Even Mark Calder wasn’t sure if he’d be able to pull off his mammoth 2019 challenge.
In January last year, we featured his incredible aim to run 14 ultramarathons along some of Scotland’s ancient pilgrim routes.
The Running Home 2019 challenge combined his two passions – running and his work with charity Embrace the Middle East, for which he is regional manager for Scotland and the north of England.
He hoped to raise £50,000 to rebuild war-torn areas of Iraq while covering the 1725 miles, gathering support and funds along the way.
While there were times when Mark didn’t think he’d see the finish line, he successfully completed the challenge.
He also surpassed his fundraising tally – with £54,514 currently banked.
And he’s hopeful that even more funds will be amassed before he travels to Iraq this spring to see it put to good use.
Mark (37) said: “There were occasions when I wanted to go home.
“I knew, if I was to quit, I was going home to a nice, comfortable house. The people I was running for don’t have that option.
“That was a monumental reason to keep going.”
Mark had extraordinary support along the way, not least from his crew – Gareth Brocklebank and Andrew Clarke – who followed him in a camper van, which also acted as shelter in areas where overnight B&B stays were not an option.
Mark’s wife Karen and his two daughters also cheered him every step of the way as did many strangers.
“People welcomed me into their churches and communities and generously donated large sums of money,” he said.
“I was invited to speak in venues I would never have been able to reach in my day job, Iona Abbey being one.
“It was a fantastic way to spread the word about Embrace the Middle East.
“I look back on it not with a sense of pride, but rather relief – and gratitude for the people and places I encountered along the way.”
Divine inspiration also came from a meeting with Father Emanuel Youkhana, a Christian minister who works in Dohuk in Iraq to bring Christians, Muslims and Yazidis together.
Mark said: “To see his energy and enthusiasm for what we were doing was a massive inspiration.
“That was at the end of Run 12, the St Ninian run, when I was at my most tired.
“To have that intervention made a really big difference.”
That particular run had loomed large in Mark’s mind; it was the equivalent of running three marathons each day for seven days.
Remarkably, though, he only lost one day to ill-health throughout the year.
“I’ve learned that your body can adapt to whatever is thrown at it,” said Mark.
“I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it to the end of that run but when I hobbled over the finish line, that’s when I knew I could do it.”
The darkest day of the challenge was undoubtedly in June during the St Columba run from Inchcolm Abbey to Iona Abbey.
“It was one of the most interesting runs in terms of scenery, with just about every landscape Scotland has to offer,” he said.
“There was a long, unsupported section just north of Oban. I was feeling great but, within ten minutes, a niggle turned into barely being able to walk.
“I had to find a couple of sticks from the woods to use as shin splints.”
However, it was an earlier, shorter run – St Cuthbert’s in March – which cost Mark a full day and also taught him a very valuable lesson.
“I wanted to run from Melrose to Lindisfarne, where I planned to stay overnight, but I had to be there for a certain time due to the tide restrictions.
“I got lost early on and was chasing my tail for the rest of the day. I started pushing really hard and ended up lost in the hills for 40 minutes, with no water, torchlight or phone charge.
“I rushed checkpoints and didn’t take the time to check my kit properly.
“I was dehydrated, didn’t stay on Lindisfarne and lost a whole day because of it.
“It taught me a very good lesson – that I couldn’t do it alone and that these runs were pilgrimages, not races.
“I had my tail between my legs the next couple of days but the reception at Durham Cathedral reminded me of what I was doing and why.”
Mark enjoyed a similar reception at the Forth Bridges, where supporters and family joined forces to cheer him on before he reached the finish line in St Andrews on November 16.
The following day, he addressed parishioners in St Leonard’s Church.
It was the perfect place to end Running Home as St Andrews was once such a centre of pilgrimage.
Mark took a breather to enjoy Christmas and New Year but has a busy 2020 planned.
He added: “I’m heading to Iraq in the spring to see how the money is being spent.
“I also plan to revisit some of the places and people I met this year, by car though!
“I passed through a lot of villages that were torched in the Highland Clearances.
“People were forced out of their homes, and in some cases country, so there’s a sense of solidarity there with today’s refugees.
“I was conscious of not being able to spend much time in places where I got a great deal of support.
“So I’m hoping to revisit some of those communities, combining storytelling and traditional folk music to consolidate the friendships I made this year.”
Karen is not keen for Mark to pull his running shoes back on too soon, but he will be taking on the York Marathon in October.
Visit www.runninghome2019.co.uk/giveto find out more about Mark’s 14 ultramarathons or donate funds.
Embracing people around the world
Embrace the Middle East is a Christian charity with more than 160 years experience helping people of all faiths and none to free themselves from a life of poverty and injustice.
It has worked with and supported Christian communities on a number of life-changing projects in Turkey, Syria, Egypt, the Balkans, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Cyprus. Currently, it supports communities in northern Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria.
Mark said: “Our focus is enabling people to rebuild their livelihoods. We do that by offering skills training in everything from computer skills to bee keeping. That one struck me as odd but it turns out everyone loves honey!
“Embrace the Middle East also supports intercommunal peace building. The charity is led by local partners and shows how changes, big and small, can make a difference.”
While many Iraqi citizens have chosen not to return to their homeland, Embrace is there to help those who do.
Mark added: “Their homes and agricultural land have been damaged. Our focus is future-proofing their ability to stay in their communities.
“We’re not an NGO which is there for a short-term fix – we are there for the long term.”
As well as working for Embrace the Middle East three days a week, Mark is an honorary fellow at Aberdeen University and has also taught social sciences at Stirling and Durham Universities.