Q&A Session

I have now returned to Spain after my brief trip back to Australia, and I will be picking up where I left off in Tarragona. As promised, I have put together the following Q&A session with commonly asked questions about the walk. Hope you enjoy the insight. Please ping me if you have any additional questions. Let’s get started!…

What has been the most challenging part of the walk so far?
The most challenging part of the walk happened before the walk even started. It was very difficult to commit to doing the walk, because it was going against conventional wisdom from just about every angle. I would have to go without seeing my wife for long stretches. I quit a senior-level job that paid well. My mental alarm bells were ringing loudly, and it was very hard to remain the contrarian and follow through with it, even after making travel arrangements. The apprehension level was sky high when setting foot on the plane. It was compounded when I got sick after arriving in Tarifa, which delayed my start.

The second challenge was foot problems. Spain is very rocky, and this contributed to blister problems as well as ongoing plantar fasciitis. I seem to have the blister problems under control now, but the plantar fasciitis will likely continue to be a problem for the rest of the walk. At the height of my foot issues, it was difficult to put my shoes on and walk to the bathroom in the morning. The ball of my left foot was so swollen that, when standing, my toes did not touch the ground. I’m not really sure how I was able to then walk a full day on them, but I can assure you that the level of pain on some days was stratospheric. I think that I have single-handedly kept the ibuprofen industry alive.

The third challenge was availability of food in some locations in Spain. Rural Spain was hit very hard by the global financial crisis, and many young people have left the rural areas due to a lack of job prospects. This has resulted in the closing of many businesses, including food shops. There were many villages where only pub food was available, which made getting supplies difficult at times. Some villages had no businesses at all. I could not rely on villages to always have supplies, which sometimes affected my walking plan.

How far do you walk in a day?
It varies depending on the distances between villages/towns, how I feel, and the availability of supplies. The longest day was about 49-50km. So far, I have averaged about 28km a day, not including the rest days. Hoping to get that number over 30km per day once I get through the Pyrenees.

The amount of time it takes each day depends on the distance and terrain. If the terrain is really bad, my speed can drop to around 2km per hour, but if the path is good and flat I can crank out upwards of 6km per hour. The longest day of walking took a bit over 12 hours.

How did your shoes hold up?
I had to throw my shoes away once I got to Tarragona, which was 60 days of walking and about 1673km. While 60 days may seem short, the amount of punishment that the shoes endured over that period was amazing. Daily use with very rocky terrain, and several days of long distance while soaked with rain and mud. For the last week or so, the shoes were probably in a condition that was detrimental to foot health. The foam cushioning was completely crushed on the inside part of the sole, leaving the shoes very uneven. My feet were pronating inwards quite significantly due to that uneven sole. Parts of the sole were coming off, and there were holes in the forefoot.

Other types of shoes (like full leather boots) would have lasted longer, but comfort and flexibility are much more important to me than durability. I will be using a new pair of the same shoes for the next few months, so I expect a similar performance.

What was the best part of your trip so far?
While the entire trip has been fantastic, there were several places that really had that extra wow factor for me. Here are the places that have impressed me the most (so far):

Ronda

Antequera

La Calahorra

Cieza

Bocairent

Morella

Parc Natural del Ports

Reus

Tarragona

What advice can you offer to someone who wants to try something like this?
Plan as much as you can. While it is not possible to plan everything in advance, try to compile as much information as possible so that you don’t go into it blindly. Get good maps and any GPS/GPX data that is out there (if it exists).

Finalize your gear before you go. While you will likely need to make some small adjustments to your gear list along the way, those changes should be minimal if you put in the prep time. I would recommend taking a few test trips of at least a few days (1-2 weeks would be better) to narrow down your gear list.

Think about how you will manage pain. I am not saying that you will be in pain all of the time, but there will likely be periods where you are in enough pain to start doubting your ability to continue. Think about what you will do when you are in that situation. Learn to tape your feet properly in order to minimize foot issues.

Make sure you are mentally prepared to do this alone. If you are a social person that needs human interaction often, then consider doing your walk with a partner or group. Some very popular walks, like the Camino de Santiago, may be a better fit if you want to be around fellow walkers for support. There are quite a few days where I don’t see anyone at all on the path, so make sure that you can manage that kind of island, especially on days where you are not feeling your best.

