And so it ends. 14 ultramarathon pilgrimages, 33 full running days (plus a few extra mornings), roughly 200 mid-run check-ins, 57 church engagements, 25 offers of overnight accommodation, 20 running partners, seven separate pairs of shoes, five falls (three descending to Ballachulish mind you), three toe nails, one lost running day, and one heckle. Yes, it took until just before darkness fell on my last day of running for a young poet in a park in Glenrothes to shout out, ‘Run chicken legs!’

Oh, and so far, £47,000 donated by you which will change lives in northern Iraq.

I’m writing this, as much as anything, to arrest time. To try and hold Running home in my attention long enough to grasp what in fact that was all about. The relief of arrival on Saturday 16 November was displaced quickly by uncontrollable shivering, then by an irresistible desire to have a hot shower, then by a desire to eat, to sleep, to overhaul my Sunday morning sermon, to get through the sermon without falling over, to have a large lunch, to spend time with the kids, then to sleep more… and before I know it, with no clear demarcation, Running home no longer ‘is’ but ‘was’. As it settles as an object of description, as I attempt to tell the story, the fullness of the experience slips from my grasp.

Mark was joined by many other runners on his Running home journey this year. Photo credit: Markus Stitz

‘Pressing ever onward, no other choice but forward.’

I’ve mentioned before that common refrain of pilgrims, that ‘every ending is a beginning’. Never has it felt truer than now. I want to dwell longer but life demands my presence.

I can recall plenty: St Margaret’s pilgrimage was a suitably challenging way to end Running home. A longish day at 114km, sniffling with cold the whole way, and ending in heavy winter rain. The run through southern and central Fife by daylight gave way to more off-road terrain in the darkness, such that the usual compensation for wading slowly through a mud bath, the view, was not available to us. By the time I waddled into St Andrews I was glad it was done.

But it had also involved being nourished by generosity. Several pals ran with me and messaged support; the artisan bakery in South Queensferry, Manna House, donated three pains au raisin for breakfast, much to my delight. I loved checking in at Dunfermline Abbey where it all started, this time to the welcome of cake. It was unusually easy on this route to call to mind the pilgrims of yore, trudging expectantly towards the believed resting place of a Galilean fisherman in reach of the spray of the North Sea. Perhaps knowing that this was to be my own final ‘arrival’ helped with that imaginative leap too.

I recall it all through a veil which feels thicker for it being the last run. And yet it’s receding quickly.

‘Pressing ever onward, no other choice but forward’ is the refrain of a song written by my good friend Rebecca Hardie, inspired in part by Running home. It seems to me that it is only on the level of poetry and song that the intensity of something at once as wonderful, humbling (sometimes cruelly so), and all-consuming, as these pilgrimages can begin to be ‘held’ in my attention. Only through metaphor and allusion can it be properly accounted for. Or maybe it’s also through the unselfconscious camaraderie of celebration, through a big ceilidh party that we’re planning in Edinburgh on Saturday 23 November, that I will get some sense, after all, of what it is, was, and has been.

If the running wasn’t the point, the relationships certainly were. The new links with churches, inspired by the stories of refugees turning their faces toward home; the personal friendships fired in kilns of shared pain, wonder and companionship; and my new relationship with our partner in Iraq (CAPNI) through whom we hope Running home will bear fruit.

Listening now to Rebecca’s song, I’m struck by the fact that the running was not ever really ‘the thing’, was it? On the one hand, the most immediate, embodied, unselfconscious undertaking; on the other it is metaphor, an allusion to the bigger thing. Perhaps like all pilgrimages it serves its enduring function as an analogy of life in its fullness. The points at which the analogy collapsed into the truer journey we’re all on, were when I was at my limit and others stepped in to bear my pain with me. If the running wasn’t the point, the relationships certainly were. The new links with churches, inspired by the stories of refugees turning their faces toward home; the personal friendships fired in kilns of shared pain, wonder and companionship; and my new relationship with our partner in Iraq (CAPNI) through whom we hope Running home will bear fruit. It is these relationships that now, I hope, take centre stage.

