Thursday, March 11, 2010

Buen Camino

(a) Sheep graze trailside in the Pyrenees, (b) Albino, and (c) Catedral de Burgos. Photos (a) and (b) courtesy of Albino Jimenez.

This story appeared, excluding pictures, as a three-part serial in Running Journal, November and December, 2009, and January, 2010.



I. Over the Pyrenees

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Burgos, Spain—38-year old Spanish runner Albino Jimenez and I are in our final week of preparation for an attempt to run across Spain on el Camino de Santiago—the Trail of Saint James. This trail, part dirt path, part city streets, stretches across northern Spain, from Spain's border with France in the east to Santiago in the west, and 54 miles beyond, to the ocean at Fisterra. Fisterra marks not only the end of land, as the name says, but was, in the old days, the very end of the World itself. Pilgrims have followed this ancient path for over a thousand years in order to visit the tomb of Saint James at Santiago.

We are planning an unsupported run, carrying what little we can on our backs. The total distance is some 519 miles, and we are allowing 14 days for the crossing, thus facing daily runs of 30 to 40 miles.

It may seem easy enough, but we are told that no one has yet run the total distance. That seems unlikely to me, but it makes little difference. Either way, we are going to run it. If we can.

Our start comes this Sunday, June 28, just over the border in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France. We face the Pyrenees on our first segment.

Albino has taken the lead, gathered information, and planned the stages. And chosen an unlikely partner: un anciano americano.

Our start comes just three days after my 69th birthday. We climb over 4,000 feet in the first 14 miles. Thus, I blunder into my 70th year.

As our run unfolds and when conditions permit, we will send updates. Odds are against us. We need all the luck we can get.

Monday, June 29, 2009

“No bus goes to Roncesvalles,” the girl behind the window said.

“But I read the bus schedule on the internet,” Albino protested.

“You can’t believe what you read on the internet.”

“Well, the bus company ought to…”

Then he realized he might as well give it up. Getting ourselves to Saint Jean had turned into a hassle. We had driven a rental car to Pamplona, Spain. We’d planned to take a bus from there to Roncesvalles, the last town in Spain, and then take a taxi on to Saint Jean. But we were stuck in Pamplona, the very town we expected to run to on our first day of running. We pondered.

Idling taxis lined the curb by the bus station like buzzards on a limb. We decided to take one from Pamplona to Roncesvalles and from there over the mountains to Saint Jean. Eventual price: 100 Euros.

The taxi wound out of Pamplona and headed up a long valley, gradually climbing the left side. I could see a clear fast stream below. I wondered if it was the one where Hemingway caught trout in The Sun Also Rises. On the radio Van Morrison was singing “Brown Eyed Girl.” The driver took the Peugeot through numerous switchbacks, downshifting and upshifting. We finally slipped through the pass and headed downhill, losing radio reception. He tuned in another station. Bob Dillon was singing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”

Familiar music and thoughts of Hemingway, reminders of home filled the car. But over us towered the Pyrenees, foreign, forbidding and tall. Winding up and up, we had climbed so long and so high and still I had to lean close to the window and look up steeply to see their top. I was daunted by the prospect of running back across these mountains. Off to the south, where our trail was, I could see a bald peak. Tomorrow’s path must go close to its top, I figured. The distance seemed so far, the mountains seemed so high, knocking on heaven’s door seemed right. At that moment, I had a new view of what we were in for.

We had scheduled the start of our run for Sunday, June 28, at Saint Jean, France, but had discovered that, due to a local festival, no hotel rooms were available for Saturday night. Then we had located a farmhouse three miles up the trail, the way we wanted to go. We ran those three miles late Saturday and so got a head start. That short distance gained 1,000 feet. The sun was fierce, and once we reached the house, I wanted to stand in the shade.

That evening we sat on the terrace, looking down on Saint Jean huddled astride the river in the valley below. In the pastures above, we could see sheep grazing, tiny tufts sprinkled on soft green. A model 6500 Ford farm tractor sat just below us, the manure fork on its front raised high, blocking part of my view. A farm boy, I would not have parked it with the lift raised; it could fall on someone.

During the night I had a nightmare and woke up screaming. Embarrassed, I hoped I had not disturbed Albino. But I had. A couple of weeks later I found out. When I had a second screaming nightmare he reminded me of the one here.

