
Post No. 4: Walking on Empty
Post No. 5: Leaving a Rock Behind
Gleb in the White Mountains along the Appalachian Trail
Sept 3, 2017: Decision
So, I was sitting at my desk, in an office, in a suburb, in a state of near-brain-dead stupor. Clicking on all the appropriate icons, getting the TPS reports taking care of, punching the clock with the orderliness of Old Faithfull.
Naturally, the internal pressure of boredom and tedium kept building up, certain to explode in a geyser of travel and exploration. It is very difficult for me to remain in one spot for too long.
You see, endurance is my jam. Running (about 30 trail and road marathons and ultras) and backpacking (I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2010 and the Appalachian Trail in 2015) have been a constant passion for over a decade. Having those experiences under my belt, I knew I needed an endurance adventure to clear my head, after the time spent behind a desk. A brief trip to Alaska earlier this summer became the last straw: After two weeks of sticking to a demanding, but not a tedious schedule, I could not picture returning to the nine-to-five life.
Gleb fording a creek on the PCT. Brrr.
Choosing the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James, Route of Santiago de Compostela), a hiking route in Spain, came naturally. The former Catholic pilgrimage, now a popular hiking and cycling system of trails, takes an average person about a month to complete, is easy to navigate, and is rumored to be very affordable.
I will be walking the Camino Frances, the most popular route that runs from Saint Jean Pied de Port in southern France to Santiago de Compostela near the Atlantic coast of Spain. All of that sounds like a recipe for a quick and easy getaway, something to clear my mind and crush some miles. Trail therapy. Endurance rebirth.
If completing the PCT and the AT taught me anything, it would be accepting every trail for what it is, trying to figure out the unique challenges and opportunities each time, without trying to fit the current experience into neat boxes of former ones. While I intend to complete the Camino in less than a month (most likely in three weeks), I am looking forward to staying in hostels, the proximity of civilization, and the availability of fresh food and beverages. Bring it on!
Sept. 8, 2017: Departure
Embarking to hike a trail is always a good thing. It seems, however, that the gods of travel were intent on keeping me away from Europe this time. After a 40 hour flight delay in Seattle, a transatlantic flight, another flight to Paris, then to Bayonne in southern France, I felt like I would never make it to Saint Jean Pied de Port, the starting point for Camino de Santiago’s Camino Frances route.
As soon as I got to my hotel room, though, something switched. I went into hiking mode. Hitting the trail the next morning became the most natural thing.
On the first day, after getting to tourist-filled SJPP at 2 PM, I only managed three miles before getting a bed at an albergue (al-berg-ay), a hostel that usually provides dinner and/or breakfast. The entire Camino is peppered with albergues along its route. I figured I would get some rest and put in some decent miles the next day. Boy, did I….
Gleb did the Pyrenees in the dark.
Jet lag ruined my sleep. By 2 AM, I was ready to hike. I made it over the steepest portion of the entire trail, the Pyrenees, in complete darkness, in the rain. I ended the day with a little over 25 miles at the municipal albergue in the town of Zubiri. Twenty bunk beds in two rooms, accommodating a model-UN-esque collection of people from all over the world is the best way to describe it.
The social aspect of this trail is quite fun. You get to break bread and spill wine on your shirt with all sorts of people. My Spanish and German are getting better by the minute, with enough native speakers of both languages readily available to be tormented by my attempts to communicate in their native tongue.
The next morning jet lag was a bit kinder. I was able to sleep in until 4 AM. Not wanting to match my effort from the previous day, I settled for a modest 22 miles to the town of Urtega. The terrain allows all sorts of flexibility; it is relatively easy walking. The route switches between a well-maintained trail and road. The climbs are manageable.
Lunch on the Camino.
I did discover possibly the greatest aspect of the Camino: civilization. I walked through the city of Pamplona, full of ancient buildings, cobblestone roads, old churches, and of course stores, restaurants, and cafes with food! That day I enjoyed a mouth-watering lunch of fried eggs, local ham, fries and bread, all doused in fresh olive oil at a cafe merely 50 yards away from the trail.