We wake to a new day of journeying, expecting to be changed a little as our companions illumine the divine image we bear, and in Rebecca's case, calling forth in song the divine breath that animates us. What a gift, and what a struggle, this year’s been. I’m not sure I’m a better ultrarunner for it, but I hope I’m a better pilgrim.

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

As so often during Running home, I find myself reflecting on a run that was more of a struggle than anticipated as an overwhelmingly positive experience. This was one of the short ones - a single day. Nothing compared with St Ninian’s run (342 miles, over seven days) in September, surely?

The autumn colours in the dales and the snow dusted fells made it a beautiful setting for my St Bega pilgrimage, for as long as we enjoyed daylight. Despite the sporadic rain and persistent headwind, the contrasts energised me in the first half of the run. From the costal vista looking back over St Bees Priory, where we'd celebrated Evening Prayer the night before, to the choppy, slate-grey Ennerdale water; from the rocky, windswept ascent east of Haystacks to Honister, looking back to the fresh snow on Great Gable, to the rich reds and oranges of Borrowdale.

More crucially, I had the benefit of company all the way to Keswick (52km). My sister-and brother-in-law, one of their friends, Vanessa, and Gaynor Prior, the race director of the Cumbria Way Race, (which was my first long ultra in 2016.).

My lovely parents surprised me at Honister which gave me a boost and, on the leg to Keswick, we even stopped to chat with the great fell runner Billy Bland who was cycling towards us – it felt like a charm!

I was in good spirits when we got to St Kentigern’s in Crossthwaite, Keswick, and there was a friendly crowd to greet us. I gave a very short talk about the situation in northern Iraq and the work of Embrace the Middle East, and enjoyed some of the delicious sandwiches and cakes provided by the good people of St Kentigern’s.

‘It was others’ generosity and solidarity that saw me the rest of the way from here – they were my energy.’

By the time I’d left, with Crossthwaite minister Andy Murphie as my companion to St Bega’s Church on Bassenthwaite, I had begun to feel quite cold. After darkness fell, I found myself tiring quickly. I fell flat on my face in one of countless fields of deep, wet mud, and at St Bega’s, the official end of the St Bega Way, I wished I could call it a day as most pilgrims would.

Now on my own, with my pace slowing significantly, I realised I wasn't only tired but a little under the weather. I opted to take a slightly longer route to Caldbeck on the road, rather than risk grinding to a halt in the mud, which enabled me to maintain a steadier pace and therefore a more steady temperature. But I could feel the energy leaving me more quickly than usual.

Mark was joined by friends, family and supporters along the way of Run 13.

It was others’ generosity and solidarity that saw me the rest of the way from here – they were my energy. The landlord of the Oddfellows Arms in Caldbeck gave me a delicious dinner on the house, more family and friends began to join me running, including half a dozen of my sister-in-law’s Run Mums group in Carlisle, and I heard of a remarkable donation of £1,000 to Running home from two Keswickian supporters.

As my body seemed to be giving up, these expressions of support boosted my mental energy and my will to endure. I wasn’t in unreasonable amounts of pain but I felt deeply fatigued and sick whenever I stopped moving. Running had become walking over the ploughed fields between Sebergham and Rose Castle, but once on the track into Carlisle it was a case of running with gritted teeth alongside two brother-in-law’s, a cheerful pal of theirs called Ross, and the fearsome energy of six Run Mums, - head torches blazing festively - who were carrying me along on a wave of positivity.

‘I reflected on the particular struggles of women and mothers in the Middle East, and the burdens they carry, and prayed that our work might encourage and sustain women in Iraq.’

My 10-year-old goddaughter, Mia, ran the last five kilometres too, giving me a warm glow of pride in the gloom.

It felt appropriate that, on my first pilgrimage honouring a woman saint, a healer, this run was made bearable by the support of a group of mostly women and mothers who I guess know something about enduring through pain! I reflected on the particular struggles of women and mothers in the Middle East, and the burdens they carry, and prayed that our work might encourage and sustain women in Iraq who’ve endured so much so that their families can remain in their homelands.

