So when I left you last, I had “about 60 km left” to walk. I didn’t want to panic people when I wrote that. It was in fact 68 kms. And a day and a half to do it in. My plan was to do about 45 km yesterday and about 23 km today.
I started the day full of energy. I was a new walker. I wasn’t the guy who took lots of breaks any more. I was Mr 68 Kilometres. I tried to pace myself by faster walkers. When we went up hills I allowed myself to pant, obviously, but I didn’t allow myself to stop and catch my breath. When I stopped to buy a drink, I knocked it back and stood up to walk again immediately. I was a machine!
The first 14 kms were the fastest I’ve ever done.
But in the afternoon, I began to feel myself slowing. It takes a lot of energy to drag my body up a hill. My feet and ankles were complaining and my friction burns between my thighs were flaring up. I’m over 17 stone overweight, so I’m basically carrying a professional rugby player on my back all day long. But it’s not as if I’m a naturally fast walker anyway. My mother says that when I was a small child, she used to go out for walks with my sister and me. She could never decide which of us to walk with. My sister would always walk/pedal her plastic car really fast, while I would walk/pedal my plastic car really slowly. I’m a ponderous mover. Always have been. I remember teachers in primary school getting very frustrated with me because I’d fall so far behind on a nature walk that they’d have to stop the other pupils walking so I could catch up.
I don’t know what it was but I slowed down a lot yesterday afternoon. My pace was slower and I found myself taking more breaks. It took me 2 and a half hours to do my first 14 km and almost 6 hours to do my second. It was coming up to 10:00 pm and I’d only gone about 30 km.
What would I do? I had almost 40 km left to go and I had to be in Santiago by lunchtime the next day to be in time for my flight. I couldn’t give up. Partially, I couldn’t give up for me. It was a big goal I set myself. I’d walked a long distance already and I wanted to go all the way, like a high schooler in an American movie about prom. But also, so many people had got in touch with me. Every Facebook comment, every email and message said “You can do this, you will get there, I believe in you Connor”. The hopes of Facebook were resting on me.
There was only one viable possibility- I was going to walk all night. I bought a cheap torch in a petrol station and readied myself.
The hours from midnight to 6:00 am were among the scariest in my life. Most of the walk was along forest paths. Forests at nighttime are always a mistake. So many scary noises – rustling and cackling and tapping and slithering and swishing and banging. The forest at night is like a nightmare factory. I found myself jumping in fright at leaves and twigs as if the whole forest had come to life.
Not only that, but tree roots and pebbles and little streams lay all about on the path and it was very hard to negotiate with just a €4 torch.
The difficulty/scariness was added to by the fact that I’d run out of podcasts for the day, so all I had downloaded on my phone was Stephen King’s The Stand, a post-apocalyptic novel with lots and lots of dead bodies and various scary scenes including one in a forest. Listening to this was still preferable to silence as I trudged through the night. I took a few breaks in dark little villages along the way, going completely unnoticed by the sleeping inhabitants. In one village, I wrote feedback on two chapters of a thesis one of my online students is submitting on my iPhone and sent it to her. My ability to multitask in situations like this amazes me.
This morning found me very tired. And my ankles were worse than they’d ever been. I didn’t have too far to go, but it was still a lot more than nothing. I was two different Connors from the hours of 8:00 to 11:00 am. Half the time I was marching along, egging myself to go faster and faster. And half the time I was sitting, trying to get my ankles to calm down. A number of people passed me and were quite worried when they saw me sprawled in a bush, as I hadn’t been able to find a bench and I just needed to get the weight off my feet.
The last few kilometres were done in a trance-like state, and to be honest, I barely remember them, but I definitely remember arriving at the goal of my journey. The 708 km mark. The Cathedral of St James in Santiago. I was in shock. I recorded a barely coherent celebratory video for Instagram and Facebook and I sat down at the side of the square. I cried a little. But mainly I was in shock.
It was only when I got to Santiago Airport and got something to eat that I realised I hadn’t eaten anything between 10:00 pm yesterday and 4:00 pm today. The walking just took over!
My feet had stopped working. My ankles wouldn’t take me another step further. I hope I haven’t done permanent damage. Standing up is difficult for me now. But the experience was worth it. I don’t think I’ve ever achieved anything so difficult. I didn’t have a typical Camino. I can’t remember the scenery or the people or the food. I can remember the struggle. And the fact that I suited up for it and won. As Gerald Ford said when Nixon finally resigned, “our long national nightmare is over”.
I’m sure I’ll have a different perspective tomorrow, but I am sleepy and smelly and sore and have just got off my plane in Dublin airport and this is how I feel now.
I did it.