Lessons From My Virtual El Camino Pilgrimage During Social Isolation

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Jessica O’Toole Virtual El Camino de Santiago

2020 was the year of virtual exercise, from Peloton bicycles to creating doodles with Strava route art. The Covid-19 pandemic shut down gyms, running clubs, yoga studios, and all the normal ways of making exercise fun. After months of groundhog days in social isolation I needed a challenge; something to focus on other than Coronavirus or the impending doom of American politics. A friend suggested I check out the virtual challenge El Camino de Santiago that she was doing on The Conqueror’s My Mission App.

Since medieval times people have walked this epic Catholic pilgrimage route as a meditative, spiritual, and physical challenge, as well as a journey of self-discovery and connection with fellow travelers. I felt a spark of interest as I remembered the movie, The Way (2010), a father-son story of the El Camino pilgrimage (with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez). I liked the idea of disconnecting from the doom scroll, planning a pilgrimage, and taking on a crazy goal that would push my body to its physical limits. For this virtual El Camino, you log daily miles in the app and watch as you advance along the route virtually from France to Spain. You can even see the sights using Google Maps Street View and enjoy themed email postcards as you reach landmark destinations along the way.

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On November 4, 2020 I began researching all the details of actually walking the 480 mile El Camino De Santiago route from France to Spain and learned that the average experienced hiker does it in about 13 miles a day, with one rest day a week, completing the journey in 6 weeks. Even though you can do The Conqueror virtual challenges as fast or as slow as you want, I decided to commit to this challenge as if I was really in Spain walking The El Camino Way. I had to take into account details like foot care, dietary fuel, and how to make time in my schedule to complete 13 miles every day. Was I physically ready to hike 13 miles a day?! I learned some people train for a journey like this by gradually increasing their walking distance over time, and some physically fit people just use the journey as the training and jump right into doing the long-distance walks. Eager to begin my journey and finish before the end of 2020, I decided to jump right in. (Having done this, I would recommend gradually increasing the distance of your walks before a journey like this as it takes time for your feet to adjust to the strain.)

The Conqueror challenges allow you to use many different types of distance-based exercise towards your goal, and so I chose to do my El Camino with a mix of walking, running, and bicycling — all outdoors. I knew it would be tough for me to get in 13 miles a day walking/running every day for 6 weeks, and the cycling would help me chew up some miles when things got tough. I began my El Camino Challenge on November 13, 2020 and finished it in exactly 6 weeks on December 25, 2020.

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Jessica O’Toole Virtual El Camino Pilgrimage in Tampa, Florida

Tips for Taking On a Virtual El Camino Challenge

Plan a Foot Care Regimen

I created a kit stocked with athletic tape, tiny scissors, Gold Bond foot powder, and Band-Aids. Proper socks are essential. I used a very thin inner layer (Fox River Mills Wick Dry CoolMax Liner) and for the outer sock I used my usual running sock: Balega Blister Resist. A blister can end your journey before you really get going, so the common adage is to address any foot pain immediately. Once I realized where my pain points are I prevented blisters by taping the at-risk toes before setting out every day, like a ballerina does before hitting the dance floor. Then I used a dusting of foot powder to keep my feet dry, especially in the humid Florida weather.

You Will Need a Lot of Fuel

As a runner I know how important it is to get enough nutrition to maintain energy, build muscle, and recover from hard workouts. I stocked up on snacks I could easily carry on long workouts. (I have a hard time digesting Gu and other gel snacks, so I go for Kind Bars, dried fruit, bananas, peanut butter and jelly sammies, Cliff Bars, and electrolyte drinks like Accelerade.) Also I stocked up my pantry with easy to prepare favorite foods because my metabolism started revving and I was hungry all the time.

Check Your Gear

The average pair of running shoes will last you 300–500 miles. Make sure your shoes are in good condition for the journey ahead. Get ready to do a lot of laundry and make sure you have enough shirts, sports bras, shorts/pants, etc. You don’t want your sweaty clothes to sit in the hamper too long before laundering, so it’s about finding the right balance of clothes to cycle through as you do a load of laundry about every 3 days. Make sure your bike is tuned up and ready to go. You will also need a helmet, sunglasses, water bottles for cycling and running, and a pouch to carry snacks, I.D., phone, etc. Plan to keep a towel in your car.

