After 4,300 kilometres, the epic inaugural Monarch Ultra Relay, which started in Peterborough, Ont. on September 19, came to an end at the Cerro Pelón butterfly sanctuary in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains on November 4. The brainchild of runner and pollinator activist Carlotta James, the relay is part of an ongoing effort to raise awareness for the threatened status of pollinators such as the monarch butterfly. We caught up with James to hear about the first of what she hopes will become many similar odysseys.
Throughout the 47-day journey, 44 ultrarunners volunteered to run segments of 50K to 100K, following the migration route of the monarch butterfly, through the towns and cities of North America. They ran along back roads, highways and trails, and the group connected with conservation groups, municipalities and schools along the way, spreading the message that pollinators are necessary to our survival, and that without action to protect their habitats and build new ones, they are vulnerable to climate change, disease and pesticide use.
The project had numerous runners sign up to run one or more legs relay-style, accompanied by a crew consisting of James, documentary filmmaker Rodney Fuentes, the project’s race director and mapping expert Clay Williams, and team chef, driver and logistician Gunther Schubert. But not every running leg of the journey was accounted for, and James and Clay were more than prepared to make up the difference, each of them running at least 400 kilometres.
“My body recuperated quite quickly, and I was surprised by that,” says James, who until the Monarch Ultra had never run more than the marathon distance of 42.2K. “Sometimes I only had four days’ break and I’d be out running again. Our bodies are so resilient! We’re able to do more than we can ever imagine… I’ve been running my whole life, so I was saying to myself, I’ve been training for this my whole life. As a runner, it was also my time to reflect… so I really looked forward to those days where I’d have six or seven hours to myself, to be on my own and running along these beautiful areas of North America.”
For James, the best part was entering Mexico, which “really opened their arms to our project and got right behind it. We could feel it as soon as we crossed the border. In the states we ran through, every government supported us. Their departments of education, tourism, the environment–all of them supported us. It was spectacular to witness and overwhelming to be a part of it,” says James, who adds that many local running clubs put teams together to run 10K or 20K with them. “They were excited that this international relay run was going to… show what a beautiful country they have, their natural landscapes and cultural beauty. They were excited.”
Challenges a metaphor for the monarchs’ plight
But if her comments seem to imply that it was all sunshine, butterflies and endorphins, it definitely wasn’t–but the challenges were anticipated, and part of the vision. “We faced everything the monarch butterflies face on their journey south,” says James, citing pollution, heat, dehydration, exhaustion and danger from human activity on the highways. One runner had to pull out due to heatstroke, and the heat occasionally forced others to shorten their 100K legs to 60 to 70K. James admits there were times she was crying in pain while running, but says “My spirit was never broken, and that kept me going.”
The 30-year-old RV they bought for the project broke down repeatedly, which meant the crew was frequently faced with having to change their plan for supporting runners, sometimes using the runner’s own car (when it was available) or depending on the kindness of local mechanics. “We had to just figure it out,” says James. “Having a team of four really creative and passionate and dedicated people meant we were going to do this no matter what. We were unstoppable.”
When the route included running on the highways, safety became a major concern, and it was particularly challenging when the RV broke down in a spot where there they could not pull over safely, which happened several times. When the the project is mounted again in 2021, they will plan a different route, avoiding highways wherever possible.
When the documentary can be completed and released depends on how much funding and what type of partnerships the project is able to secure over the next year or two.
The second Monarch Ultra is planned for 2021, and James says it will be bigger and better, now that they have gained support from so many environmental groups, government agencies, schools and running groups. “We feel we have a big responsibility to continue on this path of supporting monarch butterflies and other pollinators, with awareness and action by citizens,” she says. Besides avoiding highways (which has the potential to lengthen the relay by two weeks), she will be following up with groups and schools to let them know the project is ongoing.
“It’s like a ball that just keeps on rolling.”