Ten years ago this week I completed one of the greatest challenges of my life – I walked 500 miles along the Camino de Santiago from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
I walked through fields and vineyards, through villages, towns and cities, along secluded footpaths and busy N roads. I slept in peaceful monasteries, municipal halls and hostels, I shared dormitories with snoring men and tutting women, sat down to eat with strangers and left the table with new friends. It was all wonderful – even when it wasn’t.
But this is not the story of my walk along the Camino de Santiago, this is the story of the personal journey I took before I even stepped foot on the walk itself. I regularly wax lyrical about personal development and this is a story of how I began to really live everything that I preach in this blog.
I didn’t do “adventure” when I was growing up. No one in my family did. We went for walks in the countryside but that was about it. I developed an unconscious and unchallenged belief that adventure was for other people. So when Mr. Yellow Dot bought a kayak I didn’t even consider going with him. Instead I quietly (and pointlessly) resented the time he spent out on the water with our friends. Eventually, after a holiday with those same kayaking friends where I sat on the banks of lakes and watched, I decided to have a go.
In order to “have a go” I had to challenge multiple beliefs about myself. I hadn’t realised how strong some of those beliefs were. “I’m too old to start this stuff”, “I’m not the kind of person who goes kayaking”, and “I’m too fat”. “I’m too fat” carried a whole range of sub-beliefs with it: “I will look ridiculous”, “I’m not fit enough”, “people will laugh at me”, “the kayak might sink”, and “I can’t wear a wetsuit” (I didn’t and it didn’t matter). Somehow I believed that it’s ok to fail if you are young and slim but not if you are fat and forty.
I can’t tell you how anxious I felt just carrying the kayak down to the water, convinced that people were judging me. But I also managed to start a calm, authoritative voice of reason to counteract the anxiety. I regulated my breathing, ignored all the other people on the beach and I got into the boat. And I loved it. I didn’t sink, I didn’t fall out, I (very nearly) stopped caring if other people were judging me and I just got on with enjoying the feeling of gliding across the water.
I loved it so much I bought a kayak of my own.
Having reflected for a while I realised I had developed a default response of “no” when I was invited to do anything that took me out of my comfort zone – I started to wonder what else I was missing out on. I made a decision, there and then, to start saying “yes”.
The universe took me at my word and decided to test me. Within an hour of making this decision the phone rang, it was my friend Joy calling about some completely unrelated issue. In the course of our conversation she mentioned that she had just been looking at an advertisement for a charity trek – her question floored me: “Do you want to go to China?” Of course I said “yes” (without really knowing what I was saying yes to).
Fast forward to 2005 and (having spent a year fund-raising and walking sections of the Cornish Coast Path to train) we found ourselves heading off on a trek along The Great Wall of China. It was wonderful. It was challenging but I discovered that I loved being way out of my comfort zone. Challenging myself made me feel more confident. I came home and decided to plan the next adventure – and this time I was going alone.
I planned and trained, I got fit and I got strong although I was still overweight. The point is, I didn’t let that barrier stop me, I didn’t put off living until everything was perfect, I accepted that life happens now, every day and life can and should be an adventure.
I got stronger mentally too, I set myself confidence anchors, I examined and challenged a whole host of self-limiting beliefs, I explored my fears and faced them head on.
In July 2008 I flew to Biarritz, caught a train to St. Jean Pied de Port and started walking. I finished 500 miles later in Santiago de Compostela. The journey in between was full of geographical and emotional highs and lows. I struggled physically at the start (day one was 17.5 miles, 15 miles of that was up a mountain) and I struggled emotionally in the middle when I unexpectedly experienced strong feelings of homesickness. This was the longest I had ever been away from my husband and family and I was used to sharing experiences with them. Those feelings were exacerbated by a broken phone charger and some complicated (and ultimately flawed) arrangements to replace it but we still communicated via Facebook whenever I was near an internet café and I kept on walking.
I anchored my feelings of success (somewhat cheesily) to the Proclaimers song “I’m Gonna Be (500 miles)” and even now I only have to hear that song to get an incredible surge of euphoria and a sense that I can do absolutely anything I put my mind to.
So, why have I written this blog? Was it just a nostalgia trip? A chance to revel in my own success?
No, although that was nice too. I wrote it for you, just to tell you that you don’t have to put life on hold until the conditions are perfect, if you plan, and prepare and work hard, if you challenge your own self-limiting beliefs, you can be or do anything that you put your mind to.
You don’t have to walk 500 miles to be a success but doing so changed my life.