As butterflies take flight, they hit the trail

Weighing no more than a paper clip, monarch butterflies nonetheless make the long trek from Canada to Mexico each year. As such, they’ve become a symbol of endurance and a bellwether of environmental conditions.

In recent years, the monarch populations across Canada and the U.S.  have seen a steep decline due to habitat loss such as the removal of milkweed plants by farmers. Milkweed can make certain animals sick, but it also is what makes monarch butterflies poisonous to their predators, said Clay Williams, one of the original founders of the Monarch Ultra.

The Monarch Ultra was the first run across North America to help spread awareness of the declining pollinator populations, with participants taking the same migratory path the infamous butterflies make every year. The event, organized by Carlotta James two years ago, saw runners leave from Peterborough for the 47-day journey to Mexico. This year it’s a 21-day journey across southern Ontario.

“It originally came from Carlotta James, she had this vision, she saw a monarch butterfly when she was running one day, and was kind of thinking about what these little monarch butterflies do – they are in a really steep decline. Thinking about these little butterflies flying from where she was running up in Peterborough, all the way to Mexico, the butterflies that are hatched in Peterborough fly all the way down there and wouldn’t it be cool to run along where they’re flying? She put together a team and got a hold of me. The intention was to do something really wild to get people’s attention and then kind of redirect that attention to the plight of our pollinators,” he explained.

“We ran all the way to Mexico as a relay run. I was the run director for that and put together the map –  I spent 40 days in a van and an RV, and we made it to Mexico and back,” said Williams of the first outing.

“We were planning on doing it every second year, so we started putting a route together based on what we learned about some of the more dangerous sections of highway. But then the pandemic meant we probably wouldn’t be going across the border. I’m the mapmaker for this year, and put together the route that goes around the province.”

The Elmira resident is an avid runner, taking part in several marathons over the years.

“I had progressed since 2003 through marathons and 100-mile races and 48-hour races. I ran a thing called canal pursuit that I created, and ran from Port Severn to Ottawa, 785 kilometres. Carlotta liked the way that I had organized that run so she got in touch with me, and as soon as she told me she’s organizing a run to Mexico I was in.”

This year the Monarch Ultra runners started from Peterborough and finish in Barrie, limited by COVID restrictions. The Monarch Ultra runners sped off September 19, they’ll be passing through Elmira in the early hours Thursday morning, looking to finish their run by Saturday.

“We wanted to partner with a couple of organizations that were conservation organizations. We wanted someplace that was fairly safe for our runners to be on foot. So rather than being on secondary highways, we decided we would get them onto the Trans Canada Trail and the Waterfront Trail, and both of those are established organizations that have signage up for most of the park. The route goes from Peterborough across to Uxbridge, down to the lake, and across Toronto towards Windsor and then heads back through London, Cambridge and beautiful Elmira, up towards Barrie.”

Along the route, runners encounter an aid stop every eight or ten kilometres or so.

Pollinator populations have been in decline around the world, causing Canada to declare the monarch butterfly as an endangered species. The reason for the decline is largely due to habitat loss from agriculture, mining and human development. The land may not provide a proper habitat anymore for the pollinators to hibernate in the winter or create nesting sites that require specific habitats. Agricultural intensification is also a primary driver for their decline, widespread planting of monocultures and toxic pesticide use have destroyed many areas pollinators live in.

Close to 70 runners will be running the route Williams planned through southern Ontario this year. Donations can be made through their website, The next Monarch Ultra run is planned for 2023.

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