Charity worker embarks on 'ultra pilgrimage'

A charity worker is setting out to run 14 ultramarathons along some of Scotland's ancient pilgrim routes in a bid to help rebuild war torn areas of the Middle East.

Mark Calder running an ultra marathon
Mark Calder during the 42 mile Devil O' Highlands footrace

Dr Mark Calder, 36, will retrace the steps of Celtic saints and cover a total of 1,725 miles across Scotland and Northern England over the next eight months.

Each distance he runs will range from 47 to 350 miles, and will include some established pilgrim routes such as St Cuthbert's and St Magnus's Ways, whilst others will travel through areas associated with saints.

Along the way Dr Calder hopes to drop in on churches and communities that he passes through to share a cup of tea with them on rest breaks.

From Dunfermline to Glasgow

His first challenge will be running from Dunfermline Abbey via Culross, where St Mungo was born, to Glasgow Cathedral, where the saint is buried, on Sunday 13 January.

Money that is raised will go towards a project run by Embrace the Middle East, where Dr Calder is the regional manager for Scotland and the North of England.

The academic, who has taught at Stirling and Durham universities, explained that the length of the challenge "is the distance from Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to Cairo and back to Baghdad - the capitals of the countries in which Embrace the Middle East works."

Mark Calder on a truck in the desert
He has lived and travelled widely in the Middle East

He is passionate about his reasons for running the challenge.

"The goal is to raise money for our new project for refugees returning to cities occupied by the Islamic State particularly in Iraq," he said.

"Our focus is enabling people to rebuild their livelihoods and offer skills training in computers and even bee keeping.

"It will also support inter-communal peace building.

"Embrace the Middle East is led by local partners and shows how changes big and small can make a difference," he added.

Based near Aberdeen, the father of two and Arabic speaker has a lifelong passion for the Middle East, which has included completing a PhD specialising on the region with 18 months living in Palestine, and meeting his wife Karen in Egypt.


Dr Calder, who has written worship material for the Church of Scotland, explained why he is making the opportunity to add a spiritual element to the challenge.

"I have thought in the past that there are similarities between pilgrimages and ultramarathons - they have these intense highs and lows," he said.

"There's this idea of journeys being transformative - it's a chance to think about the actual saints whose footsteps I'll be following in.

"It also ties in with the aspiration of homecoming for these refugees in the Middle East who have been displaced by war."

Having run "one or two marathons a year since 2008" Mr Calder successfully ran his first 100 mile 'ultra' course last year in Yorkshire - despite "starting to doze off" during the 26 hours that it took.

"You begin to wonder what it's like to run a bit further," he said.

"I want to take the pilgrimage aspect seriously and use it for a time of reflection."

A friend will provide help and drive a support motor home, which for longer routes he can also sleep in.

Support Mark

Anyone who would like to join him running or is interested in arranging a talk about the work of Embrace the Middle East should contact the charity directly.

Find out more or donate to the Running Home 2019 project.

You can also check Mark's route to see if he's running near your church.