“Try not to worry”, my doctor reassured me back in March 2011. “You’ll still be able to do everything you used to do.” At the age of 34, and having always been in good health, it was a complete shock to be diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I asked her if I could walk some 500 miles across Spain in two months’ time on my own. Her response? That wouldn’t be a good idea.
I was devastated. I’d wanted to do the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route for more than 10 years, as I love long-distance hikes and had already completed the West Highland Way and the Cotswald Way, amongst others. I had planned to follow the classic Camino Frances route from picturesque Sain-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the foot of the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostella, Northern Spain, clocking up some 494 miles (796km) in the process and raising money for Survive, the domestic abuse charity where I worked. My diabetes nurse, Gayle, was more positive, however. “Don’t cancel anything,” she said encouragingly. “You’ll have time to get used to everything.”
So, I put a wall post up on a Camino de Santigo Facegoup group to see if anyone had any information on doing a trip like this with diabetes. Daniel emailed me from Germany. He’d walked some of the route the previous year and was returning to finish it at the same weekend as me. I asked if I could walk the first day or two with him so that I could adjust my medication. Daniel doesn’t have diabetes, but in keeping with the community spirit of walkers on the Camino, he was keen to help and agreed. I decided to go ahead with my trip.
Over the next few months, I tried hard to get used to my insulin and regularly checked my blood glucose. I didn’t do any training before the Camino as I’m fairly fit anyway, having run half marathons and completed other long-distance walks in the past – my boots were already well worn in. Instead, I spent my spare time shopping for the trip. The end result being that I had bought far too many things, and not the most appropriate items, either.
“Where are your walking clothes?” my mum, Alison asked, noticing that I’d got more carried away with buying clothes to go out in the evenings and e-books for the trip, than turning my mind to practical items. My medication alone weighed about 1kg, but I took more than I needed, just in case.
On my way
I met Daniel and started the walk at the end of May 2011. I arrived in Bilboa, taking the opportunity to look at the Guggenheim Museum in the afternoon before meeting Daniel at the hostel. (At night, when on the Camino, walkers sleep in hostels called ‘albergues.’ There are usually 12 people in a room, so I was glad I’d packed some earplugs to block out the snoring.)
The next morning we got the train to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to start the walk, picking up the Napolean route. It was very steep but had breathtaking views. This is probably one of the toughest days of the trip as there are fewer places to stop and it’s uphill. But what kept me going was that there was a nice new hostel in Roncesvalles, Northern Spain, with showers, food and a comfortable bed. We ate a pilgrim meal and sat and dined with other pilgrims before having some drinks in the bar.
The first few days of walking were quite nerve-racking. I had no idea how my body would react to what I was doing. I regularly rested my blood sugar and snacked on apricots as I walked. After a few days, my confidence soared. By the time we reached Pamplona, Daniel was walking much faster than me and so left me at this point. I continued my trip alone. Although on the Camino you’re never really alone. There are many people to walk and chat with. The route has a real community feel to it and in the evenings I joined the other pilgrims for meals.
I made some great friends along the way and I’m still in touch with some of them. Many people had a life-changing experience before the walk. It was common for people to ask “Why are you doing the Camino?” and there were lots of reasons. Some did it to get fit, others for religious reasons, others had had a change in circumstances, such as a redundancy or a divorce. One man had lost everything in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. People on the walk often said that the Camino ‘called you’ at the right time.
‘No food, no walk’
Doing the walk with type 1 diabetes I didn’t feel alone as people set out on the Camino with lots of different health issues or circumstances. One man was blind, another in a wheelchair, and a woman walked alone with a baby. However, to keep safe, I always wore a medical ID bracelet and chatted about my diabetes to other pilgrims.
I followed the basic principle of ‘no food, no walk’ and I carried dried fruit to boost my blood sugar levels. I ate anything I liked, croissants, salads and a three-course evening meal, usually. Although I tried to keep alcohol to a minimum, this was difficult as we walked through the Rioja wine region and there was readily available wine with the evening meal. I liked Spanish food and as I was doing lots more exercise, I ate more carbs than I normally would. I normally don’t eat much refined-carbohydrate or starch, but whilst walking the Camino, I ate more bread. To keep my insulin cool, I kept my pens in the centre of my bag and kept my spares in my water camel. There are many places to stop and get food and water. I used one of John Brierley’s guides to the Camino, which made it easy to plan ahead.
The Camino was a fantastic way to start my life with diabetes. The journey was incredibly beautiful. Most people are heading to Santiago but at very different speeds. I was averaging about 18 miles a day. I completed the walk in 29 days, although you can take as long as you like. There are lots of places to rest and churches to visit. But the most memorable part of the journey was the friends I made along the way. I was so happy that some people called me the ‘smiling girl’.
Since being diagnosed, my hba1c readings have stayed in the non-diabetic range. I’ve never felt fitter. I have completed numerous half marathons and many long-distance hikes. My doctor was right, having Type 1 diabetes hasn’t stopped me doing anything.
© Sarah Blake (Originally published in Balance. Your diabetes lifestyle magazine March – April 2013)
Sarah offers telephone coaching for diabetics and people diagnosed with prediabetes. www.diabetesmadeeasier.co.uk