Elmira’s Clay Williams – along with approximately 44 other runners – will shadow the migration path of the monarch butterflies on a journey that will span thousands of kilometres across three countries.
The Monarch Ultra Relay Run is a 4,300-km marathon that kicks off in Peterborough today (Thursday). The relay event features each participant running a distance of either 50- or 100-km segments through diverse municipalities and landscapes, then handing the baton off to the next runner.
Williams, who also acts as race director, notes participants have joined in from across North America.
“I take care of the race roster registration site: there’s this heat map, so it shows a glowing spot of people who have registered. There are runners from all over Canada, U.S., and Mexico,” said Williams.
The momentous effort is to raise awareness for the recent decline of numbers in pollinators across the globe, including honeybees and monarch butterflies, the populations of which have sunk to record low levels in recent years.
“The danger for this is food security. Pollinators make our vegetables,” said Williams. “The other part of the message is that individuals can help. There are a few different ways that people can help to save the planet, such as planting milkweed in your garden.”
This time of year was chosen specifically because in lines up with monarch migration – the butterflies travel south and west each autumn to escape the cold weather.
The adventure will span 47 days and take runners through hundreds of municipalities including Pickering, Cambridge, Wallaceburg, Detroit, Fort Wayne, Cape Girardeau, Little Rock, Texarkana, Dallas, San Antonio, Reynosa, San Luis Potosi, Queretaro, and Macheros. Finally, participants will arrive at the Cerro Pelon Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in the Sierra Madre mountains.
What’s more, the baton is actually a storage piece for a scroll written by students at Edmison Heights elementary school in Peterborough.
“It’s a letter written to the monarch butterflies,” explained Williams. “So the school kids have written this, we’ve rolled it up, and put it into something hopefully durable enough that each of the runners is going to carry it on the way down. At the end, we take the letter out once we get to the butterfly sanctuary in Mexico.”
In addition to the mountains, meadows, forests, deserts, trails and cities across North America, he expects runners to see plenty of breathtaking sights along the way.
“We’ll be running through Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebration,” said Williams. “Butterflies play a huge part in those celebrations because they’re considered to represent the spirit of somebody who’s passed on.”
Cinematographer, conservationist and runner Rodney Fuentes will direct a documentary crew. It will show the flight of the monarch butterfly, the relay run, and local conservation efforts taking place across the continent.
“At the heart of the Monarch Ultra is a story about our connection to the land and the beauty, resiliency and strength of the runners and the people they will meet along the way, amplified even more by the Monarch migration,” said Fuentes.
The Monarch Ultra project was launched in 2018, the brainchild of pollinator advocate and ultra runner Carlotta James. Since that time, organizers have been able to form partnerships with conservation groups and media in all three countries.
Williams said he did make some tweaks to the route this time around, opting to add more cities and municipalities to the route to raise awareness for the project.
Runners are scheduled to finish their journey on November 4.