Next morning, Sunday, we continued our climb. We had 3,000 more feet to gain over the 11-mile distance to the pass through the Pyrenees. El Camino follows the route over these mountains taken by Napoleon when he invaded Spain in 1808; it is a one-track blacktop now. The path occasionally makes off-road excursions and takes shortcuts. The trail is steep with hardly a respite. Interpolating from the profile in a book I have here —for a while I was a civil engineer—shows that one 2.5-mile pitch sustains an average slope of 9.8 percent. On the ground it is hardly so smooth. Short local pitches approach the steepness of stairs, the steps replaced by a wash filled with loose rocks.

It seems to go up forever, and you think you’ll never make it. You know not to look up, but you do anyway. You see a road reaching to the sky. Your spirit sinks. Better to keep your eyes down. Watch your steps. Push off left, then right, keep doing that. Don’t think about the top.

That way, I reached the pass.

Shortly after the pass we entered Spain. The trail ran through wooded foothills on a rocky path. In the afternoon, maybe 25 miles into the day's run, I found myself in trouble. We were on a severely eroded and rocky stretch in dense woods. It was hot. Leg cramps hit, at first easy, then hard. A step up, a step down, a quick step, any kind of irregular motion, produced a painful cramp.

I was alone. Albino had gone ahead, long out of sight. If I fell and was knocked unconscious or disabled by cramps, he would not know. He was the one fluent in Spanish, and he had the cell phone. I had no such aids.

Following hard cramps I rarely recover running form. Our trek was going bust on the very first day. I made the only decision I could—slow down and double fluid intake. My water bottle was running low, and running dry before the next fountain was my fear. Didn't matter. That seemed the only chance.

It worked, surprising me. When I caught up with Albino, he was waiting. He’d had no hint of the trouble I’d faced until I told him. He shared his water.

We continued the trudge on to Pamplona, finishing some 39 miles, and then had to go two more miles to find our hotel. They had already put up the wooden fences for the running of the bulls later in the week.

Looking back now, Sunday's run across the Pyrenees seems glorious, a miracle I’m not sure I could repeat. I think I’ll always remember it as one of my strongest runs. But it came at a terrible price. I’d done damage to my legs that I didn’t know about yet.

The portly old lady sitting behind the hotel desk at Pamplona was good natured and jovial. She laughed easily. When Albino told her we had run from Saint John to Pamplona that day, she knew it was a joke; we were teasing her. She laughed knowingly, enjoying the jest. And we laughed knowingly, too, enjoying her insight. She had seen right through us.

“She’s a good old lady,” Albino said as we walked to the restaurant.

While we were at supper, she must have wondered a little bit. When we returned she told us she’d called her husband. He had assured her it was quite impossible; nobody could run across those mountains in one day. She had us red-handed, our little joke caught in the spotlight.
We all laughed with gracious good-will. Of course we did. How silly! Nobody could run those mountains.

II. El Camino de Inferno

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Albino continues on alone. This morning I watched him cross the bridge over the river at Nájera and then caught the autobus to Burgos, where he lives. He has a chance. He looked strong enough, in that minimized shuffling gait used by ultramarathoners. If it goes well for him I will see him here in Burgos tomorrow night. El Camino goes by his door.

My run has ended in whimpering failure. It came at the end of the third day, only 110 miles into the run, and five miles short of Nájera, yesterday's goal.

On Monday, as we were leaving Pamplona, the weather was hotter. My legs were so sore from crossing the Pyrenees the previous day that, at first, I could barely walk. Some 42 miles stretched out to Los Arcos, our goal that day.

Mid-afternoon we ran out of strength. We had entered farm country. There was no shade. The sun beat down. You could feel the heat on your head under the hat. It lay there like a hot waffle. We walked together a while, trying to keep our run alive. Walking in an ultramarathon is no shame, I told Albino.

"I'm feeling no shame," he replied.

Shortly we began running again, 12 miles from Los Arcos. Albino is stronger than I am. He moved ahead, finally disappearing over one of the rises in the dirt road ahead. The road was straight, golden wheat fields on each side, hills beyond. It could have been Nebraska.

Los Arcos hid itself so well you could get no encouragement from a distant view. You wonder if it is even there. The heat, the running, the crunch of dry gravel, the constant drinking, these were the realities. Los Arcos was a cruel joke. It did not exist.

Then I came around a curve in the dirt road. And there it was. And there stood Albino talking to an elderly gent with a cane just where the dirt road turned to pavement. As I trotted up a passing farm truck threw up a cloud of hot dust. Albino had been waiting ten minutes, he said. It was seven in the evening and we had started at eight that morning. I had run on legs so sore I could step on or off a curb only with grimacing pain.

