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'Sharing my priceless gift of freedom with those who lack it'

Marathon man Mark Calder is taking on the epic challenge of running 14 ultra marathons across Scotland along many of its pilgrimage routes between January and November 2019, all in aid of raising £50,000 for the charity Embrace the Middle East and its work supporting displaced people in Iraq return home. 

This challenge is a huge undertaking for Mark, 36, who divides his time between working for the charity and lecturing in anthropology at Aberdeen and Stirling universities. Mark is a member of a Fresh Expressions church in the Baptist Union of Scotland, and explains more in this interview 



Mark CalderWhat’s the thinking behind running so many marathons? 

The idea came to me on a run through rural Aberdeenshire where I live. Sometimes running long distances can be a struggle and it requires discipline, but above all it's an expression of the freedom I enjoy. This is a gift not only of physical health but also of dwelling in a land in which there are no military checkpoints, minefields or no-go zones, a land which is open to me to move through.

It's a stark contrast with so much of the world in which so many people are alienated from their environments. Displaced people in Iraq are at the extreme end of this experience of loss: what it must be for a person's home, their sanctuary, to become so unsafe that they must flee. I began to look for a way of sharing my priceless gift of freedom with those who lack it, and Embrace the Middle East's new Iraq project seemed perfect.

Why have you chosen many historical Scottish pilgrimage routes?

There are several related reasons. The first is that ultra marathon-running is very pilgrimage-like. On pilgrimage I have experienced great highs and lows, as well as long periods of a inner stillness when I can pray or worship or (perhaps surprisingly) rest through my moving body. The same is true of ultra marathons, and perhaps even more intensely. 

Secondly, I wanted this project to be more than a fundraising 'challenge event'. Pilgrimage takes the focus off running as endurance sport and connects the project to the story of the church in Scotland and the north of England. As I've begun to dig into this story, it's remarkable how many of these ancient saints were refugees or were at the front-line of engagement with an existential threat to the church in this land, much as our Iraqi brothers and sisters are today. 

I should say that some of the routes are not 'historical' in the same way that, say, the Caminos de Santiago are. Some of my routes have been reconstructed on the basis of a particular saint's activities or legacy in a region. But they are all run with attention to the past, some of it dimly glimpsed, and reading the lives of the different saints is as much part of my preparation as training runs.

Also, it’s not just Scotland – I’ll be running in Cumbria, Northumbria and County Durham too, and some of the saints are not just ‘owned’ by the north. For instance St Mungo (Kentigern) was a refugee in Wales where St Asaph was one of his novices, and has left his mark across much of England.

It sounds exhausting, even for an experienced runner! How confident are you that you can do it?

I don't take it for granted that I'll be able to do it, but it's hugely motivating to think that my journeys here might help to create a happy ending to this desperately sad story of displacement and loss in Iraq. I can only train as wisely as possible, seek to avoid injury and illness and, importantly, accept people's prayers, advice, help and support. I have run a few ultras and several marathons, but the lack of recovery time this year is going to be the real challenge. I guess we’ll see!

Can you talk a little more about your support for Embrace? What impact will the sponsorship money have?

Embrace the Middle East’s new Iraq project has quite a specific focus: future-proofing the return of those who have been displaced, helping them grow their roots again deeply into their native soil. Concretely this means two things: assisting people with securing livelihoods, and building bridges between communities where mistrust and hostility have been allowed to grow, especially during the occupation of Islamic State and since the invasions at the turn of the century.

The economy has, of course, changed dramatically and many younger refugees have missed out on schooling and training. Our project will focus on training in the most employable and marketable skills like electronics, hairdressing, even bee-keeping, matched to local demand. Inter-communal peace-building projects make up the other pillar of our work.

What support have you had from your church? 

My friends in Garioch Church - a Baptist Union of Scotland fresh expression in Aberdeenshire - are helping with practicalities such as some of the driving, but their participation goes much deeper. Our focus on being connected to the places in which we live, on being attentive to our local environment, has I suppose found an expression in this project.

More profoundly still, the sense that we are a kind of extended family has become so natural that I run with their support and 'presence' in the same way that I run with my own sisters' and parents' support and presence. 

Can people join you on the marathons?

There’s not a general invitation to run due to the safety implications of running ultra marathons, although in places I will touch base with those with experience and local knowledge such as running clubs. Still, there are many ways people can ‘join me’ in the running, even if they don’t physically run with me. For those in or near Edinburgh, we’ll be hosting a 5k fun run, 22 September, which is a chance for casual runners to participate in Running Home 2019.

If someone’s church is near one of the routes then we’d love to hear from them if they can offer practical support, invite us to come and speak, or give us a welcome or send-off when we are in the area. If anyone is undertaking a running challenge themselves this year, then we’d be thrilled it if they did it for our Running Home project. Of course, financial and prayer support are a great way to encourage me and support me on the road. 

Everyone can join me in this venture, and visiting the website is a great place to start: www.runninghome2019.co.uk.

Running Home website screensho

What impact do you think it will have on your faith?

It's hard to say. My moments of least doubt in God, and greatest dependence on God, have been at my limit - sometimes on runs that have gone badly, such as where I began to fall asleep on my feet during a 100-miler, or slumped over a barrier in Rome praying that I'd be able to finish a race and not collapse! I expect I will be pushed to that limit a few times this year.

But I'm hopeful that it won't all be about prayer in the context of pain. Indeed I could not have predicted the sense of overwhelming gratitude when I knelt at the tomb of St Mungo in Glasgow at the end of my first run: thankfulness for my own freedom, for the landscape I'd run through, for the sense, in that moment, that God is on the move.

But I was also surprised by my sense of gratitude to and for Mungo, which is not something my Baptist upbringing prepared me for! Who knows where all these roads lead, but I'm open to surprise encounters on the way.


To find out more about Mark's challenge and Embrace the Middle East's work in Iraq, visit: www.runninghome2019.co.uk


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Baptist Times, 30/01/2019
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