What shoes are you wearing, and what footwear should I use for something like this or the Camino de Santiago?
This is really the holy grail/million dollar question, because each person has individual needs, different physical traits, and different preferences. There is no 100% correct answer to this question. However, you can narrow down your choices and eliminate the footwear that is not right for this type of long distance affair. I would recommend ditching your hiking boots. Boots are too stiff and heavy. Even though they provide good protection from the rocks, there are equally as many surfaces that are flat or smooth where you will wish you had runners/trainers. Boots also have a hard, structured toe box, which will typically cause toe blistering or smash your toes when your feet swell (giving you sore and black toe nails).

Your feet will swell a lot! You should consider buying shoes that are about 1-1.5 sizes larger than you would normally wear, just to accomodate the swelling. If you read about people doing the Camino de Santiago, etc there will be all kinds of recommendations, from sandals to boots to runners/trainers to barefoot. You need to spend some time and money figuring out what works for you personally. Try different shoe types on your test walks to see what works. Once you find a shoe that you like, you can either pony up for mutiple pairs and have someone send you new pairs during your walk, or find retailers along your route that sell your favorite shoe and buy them as you go. That way, you are prepared when your shoes go flat mid-walk. It will also keep you looking fresh to impress the sheep, goats and other livestock.

I opted for a shoe that is really a combination of everything, and it seems to work for me. I am using the Merrell Moab FST, which is a low, light hiker with a thinner, breathable, synthetic upper (no leather). They are very flexible, fairly light, and have a minimal toe box. They have a cushioned sole with Vibram tread, so I still get some decent grip and some protection from the rocks. I’m not endorsing or recommending these particular shoes, I’m just explaining what works for me and the rational behind it. It gives me the “best of both worlds”. I would suggest taking your shoes on a trial run of at least a few days (1-2 weeks would be better) and see how you feel about their sustainability for the long haul. My shoes are lasting for about 8-10 weeks (~1600km) of hard use before they are in a condition that is likely doing more harm than good. Your shoes may not last that long, and that’s OK. Durability is much less important than comfort when doing long walks.

Did you see anyone else hiking this route?
A few people (about six), but they were all doing pieces ranging from 5 days to 3 weeks. I did not run into anyone doing the whole GR7 or trying the E4.

How do you deal with being alone every day on a walk like this? Don’t you get bored?
It can be challenging to be alone on a walk like this. There are days when I wish that I had company, and there are less interesting days when I do get a bit bored. How do I deal with that? First, while I miss my wife a lot, I’m not someone that needs constant social interaction with people, which helps. Second, while some people prefer to be off the grid, I rely on my phone to keep in contact with friends and family, update the blog, read the news etc, which builds a bridge to the social island. Third, I listen to lots of music while walking. I don’t listen to music every single day, but most days will involve at least several hours of music. Lastly, being a bit crazy to keep from going crazy. For example, on one particularly remote day I decided to have “80’s Wednesday”, which involved singing along with the top 50 hits of the 80’s. I probably had enough time to do the top 100 hits, but stuck to 50 in order to minimize the suffering of birdlife. I was passed by a few mountain bikers that day, and they probably thought I was crazy. It was a bit crazy, so fair play. But, it kept me from dwelling on any issues I was having and helped to pass the time.

How steep is the language barrier in Spain?
There is definitely a language barrier if you don’t speak Spanish. Most places along the path in Spain are rural with small villages and no tourists, so few people speak languages other than Spanish or Catalan. However, it became a language immersion situation, where I quickly learned to ask for what I need and tell people what I was doing. It wasn’t long before I could call people on the phone to reserve accommodation, or ask people about stores or restaurants, etc.

How have your migraines been since starting the walk?
I haven’t had migraines since starting my walk, except for one when I was back in Australia on my “citizenship break” where my phone decided to transform into a paperweight on the panultimate day. That’s telling. I don’t have a lot of external pressures and nonsense related to work. While there is sometimes stress related to meeting goals or tending to the basics (food, water, shelter), those are stresses related to my own doing and not applied by someone else. I brought two boxes of presciption migraine medication with me, and I haven’t used a single tablet. In fact, I took one box back to Australia during the break as it seemed to be dead weight.

Published by

Heath @ Groundwerk

Chief Walking Officer at groundwerk.org, a blog for those wishing to follow my walk across Europe and help me raise money for charity.

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