After we had checked into a room, Albino's brother told him on the phone that Pamplona had reported the hottest temperature for all of Spain - 40 degrees C, or 104 degrees F.

We ate supper in the hotel bar, the only choice. It was full of smoke and noise, loud drinkers and yelling kids. A sudden thunderstorm added to the din, and washed down the plaza outside. We hoped the rain meant cooler temperatures for days ahead, but that hope turned out to be vain. I managed to eat a fourth of my spaghetti. Forget the bread. A Tennessean would feed it to the hogs.

Food was a problem. We had to depend on the little stores and smoky bars. The food we found was unfamiliar to me, and the heat had taken my appetite. I wanted some salty peanuts, pretzels, a Snickers bar, but found none. I thought of the food my wife makes. I'd give a hundred dollars for a plate of Jo Ann's potato salad, I told Albino.

Salt shakers are not usually found on the restaurant table. I needed salt to fight off dehydration and had taken some in a plastic bag to eat occasionally. But it was inconvenient to dig out of my pack, and I didn't get enough. Despite having run 42 miles that day I'd had very little to eat, and I knew I was getting weaker.

So failure came on the third day. For breakfast I had orange juice, a doughnut, and a glass of warm milk. Milk is not popular in Spain. Good luck finding it cold. I applied some Icy Hot ointment to my sore legs. It did no good and only added a disgusting stink.

We left Los Arcos running. Surprisingly, I led most of the morning. There were valleys and hills where the trail was rough and rocky, but I worked hard to set a good pace. Five miles an hour, I figured. But weakness distorted my view and made it seem I was accomplishing more than I was.

After nearly three hours, I stopped at a fountain in Viana and waited for Albino to catch up.

"There's no way we can do a half under three hours," he said.

A half marathon, he meant.

It was true. According to his GPS we had not yet covered 13 miles, and we were pushing three hours. It was shocking news. Until then I'd not known our distance, only the time. Given how hard I'd worked, I thought we'd come much further. My weakness was no longer a matter of guess work; it had been quantified.

Nine days earlier, Albino and I had run the Burgos half marathon. He ran a time of 1:31. Despite seven hours of jet lag and loss of sleep (the race came only 21 hours after I'd landed in Madrid) I ran it in 1:34. That time beat the Tennessee single-age state record I'd set in February.

Now we couldn't get under three hours. I could not deny that fact or escape the oppression of its startling truth. I felt finished.

We trotted on, both of us dragging, getting slower.

At Logroño, 17 miles into the day's run, we had been reduced to walking. Cokes, one familiar drink but one I normally don't take, seemed to help Albino. He would drink two or three at one sitting, while I would drink only one.

The heat made it hard to take food without getting sick. Even water, plain water, was becoming disgusting. We knew we had to drink a lot of it. We passed a street thermometer that read 42 degrees C, 108 degrees F.

We drifted out of Logroño like kiln-dried specters, hollow-eyed and gaunt, the juice sucked out of us. At fountains, we doused our heads and poured water on our shirts. That helped for a while, but it soon dried.

The fronts of my legs were so sore they felt hot to the touch, feverish, as if the quadriceps had been invaded by giant festering sores.

After 12 miles we came to Navarette. "That little town, whatever its name was," Albino scorned later. There was a bar with outside tables. A skinny Frenchman with an out-curving goatee and pony tail sat at a table near the door, smoking a joint.

We got Cokes. Albino quickly finished his, drinking three sodas altogether. I took one sip of mine and then rushed around the corner of the neighboring building and bent forward, retching on ancient cobblestones. Nothing came up, just stringy slime and a dark stain from the Coke I'd just sipped.

Leaving Navarette, we were still walking. It was 11 miles through heat-blasted farmland to Nájera, to our hotel. The Cokes had given Albino some energy. He started talking about running. It was around five o’clock.

"We got to do some running if we don't want to get to our hotel tomorrow," he observed.

He was right, of course. At our pace we'd not hit the hotel until nine that night. But I didn't think I could run enough to make much difference. I was weak as pond water. Ravaged legs, two days with scant food, the heat, the nausea, it all had taken a toll.

Since Logroño I'd felt like my run was over. I didn't know how to tell Albino. I didn't want to disappoint him; he had planned on this adventure so long. We both had. I kept playing out my string, hoping something would change.

It did. Albino started running. Two hundred meters out, I saw him turn once and look back to see if I was running. I was not. Nor would I. Albino vanished. I walked on, getting slower, slower. Farmers were combining their wheat. Chaff drifted over me, flies attacked.

