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.
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.