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Run 3 report: Pilgrimage route of St Cuthbert - it didn't go quite to plan...


Mark was overcome by nausea and fatigue at the beginning of the second day of his biggest ultramarathon yet…

Day 1: 100km … What would St Cuthbert say?


I’m going to bust a gut to get to Lindisfarne before safe crossing ends.


‘Are you? Is “busting a gut” part of pilgrimage now, little brother?’


The Community of Aidan and Hilda on Holy Island have been so kind to me: they’ve offered accommodation for the night, and food. They’ve even invited me to be part of their community as a ‘Friend’. I won’t let them down.


‘Do you think they, or I, or beloved Aidan or Hilda for that matter, would think better of you for getting across the causeway by your self-imposed deadline? Be patient. As has been prayed over your pilgrimages more than once: “Those who wait on the Lord will renew...”


Yes but safe crossing ends at 10pm and I mustn’t still be on this side of the causeway. If I hadn’t missed a waymark this morning I’d have made it no problem. So annoying.

‘What was the path like on the other side of the river?’


It was beautiful, but I then had to retrace my steps and lost an hour.


‘Was that all you lost? I think you lost your joy a bit. Remember your gratitude this morning running up and over the Eildons, to St Boswell’s, a little snow on the ground, the sights and smells of spring all around you?’


I can’t think about that now. Where’s my support team? I thought I’d see them here in Kirk Yetholm!


‘Why don’t you wait for them here?’


I don’t have time for that! They must be lost.


‘Yes, trying to find you to give you the phone charger you left when you rushed away from your last stop.’


I’ll just have to push on to Hethpool.


‘Notice the hills glowing in the late afternoon sun, the soft rain creating a vivid rainbow, your first truly remote-feeling section on this pilgrimage. Look at the shapes the clouds are casting and the hard slate and soft white clouds in counterpoint.’


Mmm. They had better be in Hethpool. Both of the phones used to track me are running out of battery. Oh great, now I’m almost out of water.


They’re not here. Where are they?


‘It’s hard to keep up with someone rushing. I for one must let you go ahead if your will must be done.’


I will honour him on Lindisfarne, I just need to get to Lindisfarne. It’s getting dark now though, and all I can see is hills. My back and stomach hurts. I wonder is that stream water clean?


Please not that ascent.

Please no more ascents.

When will these hills end?


At last! Lights. Wooler. The nick of time. The support vehicle. Water. Light.


Now, I need to bust a gut to get to Lindisfarne.


Such stunning moonlight – have I ever seen so clearly by moonlight when running? But I can’t run fast enough by moonlight. I need to go faster.


I’m not going to make it.

The tide is coming in.

I’m not going to make it.


Day 2: 15km


I only just made it. And because my still-rushing mind wouldn’t settle either, after hours of intense challenges yesterday, I had a restless night.


I had looked forward to my run onto Lindisfarne for months, but by the morning, I was reduced by nausea to simply walking across the causeway. The sun shone brightly but was not hot; the white-topped waves in the distance broke powerfully to the northeast beyond the Snook, while the frosted hills I’d crossed the day before glistened their echo from the southwest. Lindisfarne was resplendent in the sun and spray, as if decorated for the arrival of a joyful pilgrim, but my head was bowed.


The encouraging words and prayer of Rev Canon Dr Sarah Hills at St Mary’s Church, adjacent to Aidan’s 7th century priory, nourished me and gave me a sense of arrival. As well as praying with me she told me a tale of St Martin of Tours who once, when asked by a poor man for his cloak, replied that he would give him half of his cloak.


‘Remember to keep half of your cloak Mark’, she urged me.


Finally arriving at the Open Gate, the hostel at the Community of Aidan and Hilda, the staff offered me coffee and gave me a book of Lindisfarne prayers for my future journeys. I also received a small paper cross left by Navigators of Faith to take to Durham. I promised I would.


But as I crossed the causeway again, hoping to press on to Warkworth along the coast, running seemed to intensify the nausea.


By the time I reached Fenwick I knew Warkworth would be too ambitious. In my heart I knew that any further running at all would risk more serious harm and my support team clocked this quickly.


Monday’s run was over before it had begun.


The regret I felt over rushing yesterday was intense. I accepted an invitation from local Embrace volunteers to recuperate at their home. As I lay in their spare bed when I should have been running down the beautiful Northumbria coast, the regret became a kind of penitence.


At this point, I felt the turning of a corner. First, that humbling lesson that I need from time to time: I am not what I do. I am no more worthy when smashing my marathon personal best times or bounding down mountains than when lying incapable in bed.