Then the road turned lonely again, no one and no thing except wheat fields and hills rising in the distance. I walked straight at a humming sun.

A new thought hit: I might not make it. Goose bumps had run down my arm. Chill bumps are the last warning before heat stroke. My water, what about my water? If I am so slow that I run out before the next fountain—wherever that is—what then? There was no shade. I was in danger.

Melodrama invades such moments. I realized oblivion could find me on a dusty road in Spain, a prospect that struck me as fitting. The thought amused, but not for long. Recognition is not permission. My feet, by their prints in the dust, yet expressed denial. In action is truth; I was still going.

The road went straight, but the trail made a hard left. I might have missed it. It would have been a bad miss, I now know. There were no close fountains straight ahead.

A tractor approached from behind, carrying two men and towing a swirling plume of gritty dust. I had the sublimely stupid thought—hitch a ride on the tractor. I stepped into the weeds as it rumbled by. The men were sullen and met my wave with stony glares.

Around seven, I stumbled into Ventosa. It was there that I surrendered. I came to the albergue, a hostel for El Camino pilgrims. The smiling woman in charge said, "Hola!" She took my water bottle to the fountain outside and filled it. She didn't speak English. I don't speak much Spanish, but managed to remember all the words I needed.

I told her I needed help, that a friend and I were running El Camino, that we had come from Saint Jean to Pamplona, and from there to Los Arcos and were now heading to Nájera, that my friend had gone on but that I was unable to run. Could she call a taxi, and how much would it cost? I only had two twenties and two fives left. She said the amount but I misunderstood. She wrote the numbers on paper. It looked like 75. I was out of luck.

"Es setenta y cinco?" I asked.

"No. Uno," she replied and pointed at the seven. The number that looked like a seven was actually a one. The fare was 15 Euros. I could cover that.

"Es okay?"

"Si. Llama."

The taxi took me to hotel San Fernando in Nájera, where we had booked a room. I checked in, took a shower and waited for Albino. I hated to tell him the hard news—that I had quit.

III. “I’m Freakin’ Dying”

Friday, July 3, 2009

Albino is in Burgos. He made it in yesterday around three thirty. He is taking today off, and we are deciding what to do.

He called me in the afternoon of Wednesday, the day I left him at Nájera. His goal was Belorado, 29 miles away, a short day as distance goes. But there was up and down to it and it was nearly all exposed to the sun. The heat was still humming.

He sounded discouraged, said he was again reduced to walking, that even that was hard. "I'm dragging my ass," is what he said. I told him sentimentally that my heart went out to him and that I'd be thinking about him.

Once in Burgos he told me what he'd thought in those dark moments out there alone, fighting the heat and barely able to walk: I'm dying. I'm freakin' dying.

So he thought, but he made it.

Next day, Thursday, he made an earlier start, while it was cooler. He benefited from some cloud cover, and so he made the 28 miles to Burgos—another short day—in good time, running all the way. Now we have to decide what to do. Albino is with the doctor at this moment. He is fighting generalized soreness and had a massage last night. He has other problems. A fungus-like rash has enveloped his feet. The sweat-saturated environment is favorable to the growth of such things, I suppose. His intestinal problems started by diarrhea two days ago continue. He has dizzy spells.

As for me, my leg soreness is mostly gone. But my body weight is in the cellar. A normal weight for me is 142 pounds. Now I barely hit 134. That is awfully low for some one who stands 5-11. If I continue, my weight will go lower, and that worries me. Two or three pounds of the loss happened during the high-volume training in Tennessee, before I left for Spain.

Most of the weight loss came from the three days on el Camino, when I had too little to eat. My body was consuming itself, eating a pound or two of flesh each day. When I get back to Tennessee, I'll need some serious weight lifting to put some muscles back on my bony frame.

Weakness begets weakness. Last night I bent over to move a coffee table and strained a muscle in my lower back. It's the same injury I got a few years ago, on the Wednesday before the Saturday start of Ironman Florida. I recovered enough to finish that race. This time I don't have three days before Saturday, tomorrow.

Today we have to decide what to do. The heat wave that has gripped northern Spain seems ready to back off. We could decide to continue the run. Our goal is tarnished now. I've missed 50-something miles, and Albino is enjoying a forbidden day of rest. We could still run across Spain. That is not a small thing. But it may be beyond our reach. You hate to give up. We have to think.

Given the quixotic turn of our run, it is easy to conclude that we are a couple of delusional fools unaware of the realities and demands of our adventure, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza rushing around Spain, tilting at windmills.