My “trail legs,” the ability to hike long days on a consistent basis, is not there just yet. I am a little bit sore. Hoping the jet lag goes away, and I’m able to sleep past 5 AM, I am ready for the next section of the trail. Bring it on!
Gleb in Pamplona.
Walking on near Castrojeriz
Sept. 20, 2017: Wine like WaterIt has been over a week on the Camino, I am over one third of the way in. My legs hurt no more, while my liver is a whole different story. The wine here is cheap, sometimes a little over €1 a bottle (about $1.20), while the social aspect of the trail lends itself to sharing that wine with fellow pilgrims. A lot.
By now, day nine on the trail, I have figured out the routine. You should wake up early, which is not a problem, as most albergue inhabitants start getting out of bed around 5:30 AM, making all kinds of noise. I have to get my endorphine rush from exercise (those of you that know me have seen my dopamine/norepinephrine tattoos), so I hike hard, covering between 30 and 40 kilometers per day (about 18–25 miles).
You have to finish early, otherwise, you won’t get a bed. My 50k effort a few days back was fueled mainly by the desire to not sleep in a field—I kept arriving at albergues with no vacancy.
After arriving at the day’s destination, all hell breaks loose: The albergues are stuffed to the gills with pilgrims of diverse countries of origin, ready to raise a glass or two of affordable vino tinto to celebrate the day’s achievements.
The food is cheap, too: Albergues usually serve meals, while restaurants adjacent to the Camino offer a pilgrim’s menu: first, second, and dessert courses, accompanied by wine, all for €10-12 ($12–$14).
Pilgrim's Menu, León, Course 1: Roasted tuna belly, bell pepper, picked onion, olives, wild chives.
Pilgrim’s menu León, course 2: pan-fried Atlantic Salmon, mustard sauce, mixed green salad.
Pilgrim’s menu in León, dessert: Some crazy milk dessert. Grass fed cow’s milk, coagulated. Local honey.
By now, I have gotten used to going fast on the easy, flat, or rolling hill terrain between the towns, then strutting through ancient and narrow cobblestone town streets with my mouth agape, staring at the castles, churches, ruins along the way.
Sitting down at a cafe along the way to enjoy a brunch of tortilla (more of an omelette with chopped boiled potatoes than a flatbread), baguette and caffe con leche along the way.
Today, I am going to give both my legs and my liver a break. Hiking only 24 kilometers into Burgos, staying at a Catholic convent that does not allow adult beverages, and has a strict 10 PM bed time. Going to get plenty of sleep to prepare to crush miles tomorrow.
Walking in the mountains in Galicia
Sept. 27, 2017: Walking on Empty
The effect traveling and endurance have on you is interesting. It is almost like you enter a parallel universe, one that is vastly different from everyday life you are used to.
By now, I am thoroughly cleansed from the plague that was the 9-to-5 office job. I wake up as a pilgrim, I walk west towards Santiago, I end my day with a pilgrim meal at a restaurant at the next town’s main square.
I have not started to drink less, but also, I have not started to drink more. No vino, no Camino.
Here is my schedule: Wake up between 6 and 7 AM, skip the disgusting European breakfast most albergues offer (white toast, margarine, fake marmalade, instant coffee), instead gather my modest belongings into my mochila (backpack), pound my cold brew tea I have left by my bunk bed overnight, and hike 7 to 10 km to the next village on an empty stomach.
This is what breakfast looks like.
There, I feast on tortilla (that omelet with potatoes), meat pie (delicious and with onions), bocadillos (baguette sandwiches) and caffe con leche. That fuels me up for the rest of the day. I hike for the next 6 to 8 hours, covering between 30 and 50 km.
Recently, I have gotten out of the meseta (flatlands around Burgos and León) and entered the mountainous areas preceding the coast. Santiago de Compostela is within sight, under 200 km remaining. I can almost smell it.