Prevent Skin Irritation

Stock up on sunscreen. Keep a big bottle at home and a tiny travel bottle with you on long workouts. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to the tops of your ears. Wearing a hat is a great way to protect your scalp. The sun exposure will catch you off guard if you’re used to going out for an hour run and you start working out 13 miles a day in the sun. Make sure your lip balm has sunscreen in it. Prevent chafing by using a barrier cream. I use Aquaphor but those body glide sticks work well too.

Use Recovery Aides

Your body is taking a beating and your muscles are going to be sore. Every evening I used a muscle roller stick for rolling out tense muscles and elevated my feet by lying on the floor with my legs against the wall, body in an L shape. A hot bath with lavender Epsom salts helped relax my sore muscles. Plan to drink a ton of fluids and some electrolytes to prevent cramps. Eat small frequent meals.

Enlist A Soigneur

A soigneur is French for the “one who provides care” and functions as an assistant who supports professional cyclists with food, supplies, and transportation along routes. If you can, it’s really helpful to have the support of a friend or loved one when taking on an epic challenge. Even just the occasional assistance like meeting you with food, water, and a clean towel on a long run can really lift your spirits as the days drag on. When I got tired of going out and back on the same route, I could create variety by going straight out and asking my husband to pick me up at the end of a 20-mile bike ride.

Finishing What I Started

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Jessica O’Toole at the end of a virtual El Camino challenge

Once I made the decision to sign up for The Conqueror Virtual Challenge “Camino de Santiago” there was no turning back for me. It wasn’t always easy balancing work and other responsibilities with my commitment to doing 13 miles of running, walking, or cycling a day. Some days it was 5:00pm and the winter sun had set before I even went outside to begin my daily journey, but I just kept going. Once you’ve made a real decision to do something like this, you don’t argue with yourself about it every day, you just accept that it must be done. Or you use your weekly rest day when you really need it. I wasn’t sure if I actually had the physical strength and fitness to do 480 miles in 6 weeks, but I was committed to giving it my all. That’s what makes a stretch goal so exciting. I realized that doing a virtual challenge like this in the safety of my home environment showed me that I am capable of completing a walkway in real life, like El Camino or the Appalachian Trail. Now I have the confidence and understanding of what it takes and what my body needs to get through.

But it wasn’t just about the physical challenge. I decided not to listen to music or podcasts as I normally would while exercising. Instead I envisioned a spiritual retreat. I meditated, prayed, asked God questions, and listened for answers. In the true spirit of El Camino, I said hi to people as I passed by and occasionally made a new friend along the way. I spent a lot of time in nature, admiring the birds, feeling the breeze on my skin, and noticing the ever-changing coastal weather. There were many long, quiet walks spent in silence. As I walked for hours alone along the seashore it was like being on another planet far away from all the worries and fears of the pandemic. The quiet time did me good, and weeks later I feel the effects. I seem to struggle less and surrender more into the long journey of social isolation as we wait for it to be safe to come out again. That’s the thing about stretch goals– they build inner strength and confidence that you can draw from during any challenge you face.

Get a Discount on Your Virtual Challenge

At the time of this writing, everyone who does The Conqueror Virtual Challenges gets a referral link to share. Use this link to sign up and you’ll get 10% off your first challenge https://www.theconqueror.events/r/JO504 and I get 50% off my next challenge for every 3 friends who sign up. All links to The Conqueror Camino de Santiago Virtual Challenge in this post are this referral link. Feel free to ask me any questions about my experience with The Conqueror Virtual Challenge– I’m happy to help!


The Conqueror Camino de Santiago Virtual Challenge

Walking the Camino de Santiago: A Beginner’s Guide

How to Hike the El Camino

How to Prevent and Treat Blisters While Hiking

What is a Soigneur in Cycling

I like to learn all the things and drink all the tea. Prone to falling down rabbit holes. https://jessicathemaven.com

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