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Originally written by Agnieszka Pamula.
In August 2018, ultrarunners and husband and wife, Agnieszka Pami and Marek Pamula took on a challenge of a lifetime… to run the entire Camino Frances in just 9 days to raise vital funds for their wheelchair-bound friend. While they ran into many unexpected challenges, Agnieszka says that the Camino transformed their lives in ways that they never expected.
“How am I supposed to run almost 800km in 10 days?” – I kept asking myself two weeks before the start after many months of hard training, this was a resting time before the challenge that I have set for myself two years earlier. The challenge to run the French Way of the Camino de Santiago.
The Camino is a pilgrimage route, starting in the French town of St. Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees and leading along almost all of Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Excitement mixed with doubts. Everything has long been planned, packed, taken care of, but so many things could potentially go wrong. On the other hand, to achieve something you have to take a chance.
Running the Camino Frances – Stage 1
On 13th July I arrived in France together with my husband Marek, who was my support during this challenge. The start was scheduled for the next day at 07:00 in the morning, symbolically on my birthday.
On 14th July I was surprisingly calm, all emotions calm down, and I started running. The beautiful views of the Pyrenees boosted my energy. It was so peaceful and majestic. After several kilometres, I was on the Spanish side. The first day it was marked by many hills to go through, but also a lot of shade and wind on the road, which meant that the July sun does not burn too much.
And even now, in these crazy times, the Camino de Santiago does transform lives.
The next two days were mainly gravel and some asphalt roads when it runs through various villages and cities. On the way, I passed a lot of fountains at which I could stand and cool. I poured water on my face, neck, rinsed my whole head and shoulders. Temporary relief, but it was a good refreshing.
Running the Camino Frances – Stage 2
Starting from day four, the route began to lead mainly through dirt roads and open fields. And that meant no shade and again felt the strong heat, up to 36 degrees in the sun. Many pilgrims skipped part of the route from Frómista to Leon no wonder!
Nothing happened only the buzzing of insects was heard, and all you could see from time to time were farmers working in the field with tractors, and the heat scorching them.
There were fewer fountains on the way. Monotony was hard for the mind, but you must not give up. Just keep moving forward. During the day we make three longer stops for proper cooling, food and rest for the legs. The sun burned the most after 2 pm and only around 8 pm it started to get bearable again. That’s how three consecutive days passed.
I felt like I was sometimes burned with fire. Despite the strong sun protection filters, I burned my calves. After applying a cooling gel, I wrapped them in gauze for one day to protect them from the sun.
We were so happy that we didn’t give up despite all the circumstances, that we remembered that journey itself is more important than the destination. And that we could help someone.
Finally, I reached Leon from where the route became hillier again, and therefore more shaded. For the next two days, there was a lot uphill running again.
I finished day seven at Cruz de Fierro. It’s a special place for many people, also for me. There you can leave a small stone that has been brought with some intention. I left mine.
I stood there in silence for a while, and then we went to the hotel to come back after a few hours and continue running.
On the eighth day, my feet were so swollen that I had no choice but to cut my shoes. Marek cut holes on the sides. Huge relief. From now then, I soaked my feet in cold water and change my socks at every stoppage. I ignored the fingers so swollen as they came out of my shoes.
How did you feel before reaching Santiago de Compostela?
The last two days were mainly a mixture of asphalt and gravel roads. But it was so different. There were more people on the roads. It is a tradition to obtain a Compostela diploma in Santiago if you have travelled at least 100km on foot or 200km by bike. And therefore, many people do only the last part which is 117km starting from Sarria.
Suddenly, there were more shops where you could quickly buy cold water or ice cream. I ate two ice lollipops at once, drank cold Coke and continued on my way. I had a hard time for the last 40km. The body was increasingly demanding rest. I kept telling myself that I will very soon take a nice shower and then I will be able to go to sleep and the next day I won’t do anything. It would help.
Finally, we reached Santiago. There’s only less than 3km to the square in front of the cathedral. Before running to the square, I let Marek know that he could start recording a video. I run, people clapped, and it was wonderful. I stood in front of the famous cathedral and I could not believe it was over. It was 22:15. The route was completed in 9 days and 15 hours. I was so happy!
What were your goals?
From the beginning I had two goals: finish the trail under 10 days and start running on my birthday – symbolically this was very important for me and I will explain why later further. I knew about the American FKT, Jennifer Anderson, and it occurred to me that it would be great to do this route faster.
But I was also aware that I will not run in March like my predecessor but in July which is hotter, of course. If I was set only for the record, I would also have chosen a different time of the year. But for personal reasons, I chose such a date and I do not regret it.
Finally, I ran 10 hours later, covering a distance of 70 km to 96 km a day. The fact is that I am the first European woman to complete this route in less than 10 days. At least according to the data that can be found on the Internet. And that’s enough for me.
Why did you decide to run the Camino?
