Finally, after nearly 3 months of testing the waters to see if I have what it takes to endure a trek like this, I’m starting to feel slightly more optimistic about my ability to complete it. I still have a long road ahead of me, quite literally (roughly 457 kms or 283 miles), but the journey doesn’t seem quite as daunting as it did just a few weeks back. When I get overwhelmed by the thought of the distance Im facing, I just tell myself…. You’re lucky Steve, you’re only doing the last 25% of the path. The entire via Francigena stretches over 1000 miles from Canterbury England to Rome Italy.

The lingering effects of the asthma exacerbation I had back in April, along with the usual summertime asthma and hay fever flare ups, has made for a very rough start as far as training goes. That, plus the yucky weather. Like just about anywhere else on the planet these days, the weather around here hasn’t been the greatest. It’s been unusually hot and humid making breathing an actual effort. Trying to train in those conditions limits the time I can spend outdoors. Humidity for me is not only uncomfortable, its downright dangerous. My airways start to close up at just a hint of increased moisture in the air.

You wouldn’t think that doing a slow, at-your-own pace type of walk would require any special pre conditioning. After all, lots of older folks in average physical shape do these long distance walks all the time. If anything, I should have an edge because of all the foot races Ive done over the years, right? But that’s simply not the case when you have lungs that make you pay for any extra exertion that you impose on them. Im finding out that doing a single or one-off 26 mile marathon is quite different than walking the equivalent of a half marathon everyday for 3 weeks or more while carrying a backpack.

Taking on a huge physical and logistical challenge like this when you’re constantly short of breath, but dead set on doing it anyway, tends to stir up a lot of emotions. There are training days when my crappy breathing doesn’t doesn’t bother me and I’m ready for anything, and then there are other days where Im like…what the hell was I thinking?? Am I crazy? there’s no way I can do this stupid thing. I can’t tell you how many times in the first month of planning this, that I’ve actually cancelled the entire trip out of sheer frustration, only to sleep on it, wake up with a totally new outlook, and then plan the whole thing over again from scratch. As of this writing, I’ve cancelled and rescheduled this trip 6 times. Not an easy task when you consider I have 20 different lodging reservations in 17 different towns, and a selection of flight itineraries that become more and more limited each time you modify or rebook them. Might sound corny, but something deep down in side keeps telling me, ..youve got to do this!

I wish preparing for a trip like this were as simple as stuffing a few things into a backpack, jumping onto a plane and then heading out for a long ass hike without worrying about the details. Ok, maybe it would be if you were young, healthy and didn’t mind sleeping under the stars or on a cot in some Monastery. Sadly, I’m none of the above. I have to have at least have some idea on how my body will handle walking 18-30kms. The only way I can do that is by getting out there and doing weeks of exhaustive endurance and mileage building, short of breath or not.

Planning a pilgrimage like this is not just about all the walking , it’s also about finding suitable lodging in strategic locations along the course….in advance! It means previewing the layout of the land and the present conditions of the course. On top of having notoriously bad asthma, Im also severely allergic to a lot of outdoor greenery. So, before I trek off into the Italian countryside, its kind of important for me to get an idea of what the environment Ill be walking through looks like. Google earth doesn’t see the majority of the off- road sections of the VF, so I’ve had to find other sources to get that kind of info. Mainly from people who have done the course. Finally, there’s medical side of things to content with. I wont even get into all that, but you get the idea.

Finally, there’s the navigation aspect of a pilgrimage. In the not so distant past you had to rely on paper maps, nowadays we’re fortunate to have GPS and some fairly reliable route apps, assuming you have cell coverage in the mountains. And, from what I can tell, it also appears that the signage along most of the VF is pretty good. However, vegetation over-growth or even vandalism can obscure or obliterate the signs. The condition of certain trails, especially those in the forested areas can change over time as well. Trees can fall and block paths, flooding or fires can occur that can change the local landscape all together. Getting reports in real-time or from others who have recently traversed the various stages of the VF (there are 80 stages), has been super helpful in that regard. Equally important are the many wonderful VF volunteer organizations who help with the upkeep of the nearly 2100 km of trails that comprise the route. Thank you !

Most people who walk or bike pilgrimages, usually do so with a partner or perhaps a small group. Some utilize the services offered by various tour companies who handle all the planning and logistics. I’m doing this entire venture by myself, including the walk. Whether that’s a good idea or bad, I want all aspects of the experience to be uniquely mine. Of course it would still be nice to meet other Pilgrims along the way.

As things stand at the moment I have about 4 weeks left to build up and maintain my endurance level to where it needs to be. If I don’t have any setbacks I think I can do it. As far as my neck and the backpack issue, I’ve pretty been pretty much living with one strapped to my body and am happy to report that I’m now able carry 6.5lbs for up to 1.5 hours at with only minor discomfort. This is a huge win.

What I need more than anything right now, is a magic shield that will protect me from getting sick between now and and the end of this journey in late October. There’s nothing more frustrating than putting your heart and soul into project or goal that you’ve been preparing for months on end, only to have it ripped apart in a matter of hours by a nasty asthma exacerbation. Fingers crossed.

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