Scottish academic takes on 14 ultramarathons on pilgrim routes to help Iraqi’s return home

A Scottish charity worker will follow in the footsteps of saints this year – to raise money for a cause close to his heart.

By Julie Currie
Friday, 1st February 2019, 12:16 pm
Updated Friday, 1st February 2019, 12:20 pm
Rev Andrew Sarle (left), from Bainsford Parish Church, with Dr Mark Calder during his first pilgrimage, which took him to the Kelpies in Falkirk.
Rev Andrew Sarle (left), from Bainsford Parish Church, with Dr Mark Calder during his first pilgrimage, which took him to the Kelpies in Falkirk.

Dr Mark Calder will run 14 ultramarathons along some of Scotland’s ancient pilgrim routes to help rebuild war-torn areas of Iraq.

The Running Home 2019 challenge combines 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.

Mark struck on the idea while running in the spring sunshine last year in the beautiful countryside near his Aberdeenshire home.

Dr Mark Calder set off from Dunfermline Abbey on the first of 14 ultramarathons this year during which he hopes to raise £50,000 to help refugees return to their homes in northern Iraq.

The 36-year-old academic explained: “I was training for my first ultramarathon, the 100-mile White Rose event in Yorkshire, in November.

“There’s a sense of joy and freedom when you are running but on an ultramarathon there are also intense highs and lows.

“It can take a toll on your body but inside there’s a sense of peace too.

“It got me thinking of how I could use the freedom that I enjoy to help people in Iraq enjoy a small taste of that too.

Skills training...Embrace the Middle East helps refugees displaced by Islamic State rebuild their lives.

“Embrace the Middle East is working on a long term project to help refugees return to their homes in Iraq.

“We work with groups there to help people get back into employment – we empower communities to help themselves.

“On runs, I enjoy a peace which people in Iraq have not been able to enjoy.

“That got me thinking about running the pilgrim routes in Scotland and the north of England to help.”

Mark had the small matter of completing his first ultramarathon first though.

A field of 60 started but only 16 finished; Mark came home in sixth place after a gruelling 26 hours.

He said: “I fell asleep on my feet at one point!

“It was pretty tough going, with moments of complete joy and despair.

“I learned what not to do along the way – but it proved that I could do it.”

So, on January 13, Mark set off on the first of his 14 ultramarathons this year, St Mungo’s route from Dunfermline Abbey to Glasgow Cathedral.

The 47-mile pilgrimage is the shortest he will attempt but it got his £50,000 fundraising bid for Embrace the Middle East off to a flying start, amassing just over £4000.

The many supporters who turned out to cheer him on, or run part of the way with him, also inspired Mark.

And his welcome at Glasgow Cathedral on St Mungo’s feast day proved truly humbling.

Mark said: “I got a really lovely send-off from Dunfermline Abbey so I ran with a spring in my step for the first few miles.

“Then at the Kelpies in Falkirk and at Cadder, members of local churches came out to cheer me on which was fantastic.

“Around the 35 miles mark, an element of doubt crept in as I was getting quite tired and I knew my next run was twice as long.

“But, just at that point, someone decided to run part of the route with me and it really helped lift my spirits.

“When I reached Glasgow Cathedral, they were having a service for St Mungo and all these dignitaries were there.

“They broke into applause to welcome me.

“I was standing there in my stinking running kit but no-one cared, other than me!

“I spent some time on my own at St Mungo’s tomb and I really felt quite emotional.

“There was something profound about being there on his feast day after running in his footsteps.”

Mark will cover 1725 miles during his Running Home challenge – the distance from Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to Cairo and back, the capitals of the countries in which Embrace the Middle East works.

The dad of two and Arabic speaker has a lifelong passion for the Middle East, including completing a PhD on the region and spending 18 months living in Palestine.

He even proposed to his wife, Karen, in Egypt.

Mark combines his charity work with lecturing.

An honorary fellow at Aberdeen University, he has also taught social sciences at both Stirling and Durham Universities.

But three days each week he devotes to Embrace the Middle East, which is why he is so passionate about completing the challenge.

He added: “The goal is to raise as much money as I can for our new project for refugees returning to cities occupied by the Islamic State, particularly in Iraq.

“I’d love to raise £50,000 or more because I know how the charity will put that to good use, helping families rebuild their lives.

“The ultramarathons are a chance to think about the actual saints whose footsteps I’ll be following in.

“But it also ties in with the aspiration of homecoming for those refugees in the Middle East who have been displaced by war.

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

A friend will follow Mark on his pilgrimages in a motor home, which he can also sleep in on longer routes.

Anyone who would like to join Mark on a run should email [email protected] or call 01494 897950.

To donate funds to Mark’s cause, visit

Join Mark or cheer him on during his 2019 pilgrimage

Mark has a tough schedule to meet in the next year.

Dates for the remaining runs are to be fully confirmed but are diaried as follows:

Run 2: Friday, March 8, St Duthac, 95 miles. King’s College, Aberdeen to St Rule’s Tower, St Andrews via Stonehaven, Arbroath and Dundee.

Run 3: March 17 to 20, St Cuthbert’s Way and St Oswald’s Way, 200 miles. Melrose to Durham via Lindisfarne and Heavenfield.

Run 4: Tuesday, April 16, St Magnus’ Way, 55 miles. Egilsay to St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, via Birsay and Orphir.

Run 5: April 19 to 21, St Maelrubha (1), 110 miles. Loch Maree to Dornoch via Lairg.

Run 6: May 16 to 18, St Brendan, 160 miles. Rothesay to Campbeltown via Arran.

Run 7: June 3 to 6, St Columba, 170 miles. Inchcolm Abbey to Iona Abbey via Loch Tay and Loch Lyon.

Run 8: June 23 to 25, St Moluag, 150 miles. Fortrose to Lismore, via Tomich and Morvich.

Run 9: July 1, St Serf, 60 miles. Culross to Perth via Dunblane.

Run 10: July 11, St Drostan, 95 miles. Aberlour to Old Deer via Insch and New Aberdour.

Run 11: August 28 to 29, St Maelrubha (2), 110 miles. Applecross to Lewis/Harris via Skye.

Run 12: September 14 to 20, St Ninian, 340 miles. Carlisle to Edinburgh via Whithorn and Glasgow.

Run 13: November 7, St Bega, 70 miles. St Bees to Carlisle via Keswick.

Run 14: November 16, St Margaret, 65 miles. South Queensferry to St Andrews via the Fife Pilgrim Way.