The evening before an ultramarathon is usually taken up with last minute checks and eating large quantities of carbohydrates. Instead, ahead of my most recent run, I was leading a vigil as part of the Scottish Refugee Festival in Dundee.
It was a different kind of fuelling, but genuinely nourishing, enabling me to reflect not only on the experience of forced displacement, but also upon the kinds of response to that trauma available to us as those who enjoy safe homes.
The exertion and vulnerability of taking to the road as a pilgrim seems a particularly appropriate response to others’ displacement.
There are parallels with the idea of fasting in solidarity with those who don’t have enough to eat. But can doing so make any concrete difference? That’s the question I was to run with.
My ninth pilgrimage, along St Serf’s route of 60 miles from Culross to Kinross via Stirling,
Dunblane and Dunning, was to be my first one-day run since April. I was still a little sore and really quite tired after the previous ultramarathon, I had a sense that it could be a tough day.
But I dared to hope that I’d finally learned some of the lessons of from the runs already completed and I set off intending to walk 500 metres of every two-kilometre stretch.
And what a difference that made - I even arrived too early for my church engagement in Stirling!
I had been nervous about giving a talk at Dunblane Cathedral, a whole marathon distance into my day’s run - but I still felt fresh on arrival. I even felt ok when I resumed running – usually the hardest moment, especially when I’m taking a longer break, giving me time to stiffen up.
After running the extraordinary Sheriffmuir road out of Dunblane, with its incredible panorama of the southern highlands, it wasn’t until 75km – Dunning, where St Serf slew a dragon, according to legend – that I began to engage my own adversaries in the form of more intense pain, weariness and, for the first time on a run this year, terrible hayfever.
Knowing that I was already more than three quarters through the miles was psychologically a huge help - especially when my route cut across boggy farmland late in the evening, which challenged my tired legs. Simply walking a quarter of every 2km, plus any steep hills or rough terrain, not only gave me more staying power but also worked out slightly faster than when I keep running as much as I can on 50-mile runs or longer.
There are many aspects to the idea of ‘running with patience’, as Hebrews 12:1 (KJV) would have it, and I noted that as I stopped at Dunblane and Holy Trinity Stirling, I was much more relaxed about pausing and being present to people’s encouragement and support, rather than feeling the need to plough on. Indeed, Rev Joan at Holy Trinity finished the Running home coffee morning their congregation had organised by reading Kathy Galloway’s wonderful poem ‘Our brother Jesus’ which includes the line, ‘bless us with decisiveness where we must move with speed; bless us with lazy moments, to stretch and rest and savour.’ It felt very appropriate.
But it was after I finished that I had the clearest insight into why all of this pilgrimage is an appropriate response to others’ displacement.
I heard from an Embrace supporter who’d been trying to raise awareness of Running home that they’d been told by someone they’d spoken to about the challenge: ‘I hate Iraq and everything to do with it. Those people just want to kill you.’
St Serf was not, as far as we know, a refugee, but the stories of his life point to him being well-travelled. In some legends he travelled Middle Eastern routes before leaving Rome for Gaul and Britain, finally founding Culross town in Fife.
Perhaps his knowledge of the road drove him to minister to Kentigern’s pregnant mother when she was washed up on Culross beach, and to offer shelter to her and the baby boy, who would grow up to be St Mungo.
I believe it is much harder to think of others in generalising, dehumanising ways, as simply ‘a problem’, when lonely roads, indignity, pain and dependence upon others become part of one’s own experience.
I suspect that, if hostile or overwhelmed responses may arise out of a sense of the enormity of the horror of conflict and upheaval, it is also a function of the unintelligibility of others' experience. The mundane struggle of pilgrimage begins to make it intelligible, and so to make it clear that any positive engagement is better than nothing at all.
We begin to feel that our responsibility is not for a huge problem, but simply for those others we can help, as it were in meeting them on the road.
It becomes clear that it is better to help one of the millions in need of ‘home’ than to hide behind the excuses afforded when we imagine all of ‘those people’ as our enemies, rather than fellow pilgrims in urgent need.
They are people who, like Kentigern, have the potential to do enormous good, and like St Serf, we might have a role in welcoming them home, from where their new stories begin.