We arrived at Carlisle Cathedral at nearly 1:00am, to the welcome of two local supporters who’d waited over an hour in the cold for us, as well as my wife Karen and support crew Gareth, who’d put in an especially long shift. Weary high fives, hugs and smiles were exchanged, and I looked up at Cathedral’s east window, past which I ran a few weeks ago when there were over 340 miles still to run. I gave thanks that tomorrow I wouldn’t be running anywhere.

At the southernmost point of Running home so far, further south even than Durham, St Ninian’s Cave is reached from the Isle of Whithorn five miles to the east, by a cliff-top path with extraordinary views - to the south the Isle of Man and, behind the Rhins of Galloway to the south west, to Ireland. The cave is supposedly where Ninian would make retreat to pray, away from the affairs of the White House, his establishment in Whithorn and the first Christian monastery in Scotland, founded in 397.

Ninian may or may not have been the name of the leader of that first Christian mission, and the small but well-sheltered cave may or may not have been his favoured place of seclusion. Still, as I trudged my way across the pebbly beach toward it I knew for sure there had been a first missionary pioneer and that this would have been a place known to them.

I looked back on nearly three days of running, including the early onset of shin pain on the second day, and I looked back on the highs and lows of the previous 11 pilgrimages. I looked forward, with four more days of running on already sore, tired legs loomed formidably. Finishing the job I’d started was looking doubtful.

What must Ninian have thought? His was an unlikely message about a way of peace which had flowered in the warmth of the Middle East. But would it withstand the hostile battering of the north Atlantic? Was he sure of success, of finishing the job? In fact there is evidence that Ninian’s missions, after initial success, suffered serious setbacks after his death.

We can’t help but think with hindsight – we remember these saintly ancestors in the light of the subsequent centuries of Christian dominance. They had no such vantage point. In fact, the Persia of King Yazdegerd, renowned as he was for openness to the Jews and Christians living in the areas of Mesopotamia we consider northern Iraq, must have seemed very much the safe haven in comparison.

Did Ninian find something especially reassuring about this beach and this cave? Its aspect encourages a southward and backward look to a journey successfully made. From here the dramatic Caledonian interior to the north seems to repose benignly. The cave and its beach feels, momentarily, like enough, a ‘present’ against which the past and future unknown future retreat. ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved’.

With 200 miles still remaining to run, I set my face towards the unknown. I’d let go of the fear of what might lie ahead, knowing that I still had strength to put one foot in front of another a few more times. What would be would be, and I would rest in that.

Mark using one of his ‘getting ready’ routines for day 6 of Run 12.

Now I look back on those last four days as having gone remarkably well. My ankle caused me significant pain from the morning of day four, but it responded well to frequent icing. Mile after mile of asphalt caused my mood to fluctuate, but I never felt the intense despair that has occasionally clouded my pilgrimages this year (except perhaps for the couple of hours spent trudging through mud after Colmonell, electrocuting myself on fences that blocked the path marked on my map!). The views I saw shortly after from the hills above Lendalfoot, across to Ailsa Craig and Arran, will live long in the memory, as will the sunset in Troon where Dr Philippa Whitford MP and her husband came out to cheer me on my way. The generosity of hotels and hosts who put us up and the encouragement and prayer of supporters sustained me and, in the end, I reached South Queensferry almost exactly when I’d intended to.

But we should linger on the unknowables of Ninian’s beach a while longer, and especially in the surprising sense of rest. In lands once ruled by Yazdegerd, people as courageous as Ninian are setting their faces towards situations fraught with risk, writing new lines in a story of which neither we, nor they, know the ending. What a privilege to be standing in solidarity with them, lending them some of the fruits of our freedom and prosperity in their pursuit of a safe home. As they take the next step, seeking to train, work and provide for their families, while being good neighbours in their hometowns, we also can take a next step, praying, listening, and giving to support their return. We do so not knowing what the next miles hold, but we return to that Middle Eastern message of peace, borne across the sea centuries ago by Ninian, and to his God who brings beginnings of life out of endings of death.

We return to this, and we rest.