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The Monarch Ultra Relay: 4,300K to raise awareness for endangered pollinators

The ultra relay will follow the migration path of the threatened species from Ontario to Mexico

monarch butterly on plant

This morning in Peterborough, Ont., a remarkable event was launched. The 4,300-kilometre Monarch Ultra Relay, which follows the migration path of the monarch butterfly from Canada to Mexico, merges two passions for its participants and supporters: ultrarunning, and concern for the plight of the monarch butterfly and other pollinators, whose numbers are threatened by pesticide use, climate change, habitat loss and disease. The goal is to connect with communities that care about conservation and Earth stewardship along the way and to provide a challenging running experience comparable to that of the monarchs’ migration journey.

The relay traces a route that runs west from Peterborough to Pickering, Cambridge, London and Wallaceburg before crossing into Michigan and down through Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas and Mexico, ultimately arriving at the Cerro Pelón Monarch Sanctuary in the Sierra Madre mountains six weeks later. This is where the monarch butterfly spends the winter before returning north in the spring.

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Carlotta James at the opening celebration for the Monarch Ultra Relay in Peterborough on September 19, 2019. Photo: Clay Williams

The idea for the ultra was conceived by pollinator activist and trail runner Carlotta James of Peterborough and is led by race director and mapping expert Clay Williams, who for the past five years has also directed the Canal Pursuit for Mental Health Relay Run along the Trent-Severn and Rideau canal systems to raise awareness and end stigma around depression and mood disorders.

“I’m so inspired and motivated by this project that it doesn’t feel like work,” says James, who runs a full-time eco-landscaping business on top of all the time she has put in to organize the Monarch Ultra. “It feels like working on a creative project–I get up every day excited by new ideas and the communities we’ll be connecting with along the route.”


Peterborough-based documentarian, runner and conservationist Rodney Fuentes will direct a documentary crew that will film the entire project. “Pollinators play a vital role in the success of agricultural crops in our food supply,” he says in a video to promote the project. “Their yearly migration from Canada to Mexico has made them legendary. We want to inform people about the delicate state of pollinators in the environment, and empower communities to take action to help save monarchs and other pollinators. Also we want to highlight the challenge that runners face during the run, and compare it with the challenge that monarchs face during the migration.”

Fifty to 70 ultrarunners will run legs of 50K or 100K through various landscapes both urban and rural, including cities, mountain paths, deserts, forests and wilderness trails.

“The Texas National Butterfly Centre has told us there’s been a wave of thousands of monarch butterflies,” says James. “They’ve made an epic comeback this year, and everyone says they’ve never seen more monarchs than they have this year. To me it’s a beautiful sign that we’re doing something right with the pollinator awareness and protection message.

“At the heart of this project, the story is a call to action to get involved in ecological efforts, with something as simple as planting milkweed in your garden or creating a pollinator habitat.”

A Kickstarter campaign mounted almost a year ago has raised more than $30,000, and organizers began to forge partnerships with conservation groups and the media in all three countries.

For more information on the monarch ultra, click here. Those interested in donating to the cause can do so here. (Select Monarch Ultra Marathon from the drop-down menu under “Apply your donation to a specific fund set up by this charity.”)

The project is still looking for ultrarunners in Texas and Mexico. Interested runners can sign up on Race Roster, here.

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