Second, the realisation that I was still on pilgrimage, accepting the hospitality of local people for whom the pilgrim at his lowest ebb is a guest from God.


Thirdly, that being slammed hard against my limit was probably the quickest way to learn the most practical lesson for Running Home: thou shalt not rush.


How had I allowed myself to rush yesterday? I had said from the start that I wanted to cultivate an attentiveness and inner stillness that is antithetical to rushing. So many of the prayers prayed over my pilgrimage have included references to scriptures such as ‘Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength’ and ‘In returning and rest shall be your strength’.


Part of it was the genuine desire not to let someone down, but I had too easily allowed the racer to displace the pilgrim for much of the day.


Feeling better, I shared some of these thoughts at a church in Alnwick that evening, and realised from the congregation’s response that indeed, I hadn’t let anyone down but me, by denying myself the fruits of attentiveness on the St Cuthbert’s Way.


Day 3: 80km


I started day 3 where I’d planned, at Warkworth Castle following the St Oswald Way.

That meant I should arrive at Heavenfield and then, on day 4 at Durham Cathedral, without rushing. I was applying the lesson, and what a difference this made.


I prayed and pondered, such as when I caught a glimpse of Brinkburn Priory through the trees, imagining the Augustinian monks and their lives in the valley. I felt well. I was in no rush.


This was even more apparent when, as I topped the Simonside Hills beyond Rothbury, the wind turned into my face. At first echoes of the despondency of the St Duthac Way (run 2) and then a truer voice: ‘Don’t fight it – greet it’.


Sure enough, the wind became an expression of life in its untamed glory, bending the trees in the woods and causing long grass to dance in the ever-changing light. I was tired by mid-afternoon, but not downcast. I was in no hurry.


The final few miles tracked along Hadrian’s Wall which caused my imagination to fire. When my running gave way to walking I pretty much marched as I might have done when I last visited the wall as a child!


With layer upon layer of history beneath my feet, the path felt haunted but unthreatening. What of those legionaries, I wondered? How did they feel swearing allegiance to Caesar, proclaiming ‘Pax Romana’ on this windswept frontier? Were they bullied by their superiors? Were they bullies to local Romano-Britons? And when did the first of them mutter ‘Avé Christus Rex’ in the mud and ice, a protest against the gods and generals who’d let them down, a pledge of allegiance to a movement that was suggesting an altogether different kind of power?


It is these seeds that we are scattering in Iraq; this same kingdom of peace we long to see there.


Then finally to Heavenfield itself. The pretty church there was open and unlit giving the sanctuary’s peace a particular intensity. I recalled the saint-king Oswald whose victory here, which helped to cement Christianity in Northumbria, nevertheless seemed to depend on too similar a kind of power as that which dominated a few centuries before. I wondered again about the different kinds of power at work: Northumbria, Mercian, Welsh and Roman swords, and the mustard seeds that Christ imagined as the weapons of his alternative Kingdom.


Day 4: 57km


St Cuthbert’s feast day had arrived, a cacophony of birdsong, bleating lambs and human industry accompanying my run to the city of his shrine.


I greeted people on my way and enjoyed running on roads and packed paths rather than muddy fields, although painful shins were slowing me down significantly by the time I left Lanchester.


I caught my first sight of Durham Cathedral in the afternoon sun allowing me time to pay a visit to St Cuthbert’s Church to receive the hospitality of Rev Fiona Collin in the form of tea. We prayed in the sanctuary and she blessed my journeys and those of returning Iraqi refugees.


Before leaving, I recited the Lord’s Prayer in Syriac Aramaic as a reminder of the connection we have with Middle Eastern Christians, not least in Iraq which has been a heartland of Syriac Christianity since well before Cuthbert and Oswald’s times.


And finally, I arrived at Durham Cathedral, the grand exterior softened in the setting sunlight. I gave thanks for the great work of the Venerable Bede, at whose tomb I paused on my way to the nave. I walked slowly through the striking Norman pillars, past the high altar, and to the far east of the building where Cuthbert, and perhaps the head of Oswald, are buried.


I placed the paper cross I had carried form Lindisfarne on his tomb.


I knelt to pray for the Iraqis for whom we hope this venture will bear fruit, and with thanks for the journey, the landscape, the exertion, the encounters, for the legacy of Cuthbert and the lessons his Way had taught me.


At the thought of those lessons, kneeling felt inadequate – feeling the warmth and quietness of the same Love I’d seen rage fierce on the hills the day before and which had sentenced me to bed on day 2, I placed my wind-burnt brow against the cold stone of Cuthbert’s tomb, and I rested deeply.


Mark looking particularly sprightly as he arrives at Durham Cathedral at the end of his most challenging ultramarathon yet.

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