Let us talk about the brass tacks: What is in my backpack. Not much, really: a sleeping bag liner, as you do not need much more. There is an albergue every night, you just need to shield yourself from the veteran bunk bed mattress that has been quite close to many pilgrim bodies.
Some clothes, shorts, PRC t-shirt, socks, wind shirt, fleece jacket and pants, hat, gloves. I have some town clothes for this trip, just pants and a cotton T-shirt. Phone, phone charger and a power bank. Some bandaids for blisters.
A pair of German pilgrims donated a travel towel to me. Apparently, albergues do not provide towels.
I cannot stop appreciating my Hoka One One Challengers. The thick sole is holding up quite well, the tread is great for the more technical portions of the trail. In my mind, I laugh (kind-heartedly) at all those poor souls trudging in hiking boots. So heavy, so hot.
This trail is different. Europe is older than the US. This is not the Pacific Crest Trail nor is it the Appalachian Trail. But, it is not better or worse, just different.
I will continue to push big miles, beelining for Santiago and Finisterra. But, once finished, I think I will return home with a new appreciation for the Old World.
Oct. 12, 2017: Leaving a Rock Behind
Editor's Note: This is Gleb’s final post, dispatched from 60 km west of Santiago de Compostela, at the “end of the Earth.”Watching the sun melt into the Atlantic while perched on the rocks in Finesterra, a cape in the northwest corner of Spain and the final “end” of the Camino de Santiago, I cannot help reflecting upon the nature of my journey. What was it all about?
Gleb at the end of the world.
The physical and mental aspects of the hike gave me no trouble. In fact, back home, my running and backpacking buddies and I sometimes cover more distance on tougher terrain in 24 hours than an average pilgrim does in three or four days.
I do feel that this bout of walking across the Iberian peninsula let me experience something different, however, something significant, almost something I have not felt before. It was the people I met along the way.
While on the Camino, I did meet a few folks. Many had spiritual reasons for heading to Santiago. Some were the garden-variety pilgrims after their compostela, a certificate of completion, which, apparently draws some water in Europe. (Some people include it on their resume under “Interests and Accomplishments.”)
Proof of completion. This is his compostela.
Some desire to turn a new page in life, to put an unfortunate or a tragic event behind them. Things like divorce or cancer. You can do that by leaving a rock on the pile at Cruz de Hierro, an iron cross outside of the village of Foncebadon. That symbolizes leaving bad things behind, all your troubles and worries.
Others want to scatter their loved ones’ ashes over the ocean.
The Botafumeiro in the Cathedral de Santiago
It seems like many cultures have some sort of a spiritual endurance journey.
Muslims trek to Mecca. Native Americans have vision quests. Europeans, apparently, walk the Camino. I am not a psychologist, but it seems like there is something to walking six-to-eight hours per day, having left your everyday life back home. Something to sharing modest quarters with people from all over the world at night, trying to stumble through broken Spanish, German, or for some, English phrases, attempting to ask or answer simple questions.
Never mind the great food and wine, those are exceptions that prove the rule. The accommodations are spartan, and the end-of-the-day exhaustion is real.
One thing I noticed is that the time does seem to slow down while on this trail. Your daily life boils down to waking up, walking, eating, sleeping. On the final, twenty-sixth day of my journey, I feel like I have been walking in Spain for a year. I barely remember Portland, my work, Thirsty Thursdays at PRC….
Whether what I experienced was spiritual, or not, I did experience some sort of a renewal. A recharge. A much needed break from the grind, from the day-to-day, the nine-to-five. A cure for “mom’s spaghetti.”
The Camino leaves me refreshed and hopeful, ready to take on new projects. To sign up for another marathon or ultra, or something beyond. I would highly recommend this journey to anyone wanting to clear their mind, or just wanting to walk with a backpack. By the way, I did leave my rock at Cruz de Hierro.