Celebrating 72 years by walking 500 miles on The Camino

June 11, 2019

Pilgrims trek the Camino de Santiago through a variety of terrain. Photos courtesy of Deacon Jack Alexander.

HOUSTON — Few people would bring in their 72nd birthday by embarking on a 500-mile journey across Europe. Deacon Jack Alexander is doing just this for his birthday on Sept. 12 — day eight of his 500-mile pilgrimage walking El Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James. This will be Deacon Alexander’s third time walking, but the first time he will complete the full 500-mile stretch. 

“The first time I walked was in 2017 for two weeks and 150 miles,” he said. “The second time, I led a group of 15 people for a week and walked 75 miles. This group was made up of couples and single people ranging in age from mid-30s to mid-70s and all fitness and training levels. This time it will be for 35 days walking 500 miles, an average of 15 miles a day.”

eacon Alexander said the first time he walked the ancient pilgrim routes that merge at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, he was seeking clarity about the next steps in his life pending his retirement from Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church (CtR) as its director of Adult Faith Formation. 

He realized he was not yet called to retirement and is still working at CtR. He says he is approaching this upcoming pilgrimage a little differently. 

This time it is more about trying to understand God’s will for me, drawing closer to God and to pray for others,” he said. “I look forward to the opportunity to raise others up to God and to put myself in the presence of God every day through others on The Camino and in the beauty and grandeur of nature. To open myself up to what God wants from me and for me. I want to try and let Him be the guide this time.”

Deacon Alexander is not the normal person who just trains to prepare for The Camino. After his first trek, walking became a part of his prayer and normal routine. He says he is “obsessive about walking every day.” He has consistently walked 119 days in a row between six and 12 miles a day. He does not use poles or sticks either — just a good pair of walking shoes. He does enjoy the fellowship of the training process though. 

“Sometimes we train as a group at Terry Hershey Park that has some little hills and we walk the Soap Box Derby hill in Hockley on Thursday mornings for a couple of hours,” he said. “We have also gone to some of the state parks to walk different terrain.” 

Jane Lakatos, a former marathon training coach and now a The Camino de Santiago specialist, coordinates The Camino trips for pilgrims and sets up the training schedule for anyone hoping to endure the physical grind of any leg of The Camino. The trip in September will also be her first time walking full 500-mile The Camino, but she has done some part of it on five separate occasions.

“I used to be a marathon training coach and I now I have taken what I learned when I was preparing first-time marathoners and I apply that to getting folks physically ready for The Camino,” she said. “I start them off slow with low mileage and then slowly build up until they can easily walk 10 to 12 mileage and have the confidence to do so. I provide a monthly training schedule of what each of them should be getting in on their own and then I try to have group trainings at some of the Houston-area parks for those local to Houston. It’s a great time to get to know the others you will be on The Camino with and to share information with the new folks.”

Lakatos has trained many groups from parishes around the Archdiocese, Texas and around the country. On some trips, she has people from all over the world: the Philippines, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Korea, Vietnam, Canada, Mexico, etc. She said many of her past The Camino pilgrims continue to train with her and are a wealth of information. Many, like Deacon Alexander, are The Camino repeaters, and have been on The Camino with Lakatos two or three times. 

“This pilgrimage is so different than other pilgrimages where you are on a bus and drive from holy site to holy site,” she said. “It is an active pilgrimage not a passive one. On The Camino, the spirit travels with you, inside of you and reveals itself to you in different ways, not necessarily in the ways you want it to or are looking for. You can go on The Camino with one specific purpose in mind but God may have other plans for you and you get something totally different out of it. You just have to be quiet and listen to what God’s purpose is for you.”

Deacon Alexander said walking The Camino is what you make it. 

“It can be a very spiritual experience if you open yourself up to spending time with God,” he said. “It is not about the destination but the journey. Yes, we have to get from town to town, but it is about what we learn about ourselves and our relationships with God and others.”

Deacon Alexander said walking The Camino for 35 days or 11 days or six days is an opportunity to let go of some things in life that are uncontrollable. 

“On The Camino we only have to get up and walk each day,” he said. “The rest of the stuff we can let God take care of. Some days it is about the physical journey when you don’t think you can get up or don’t want to get up and walk one more day, but it is more important about the spiritual journey; how can we grow in love, grace and peace with each other, with God and the world.”

Walking The Camino in any capacity is a commitment, both spiritually and practically. From the mental and physical discipline it takes to train and be open to God’s voice, to the time commitment away from family and work to walk the pilgrimage. Deacon Alexander mentions how his wife Kathy has been the biggest advocate of his dedication. 

“Without Kathy’s support none of my walks on The Camino would be possible,” he said. “Because of her understanding and putting up with my obsessive training, I have been able to train and take weeks away from home to walk on The Camino. She has been a big support on this journey and will join me for the two-week segment.”

Both Lakatos and Deacon Alexander encourage anyone interested in walking The Camino to give it a try. 

“Almost anyone can hike The Camino,” Lakatos said. “Unless you have serious health issues or physical limitations, our program can get pretty much anyone at almost any age ready for this challenge. The majority of people that I have hiked The Camino with are in their 60s or 70s but I have even had an 80-year-old woman hike with one of our groups and she did fantastic. A few of the folks that went through my training program and hiked the final segment of The Camino were told by their doctors to keep doing what they are doing because their numbers have never looked better. I have even had doctors take pilgrims off their blood pressure or cholesterol medication after training for The Camino because their numbers looked so good.”

Deacon Alexander also appreciates all of the planning that Lakatos does for the trips. She lays out the training schedule, coordinates transferring their luggage from hotel-to-hotel, schedules all the flights and the itinerary for Mass at the start of the day and where to gather after everyone has walked at their own pace. 

“Many times the unknown keeps people from taking a step toward doing something on their bucket list,” Deacon Alexander said. “Finding the right airline flights and booking hotels can be a hassle, Lakatos has taken that out of the equation. Without someone putting this together for me, I am not sure I would have done it yet. She encouraged me when I was thinking about going, answered my questions and made the training more pleasant than just walking. She has also become a friend, a walking companion, and a fellow pilgrim.”

Their full The Camino pilgrimage begins on Sept. 1 and they return home on Oct. 12. In addition, there are both one- and two-week portions for those interested. 

To join them, contact Deacon Alexander at jack.alexander@ctrcc.com or Lakatos at jhlakatos@gmail.com. You can also follow their journey on Facebook at Friends on Camino, https://www.facebook.com/friendsoncamino/.