What can we expect of ourselves at our limit?
This pilgrimage began on the feast day of St Brendan ‘the Navigator’, who may have sailed as far as America in his leather boat, and whose life is associated above all with going beyond what is familiar and comfortable, in faith.
My own limit may be rather more modest but I spent longer at it on this run than ever before.
It started well enough. A lighter, 30-mile day of running on Bute and the Ayrshire coast allowed me speak at churches both the evening before and at the end of that run. After enjoying generous hospitality, the rich landscape of Bute was followed by a relatively flat run from Wemyss Bay to Ardrossan in glorious sunshine. I was hot and tired by the time I arrived, but well and upbeat. Nerves disturbed my sleep however, and I felt tired when I set off for my 60 to 70 mile lap of Arran.
Despite intense soreness, though, I really enjoyed it. Arran is a jewel, described as Scotland in miniature, and the landscape constantly changed as I ran. The hardest bit, clambering over rocks between Lochranza and Sannox at sunset, was also the most beautiful. And perhaps above all, I was warmly encouraged by numerous passers by as I handed out my Text-to-Give cards. I truly never felt alone.
After crossing the Kilbrennan Sound, named after Brendan, day three was different. The weather had turned. It rained for much of the day. Nobody was on the Kintyre Way, which formed the main part of my route. I doubt morning had ended before my mood hit its usually late-day depths.
I made a critical error too: for the sake of a change, I swapped into minimalist shoes for the last 30 miles, removing cushioning from my feet, but my running form was now heavy, meaning this was when I really needed a little cushioning. Despite having taken a few miles off of the planned route, my legs were hurting when I began the last section from Bridgend to Campbeltown and I felt physically and mentally exhausted.
Soon thereafter a shooting pain in my metatarsal let me know how bad my shoe choice had been. Grim-faced and subdued, the remaining 15 miles didn’t feel like ‘nearly there’, and it became messier when blood spattered across my phone screen when I checked my location.
It was only a nosebleed, but as I don’t ever suffer from them it was quite disconcerting, especially as the volume of blood meant it gathered on my face, neck and clothes, spraying from my moustache when I exhaled. Above all it was the inescapable taste of blood that felt thoroughly oppressive.
Fortunately, my long-suffering support, Gareth, is an experienced ambulance crewman and was able to reassure me by radio about the risks and advise how to help clotting. Still, standing on the roadside in the drizzle, pinching my nose, while midges feasted on immobile flesh (in the company of three ticks, I later discovered) I felt pretty broken.
‘Brendan would have dealt with much worse.’ I told myself, in a voice oddly chipper and entirely at odds with my mood. For sure, he would have.
What is ‘the limit’ then? It certainly isn’t the fulfilment of athletic potential, the maximisation of strength, power, and speed to claim a marathon personal best for instance. Instead, it’s messy and unpleasant, a place of vulnerability, dependence on others perhaps. It is indignity and, perhaps by definition, it is fear on some level. In that place we may feel we can, must, care only for ourselves, for pushing through, for finishing. But did Brendan, like me, mutter under his breath? Did his exhaustion make him look for someone to blame?
I’ve occasionally met people who are gentle, kind, and attentive to others from within their own experience of extremity. Sylvia Haddad is one of Enmbrace's closest partners. A Palestinian Christian, with Lebanese citizenship, she has made others’ well-being her life’s work. Through a centre she oversees in the Sabra-Shatila refugee camp, funded by Embrace supporters, she brings hope and opportunity to vulnerable Palestinian refugees, transforming the lives of children, women and disabled people through training and education. At the centre there is a kindergarten, a playground (the only safe outdoor area in the camp) and a set of classrooms used for adult education and classes for teenagers who have dropped out of school.
It is not easy work. Guns are everywhere, and militias dominate the refugee camp’s economy and politics. Sylvia stands strong in the midst of great challenges, as do all of Embrace’s partners, their endurance reflecting incredible steadfastness and a deep, sacrificial love for their neighbours.
And this is also seen clearly in Iraq, where we’re working with Christian Aid Programme in Northern Iraq (CAPNI). Many of the Iraqi Christian community have understandably left the country for good, but CAPNI’s people have taken upon themselves the wellbeing of their diverse but fragile communities. They’re rebuilding communities, running job skills training and creating starter-loan programmes to give Iraqi refugees who want to return home, hope and the things they need to start again.
Can this extraordinary goodness in extremis be learned? As I imagined Brendan arriving in America, I wondered what condition would he have been? We know at least that he didn’t unleash the awful violence that later Europeans would, in their own state of fear and flight. So I imagined him as a good guest, no threat to those he met, despite the fear and vulnerability he would have felt, able to recover and then return to the part of the world through which I was running now.
I didn’t feel capable of such goodness to be honest, but Brendan’s real or imagined example became a source of strength in the closing hours.
Having chosen to follow the road for simplicity’s sake I found myself subject to several false endings, thinking I was about to arrive in Campbeltown only to see another mile of downhill then uphill to one more deceptive summit. Campbeltown itself was a bit of a false ending as I was heading through to the causeway leading on the Isle Davaar, and at my hobbling pace that added unwelcome time.
But I finally arrived, and then everything went crazy. Gareth became the only person outside my family to see me bawl my eyes out as I reached the door of the support vehicle. My legs gave way and I lay there in a strangely peaceful heap of literal blood, sweat and tears. I could only stand up with Gareth’s help 20 minutes later.
Next morning, the tide had unveiled the causeway and I walked onto Isle Davaar, now cleaner of mind and body. Around the southern shore a rocky beach leads up to seven caves, in one of which I’d heard of a painting, and I’d hoped to end my pilgrimage experience there. I couldn’t, alas, find any sign for the cave, as had been suggested online, and, conscious of the tide coming in, I was ready to let go of the poetic ending.
Then my eyes were drawn to one particular cave opening and I diverted towards it. A few metres in, there He was: Christ on the cross, tenderly painted.
Was this a silent answer to my question? For at the limit of this pilgrimage, there was Love.