As I mentioned, I really wanted to start the Camino on my birthday. On July 14, 2019 when I turned 38, although, I may not have been here anymore. I will not talk about my private life here in detail, but it is enough to point out that the years of childhood and adolescence were not easy for me. I went through various addictions and depression, but bulimia was the worst.
I had my first bulimia episode at the age of 12 when I was training artistic gymnastics. I’ve always been a perfectionist with very high ambitions. I’ve been characterised by setting high standards and persistence in pursuing my goals. These are the qualities that I like about myself, they have put me in a snare of bulimia for over 20 years. This insanity lasted so long, only food, weight, calories, was all that mattered, and real-life went on as if was something apart from me.
Last year, I made one last attempt to get out of it. I felt that if I fail again, I would have wasted my life. I knew my body could rebel at any moment and this is enough. Step by step I began to change everything. I stopped weighing myself, started to organise meals according to daily caloric demand, planned the meals around the clock, and of course, there was no way to puke again.
If I have eaten too much, then I had to suffer a bit and learn my lessons. It wasn’t easy, but I knew that the alternative was my wasted life. And this was something I should be aware of. I will never live my life as long as I have bulimia present in it. In July 2018 I had the last episode.
For a great cause
Mirek was part of our project from the beginning. He was hoping that we manage to raise enough funds to let him go to a rehabilitation centre for at least 6 months, where he could go through advanced treatment and have a real chance to stand up and leave the wheelchair days behind. The GoFundMe page is still open if you wish to help. He appreciates every donation, and so do we. This is why we continued giving updates on our page even when things turned bad. Believe it or not but at those times this was the biggest challenge – to stay positive.
Did the Camino transform you?
Now I’m finally free. Everything in my life began to matter. It is like if a blind person suddenly sees the world with all its colours. I appreciate life now, not food. Finally, food is what it should always be, which is to nourishing the body so that it can function normally. Nothing more.
The Camino was a transformation for me. Opening a new chapter in my life, where food no longer plays a leading role. Now I’m really happy and free. And I would like the same for everyone because life can really be beautiful when we reject what enslaves us.
How was the preparation for this challenge?
Preparations for this challenge, of course, took a lot of time. Many things had to be anticipated and a solution should be found. We arranged accommodation with a friendly company ‘Follow the Camino’. They are based in Dublin and their business is to organise all sorts of trips on all the Camino routes. They did an excellent job and we knew we could trust them.
We tried to estimate where we could end up more or less each day. Of course, it couldn’t be planned at 100 percent. For the first time, we had organised such a long trip. So it required sometimes commuting to the next hotel from the place where we finished that day, to return to the exact point the next morning. I have every one kilometre of this route in my legs.
Car renting was the second-largest expense. Because we picked up the car in France and returned it in Spain, the fee of normal rental increased almost twice, so that the car could later be returned to France. Plus a full insurance package, as you have to be prepared for such a long route that something could happen along the way. Fortunately, nothing happened, and car renting was managed quite well.
I received a tracker from another friend of the company Primal Tracking and they set up a live tracking site for me. They also updated it every day. Other great guys to work with.
As for the other things, I have been compiling the list since the beginning of the year, adding to it everything I thought that might be needed. In addition to the obvious things like running clothes, spare shoes, headlamps, etc., it included items such as a bowl for soaking the feet, a rope and buckles to hang laundry in the car, or an ice bucket in which drinks were cooled.
A shared challenge
Marek is an athlete himself, competing in the Ironman triathlon competitions, he also took part in ultra-races several times, so he knew well what was needed for such an effort. And since we’ve been together for quite some time, he also knows when to motivate me, when to be a little supportive, and when to just say nothing and let me complain a little.
Finally, I cannot ignore how important a role my husband played on this trip. Without him this project would have not had any chance of success, it was truly our challenge, not just mine. During these 10 days, everything was on his head. Getting to the agreed points. Watching the route, preparing food, serving drinks and supplements, cooling with cold water and ice, piercing blisters when I was taking a break for a cooling nap in the shade, etc. There was plenty of it.
I write this because the support role is often overlooked, and it is always a joint effort for both parties and I think that it should be a little more appreciated.
Finally, I will quote the words my sister wrote to me on my birthday wishes:
“Who we really are is not demonstrated by our abilities but by our choices. It is your choice, not the chance that determines your destiny. You have to decide for yourself how much you are worth, what role you play in the world and how you give it meaning. “
Best regards to all readers – reach for your dreams, because it’s worth it.
– Agnieszka Pamula
10 days after starting, Marek and Agnieszka from Camino On The Run made it to Santiago de Compostela. They experienced some setbacks due to illness, but made it in the end. What an unbelievable achievement. They did it all to raise money for their friend Mirek, so if you can afford to donate, you can do so here: https://bit.ly/2Phgy4v
Posted by Follow The Camino on Wednesday, August 29, 2018