Treadmill Pilgrim, Part 1: The Camino in my Basement

This is an intro to upcoming posts about pilgrimage—both outer and inner: the ways we move forward, the reasons we go, the company we keep, and the hopes that draw us onward.

After I finished the Sesame Street 5K Fun Run I signed up for at the end of April, I was hurting.

I’d been training on and off for a year, but those outdoor laps did a number on my feet and ankles. I stupidly didn’t even know that could happen! Turns out, apparently, I need to work on strengthening my feet and ankles to handle running. I’m not ready to give up on my 5K fantasies, but now I feel apprehensive. I anticipated sore knees, but staggering around on aching ankles for four days after run-/walking was an experience I don’t want to duplicate.

Once you sign up for one 5K, though, the mysterious force of the internet fills your feeds with offers for a host of virtual challenges, each offering a shiny medal and/or t-shirt, depending how much you want to shell out. One unusual option caught my attention: the Camino for Good, a virtual walk (or run, or cycle) that follows the ancient pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. The signup fee includes a bit of swag, but the uniqueness of the Camino for Good is the money that goes to the hostels or albergues that host pilgrims along the real-life Camino in Spain, helping to sustain them through the pilgrim-less season of Covid. I’d been lurking and looking at the Camino for Good for months, but waffling about joining it. The (temporary?) end of my running “career” seemed like a good time for a new kind of journey.

The virtual Way.

Virtual pilgrims use the Camino for Good app to follow the route of Spanish villages that dot the Camino, collecting stamps in a digital pilgrim passport just as “IRL” pilgrims do on paper. You log every mile of walking around your own hometown, vacation spots, or wherever you may find yourself, and the app tracks your miles across Spain on the built-in map. You can even drop the little Google dude into the map and look around villages. At each destination you can read or listen to pilgrims’ shared experiences and scroll through a slideshow of photos. There’s also an active Facebook group where pilgrims share both real-life Camino de Santiago memories, and current virtual-Camino experiences.

The basement Way.

It was not my intention to pilgrimage in my basement. My first try was pitiful. I intended to do it “the right way,” around my neighborhood, and I halfheartedly walked the virtual Camino for a month or so. The app estimated that I’d reach Santiago sometime in 2023. Ouch. I finally admitted to myself that I’d never be consistent if I had to talk myself into walking outdoors, especially in the summer.

I struggled, though, to see the treadmill in my basement as a “real” pilgrim road.

I’m still not sure about it; it feels like cheating. And I do hope to intersperse occasional outdoor treks. But a pilgrimage is an inner journey, mental and spiritual, not only physical. So I’ve made an intention/commitment to use my walking time wisely, even though it’s indoors. Instead of listening to the goofy podcasts I relied on to distract me from running, I’m watching webinars, listening to thoughtful podcasts, and reading books that can contribute to my inner Camino.

The inner Way.

I hit “reset” on the app, and started again, setting off a second time from virtual St. Jean Pied de Port. To kick off my Treadmill Pilgrimage, I walked and watched a presentation by the British Museum based on their current exhibit about the 12th-century murder of Thomas Becket, a event that has inspired centuries of pilgrimages to the cathedral at Canterbury. The speakers discussed the experience of pilgrimage in various cultures and religions. The themes they shared caught my attention and imagination; I’ll be writing more about those in the weeks ahead. You can watch the presentation here: Pilgrimage and its Enduring Power.

Since then, I’ve discovered I can keep my walking pace and read (hooray for the iPad and the ability to increase font size!). Why Bother? by Jen Louden has been unsurprisingly on-point for my attitude lately, and surprisingly relevant to the pilgrim experience.

I also set up a small visual reminder of what I’m doing: not just (slowly) racking up miles, but being on pilgrimage. The cubby on the side of my treadmill has become a micro-altar. It holds a labyrinth cloth, my Camino for Good buff, and a shell necklace. The shell is the ancient symbol of the pilgrim.

There’s a small pile of Camino de Santiago-related books on my “to read” shelf. I’ll take them along on our summer trips, so the inner pilgrimage can continue.

The slow Way.

I’m hoping to reach virtual Santiago well before 2023. At my current average pace, this pilgrimage will take me about six months. It’s slow. I’m slow.

Now I wish I’d started this journey earlier in Covid Time, when all of life was slow. But I hope—in fact, I already sense—that these regular miles may lend some stability to the rest of life. The transition back to “normal” is already beginning, and will likely be slow, too. I hope—I sense—that these steps, miles, minutes, hours, will help me make this return trip well.

In the coming weeks (months?) I’ll share occasional Treadmill Pilgrim reflections: thoughts on the themes of pilgrimage, book/podcast reviews, maybe some devotions and prayers along the way. Onward.

Stay well, friends. And buen Camino. 🙏🏻

One thought on “Treadmill Pilgrim, Part 1: The Camino in my Basement

  1. Isn’t the journey the same no matter how you get there? At least you’re not a couch potato and you’re stretching your mind. Yay you!


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