Ten years ago, Croatian adventurer Mihael Strle found out he was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that eventually had him walking with crutches. A few days ago, Mihael completed a 1100 km long hiking adventure.
The adventure in question is Via Adriatica, a stunning long-distance hiking trail spanning from Cape Kamenjak in Istria to Prevlaka peninsula south of Dubrovnik. It took Mihael three months to reach the end of the trail, and on the way he faced merciless winds, snow, ice, and -20°C temperatures. Joined by his pup Oscar, he conquered the highest mountain peaks in Croatia, reports RTL.
How does someone with arthritis walk for three consecutive months? ‘Slowly’, said Mihael with a laugh.
‘I can walk like any other person, I just have certain other difficulties that are slowing me down. I have to listen to my body more closely, and pay closer attention to the trail’, he said.
He often suffered pains as he was hiking, and had symptoms of overexertion that are otherwise kept in check with physical therapy, but he says he could bear it.
‘As I was getting further into the trail, the conditions kept changing. The route is designed in a very interesting way, it gradually gets more challenging. After I departed from Cape Kamenjak, my first issue was realising that I carried 20-30kg on my back, which was a bigger problem than walking. Then you get to the first mountain, Učka, where I saw that I’d be ascending, that it’s going to be hard; then you get to a more ‘serious’ mountain Velebit, followed by Dinara, so overall, as inexperienced as I was, I kept learning gradually, day after day, and it was challenging’, said Mihael for RTL Direkt.
Image by Via Adriatica Trail Facebook
There were moments when Mihael thought it would be easier to give up, but he had a drive and motivation to keep walking. The latter was the project named ‘A step above’ (Croatian: Korak iznad), aiming to raise awareness of arthritis.
‘People would often ask me about the project over the last ten years, and they were always surprised to hear it’s a broad-spectrum disease that affects young people as well. This is what I’d like to raise awareness of, that it’s not just the elderly who are affected. I’m now in a phase of remission and rest; movement has healing properties, that’s part of what made me decide to walk’, said Mihael.
He certainly proved he can do a lot despite having arthritis, and has lived a real winter adventure. In the three months he spent on the trail, Mihael spent the night outdoors in a tent 25% of the time, and otherwise slept in mountain lodges and various shelters.
‘The logistics were the most challenging part. There isn’t a single store [on the trail] all the way from Rijeka to Knin, nor another option to get food, so it was a big help to me to have friends and other people on the trail who supported me. There are so-called trail angels who we can rely on if needed, there’s a group we can reach out to for help, there’s also the Mountain Rescue Service, but my friends were my biggest suport’, said Mihael.
Trail angels are people living near the long-distance trail who jump in to help the Via Adriatica hikers whenever needed, having them over for a meal, assisting with supplies and medicine, or even providing accommodation for a night or two. This is all done on a voluntary basis.
Naturally, Mihael was very emotional when he reached the end of the trail in Privlaka.
‘On the one hand, I was very sad it was over, but at the same time I was also very proud of myself and pleased with everything I’ve done’, he said.
This is not the first time he embarked on an adventure of this sort. Mihael previously cycled from Zagreb to Turkey, and kayaked from Korčula island in southern Dalmatia all the way to Istria. The latter project took two weeks of rowing and another week to recuperate.
He said he truly believes that movement gives life, that it’s healing. ‘I have a need to get better every day, to focus on my health, my training, and to do what I love in order to get healthy’, Michael said.
He used to work as a medical technician, but his life changed and he discovered new life values and new ways of thinking.
‘I’m not that focused on my career anymore, on my profession and work, as much as on the quality of life and interpersonal relationships. A situation like that simply opens your eyes’, he said.
To anyone faced with a similar diagnosis, Mihael would say to take some time to accept it, to process it, and then move forward. ‘You have to keep your spirits up. Even a single small step further every day is a big step for me’, he said.
Follow other hikers on their adventures over on the Via Adriatica Trail Facebook page.