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.
‘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.