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The trek south was long and gruelling, but they’ll do it again

Elmira’s Clay Williams helped to map the route for the Monarch Ultra, a 4,300-kilometre relay run that stretches across three countries. While there were some bumps in the road along this epic journey, organizers are already planning another for 2021. [Submitted]

It was a long haul complete with many hurdles, but having completed the 4,300-kilometre ultra-marathon last month, organizers are already planning for the next one.

Elmira’s Clay Williams, along with some 46 runners, completed the Monarch Ultra run that spanned three countries and shadowed the migration path of the monarch butterfly.

The first-of-its-kind international relay aimed to raise awareness for the plight of monarch butterflies and other pollinators, whose populations are in steep decline.

“This multi-day running adventure is part of an ongoing effort to raise awareness of the threatened status of pollinators, while showing the world that a new way is possible in uniting communities for the conservation and protection of our beautiful Mother Earth,” said Carlotta James, project director and cofounder.

Each runner completed either 50- or 100-km segments through diverse landscapes including mountain paths, forests, meadows, deserts, and cities, before handing off the baton to the next runner.

The Monarch Ultra kicked off in Peterborough mid-September, and took participants through hundreds of municipalities, including Toronto. Runners then crossed the border into Fort Wayne, Cape Girardeau, Little Rock, Texarkana, Dallas, San Antonio, then to Mexico’s Reynosa, Monterrey, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Queretaro, and Macheros.

They finally wrapped up their journey at the Cerro Pelon Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary on November 4, arriving at around the same time that the butterflies migrate south for winter.

“I think it was interesting the range of people we made contact with on the way down. … From experienced long time environmental activists that are doing all the right things, all the way to people who are running and thinking about how they can start to be a little more environmentally friendly about their daily activities,” said Williams, who acted as race director and mapping expert.

“We were successful in that we were able to educate people who are just starting to look at how we affect the environment.

Participants joined in from all across North America, including Canada, the United States and Mexico. Because the roster list fell just a little short of runners to cover the legs, Williams himself completed nearly 400 kilometres of the trek, while James finished almost 500 km.

Williams said he watched firsthand how the environmental message behind the relay inspired its participants.

“There was one runner who joined because she was running with a friend and didn’t really seem too engaged with the whole environmental protection of aspect of the Monarch Ultra,” recalled Williams.

“We had someone local join us, came out and met us and brought some monarch butterflies that she had raised. The runner had the opportunity to take a butterfly out of this jar, release it and watch it fly away as it started migrating south. I think that had a really big impact on her.”

They took along an RV motorhome to take runners to each planned segment. While the journey was successful in its mission, Williams said that there were several unforeseen challenges along the way.

“The very first day we ran into a construction zone … we couldn’t drive through, and how do you plan for that? So we got a couple people on bicycles to ride through the construction zone. I think that was an indication of things to come.”

The RV that they used was some 30-years-old, and ran into electrical issues and engine trouble along the way. When the group crossed the border into Mexico, they decided to leave the motorhome behind and rent a van so that they did not get stranded.

There was another issue that they ran into while in the United States, while participants were completing their segments on service roads next to the interstate highways.

“When I set the route up, the initial intention was to find the shortest distance point to point. Especially in the U.S., interstate highways are the shortest distance intentionally,” explained Williams. “We had four or five days running straight, just running down the service road right beside the interstate. The amount of traffic and truck traffic was almost deafening.

“In 2021, we’re planning to do it again, and we’re definitely going to change up the route away from such crazy busy highways.”

The second Monarch Ultra planned for 2021 will be “bigger and better,” especially now that the group has gained support from conservation groups, government agencies, schools, and running groups.

Williams said that the date is set for 2021 rather than next year, to give organizers more time to properly plan and prepare for an event of this scale.

A documentary telling the story of the monarch butterfly, the relay run, and local conservation efforts is underway, depending on how much funding and which partnerships the project can secure in the next year or two.

“It’s been over two weeks since the Monarch Ultra team came back from Mexico. It was so cool to be part of such an amazing project. I miss the team already and all the great people I met along the route,” said Rodney Fuentes, director and cinematographer.

For more information, visit The Monarch Ultra website.

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  1. Such a well written article. Elmira must be so extremely proud of Clay Williams. It was such an honour to get to know him better during the relay! Thank you for sharing! 🦋

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