Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Pilgrim Athlete

It doesn't have to be, but a pilgrimage by foot can really be a spectacular athletic event. I'm not complaining when I mention to people that rightly only 78% of me actually arrived in Patras. More of me than I knew could be spared was consumed during the long cold winter of borscht. The fitness benefits of eight hours of aerobic exercise a day can't be underestimated.

Not all trekkers on the pilgrim trails view it as an athletic opportunity. Last winter in Spain I met a German retiree who proclaimed that he'd been a pilgrim for more than seven years non-stop. He strolls along one of the many marked trails to Santiago, stopping in the bars to chat with pilgrims and locals alike. With that amount of time under his belt, he's gotten to know just about every barfly and tender. While walking, he covers maybe 10 kilometers a day with more time in bars than on the trail. When he tires of walking, he volunteers at a pilgrim house for weeks on end, greeting pilgrims and offering help. He approaches the pilgrim life in an uncommon way. By the looks of his lumbering stride, when he walks, it's not at an aerobic pace. A pilgrim he may be, but not a pilgrim-athlete.

I met another pilgrim, another German as it happens, last year in Spain. Young and fit, he was bound determined to walk the distance from Roncevalles to Santiago faster than anyone on record. He carried a tiny pack and wore running shoes, boasting that he was covering more than 40 kilometers every day. Far more of an athlete than a pilgrim, I observed. I was offput by the annoying 'fingerbells' he wore. I've seen these often enough in Germany... like a bicycle bell, but worn on the finger and dinged with a finger flick to alert a slower pedestrian to make way, no vocalization necessary. Efficient to a fault?

An Austrailian couple I met were walking for the sake of life-saving fitness. Fair-fat-and fortysomething, they had assessed their lives after their youngest went off to university... change their lifestyle or remain couch-potatoes for the rest of their days. They chose to walk the camino for the purpose of the weightloss and fitness. When I crossed their paths about midway between the Pyrenees and Santiago, they had each already lost so much weight they had to scramble to find new clothes that weren't hanging on their much svelter frames. They were very careful about what they ate, buying supplies when they could and making their own dinners rather than get the high cal, carb-laden soups and pork steaks with fries that are the more standard pilgrim fare at the inexpensive taverns in the north of Spain, always served bottle of wine. This couple was in it for the longterm. I admired them. With such a change in their metabolisms, I'm sure they got a new lease on life by the time they arrived in Santiago.

From the perspective of fitness, being on the pilgrim trail is in many ways much different than being in an urban neighborhood or gym. I'm not sure the effect would be the same - could I have lost 22% of my mass by getting 8 hours of aerobic exercise in 4.5 months in 'real life' the same as on the pilgrimage? Hard to say. And what about 4 hours of aerobic exercise a day over the course of 9 months? Walking on a treadmill or elliptical machine in a gym is never as strenuous as walking across the steppes or through the mountains. Would I have even ventured out to get to a gym during a blizzard? Probably not. Yet there I was getting my 8 hours of aerobic exercise walking through many an icy, ferociously windy snowstorm to get to the next night's accommodation.

The gym or even a footpath around an urban park would never have the same overall activity as walking as a pilgrim - the wind buffeting a backpack around is quite an abs workout, the use of the walking sticks is not only invaluable for toning those flabby upper-under arm bits but also the forearms when launching across small streams and ditches, and uneven surfaces really helps tone the otherwise anonymous muscles used for balance.

And the hard part? How do you go from eight hours of aerobic exercise a day to maybe a one hour walk through the park?


The Solitary Walker said...

Mmm... Treadmill or pilgrim trail? I know which one I prefer!

Judith said...

I love your thoughts and discussions on your blog... We travel tomorrow to the 'old world'; what are your next travel plans??
XOXO Judith & Malte

Anonymous said...

I have been woefully negligent in checking your progress but am thrilled you made it. You are such an inspiration to all and I am so proud of you! When are you back to share your stories?
Karen W