That is not true. We are both experienced long-distance runners. And we did our homework. Albino and I studied el Camino separately, in different books. He made a number of trial stage schedules before we adopted the final one.

Further, last year Albino actually ran a 120-mile segment of el Camino on the Santiago end. And he had hiked the Pyrenees portion. We knew.

In his training, Albino ran twice a day, reaching weekly totals of 80 to 90 miles, mostly on trails. To compensate for my lack of youthful vigor—I’m 69—I ran higher volumes, and logged several weeks over 100 miles. Eighteen miles became a standard morning run, and I ran several 30-mile days. We were trained.

We were trained and we knew, and we brought it to the road. Our fitness, knowledge, information, experience—all that—comprised our meager pile of chips. It was all we had. It was a risk. We were willing to gamble. We pushed it all out on the table.

"Hah," said The Dealer, and sent a heat wave to cover northern Spain.

The unusual heat was the major factor in our run. In the weeks prior to our departure, I followed the weather in two cities, Santiago and Burgos. Daily highs fell in the 60s and 70s. Cold conditions at the higher elevations concerned us more than heat—enough that we included gloves, long sleeves and long pants in our packs, though we could ill-afford their weight. The heat wave came like a hard body blow.

We could not have prepared for the heat we encountered. It is possible to run in such temperatures, but only when supplied with copious quantities of fluids, electrolytes, and balanced energy food. On an unsupported run those special things are not available. Once the heat hit, our run was doomed.

We knew what we were doing. And I knew all along it was a high-risk adventure. I said so. But I am willing to take risk. I don't regret it now. Even in failure, sitting here hurting, I don't regret it. Not one damned bit.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A final word—we decided not to go on. Albino is still weak in the stomach and my back is still ailing. Although the temperature has retreated a bit, if we head into the plains it looks to come back, and el Camino there is almost fully exposed and fountains are less frequent.

It's the right decision. Although it's a disagreeable one, we have to abide it with whatever grace we can.

In writing my reports I've left out a lot—sometimes out of the need for brevity, at other times because I couldn't do any better.

Albino's run from Nájera to Belorado on Wednesday, the day I left him, deserved more comment than I gave it earlier. I believe that run was brave, dangerous, and maybe even foolhardy. Endurance athletes always go beyond the ordinary experiences of life. So who is qualified to say foolhardy—non runners who never venture beyond ordinary, or runners who always do?

Albino was on the knife edge that day. By the time he reached Belorado, the sun had scorched his skin dark and his lips pale. He was nearly too weak to walk. He had diarrhea and he was dizzy. Broiled by that oven, he was shaking with chills. Even after a hot shower and covering up in bed, he still couldn't stop shaking, he told me.

This was the day he remembered having the thought, "I'm freaking dying." From somewhere deep inside it, his primeval brain was trying to get its message out. I believe the thought was more accurate than he knows.

Earlier I made no mention of the beauty of the Pyrenees. Their features deserve appreciation separate and distinct from other mountains. But I can only describe them with reference to other ranges I've seen. At times their raw craggy fronts and deep valleys reminded me of the Colorado Rockies although their contours are generally more weathered. A grassy roundness suggested Wyoming. Sometimes sheep and horses grazed in the open range beside the trail. And passing through the heavy woods was like hiking the Appalachian Trail. There were many grand views. At most, we never stopped and only saw in passing.

Something else to note is the charm of the little towns we passed through, several each day. We drifted down Main Street, always called Calle Major, a narrow street of cobblestones, lined by medieval buildings. On the second story, flowers decorated wrought iron balconies. Sometimes a woman would appear there, cleaning her house. Sometimes nothing was moving at all and the whole town seemed deserted. "It's like everybody has gone to church," I told Albino. Then you'd come to a bar with outside tables, and a few pilgrims were sitting there with their backpacks. An old man with a cane would shuffle down the street or sit quietly on a bench.

You'd find a fountain, a masonry or brass stand with one or two faucets. Cool sweet water gushed at the push of a button. At some, water ran perpetually. The fountains gave life.

Late spring or early may be a better time for attempting el Camino. But cold weather could bring hypothermia then. Visualize rain and wind on a cold day in the mountains. Our experience was of course the opposite of cold. We enjoyed the sublime irony of carrying the extra weight of warm clothes while suffering heat exhaustion. A degree of luck with the weather is essential to complex trips. Better luck might have made a big difference in ours.

In the end we failed. That's our fault, not anybody else's, and not the weather's. We didn't get it done. We'll learn what it teaches, and travel on.

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