The daily flight range for a migrating monarch is twenty-five to thirty miles, according to Monarch Joint Venture. I cite that source because last week I watched, fender-bender-gawker-style, as several monarch enthusiasts (is there not a word that’s a whole lot more amped?) on a social media page got their wings in a flap over whether it’s 100 miles or exactly 15 or it is NEVER more than 33. Since I don’t enjoy conflict and my attention span is somewhere between 15 and 33 but NEVER more than 100 characters of angry back and forth comments, I looked to an expert source.
The average leg of the Monarch Ultra is 50K, and thanks to Clay Williams’ lesson on metric conversion, I now know that equates to 17 days. Actually it’s 31 miles and change. Clay knows that. He’s the race director after all, and Canadian. Metric by birth. But American schools gave up trying to teach us the metric system about ten days after they gave up trying to change us left-handers into lesser beings.
So anyway, the runners and the butterflies travel extraordinary distance during this migration season, and though I spent a few days observing them both I still can’t quite believe it. That’s hard work.
The runners of this ultra showed up before dawn and a few ran into dusk. They ran in hot, dusty clouds of highway traffic exhaust and on country roads where flat farm fields yawned for miles. But they also saw monarchs gliding on air currents and friends with banners and strangers cheering.
These are the last three Indiana runners I interviewed for this series. It’s been a nearly two weeks since they ran but they’re still part of the race, watching on the Monarch Ultra facebook page, knowing the baton they carried is steadily flying toward the finish line.
Saturday, September 28th.
|She’s a Boilermaker
|Leg 1: Andrea Olive is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Geography at the University of Toronto and has published a book discussing Canada’s environmental policy within the context of its political system. Species conservation and cross-border politics is not something a monarch butterfly pays attention to as it migrates across two national borders each year. So it falls to people like Andrea to look at how we as countries, a continent, and a whole world, can make better policies regarding
transboundary species protection and border crossing.
Andrea is also a runner who started racing in events in support of various family members. More than one has been affected by cancer, including, now, Andrea. She completed her first ultra on the one year anniversary of finishing chemo treatments for cancer discovered through a trial program prompted by her mother having Stage 4 breast cancer. She trained for the run throughout her treatments, with her eyes on the prize of running the beautiful trails at Arches National Park.
The first hour of her Monarch Ultra leg was not her favorite. It was dark, on a highway and it felt dangerous. But once the sun came up and she got to the Carmel Farmer’s Market she was delighted by the kids gathered, waving signs and cheering.
|Lynda, Tim, & Betty
|Betty Beamis, who with her husband Tim had hosted the team and Andrea the previous night, brought a monarch for Andrea to release. The butterfly seemed to enjoy Andrea’s company, sticking with her for a few paces before it took to the sky.
Betty, Tim, and their friend Lynda Kerstein, followed Andrea her entire route, flapping their wings and even running with her for a small bit.
When I followed up with her and asked about the experience Andrea said, “Seeing Betty and Tim open their doors to strangers for dinner and a place to sleep… it was just so generous and beautiful. People brought together by butterflies! It made me think that running is a team sport. Sure, there are the people running 50km or 100km a day – but then there are ALL THESE PEOPLE that make up the team. Everyone is making a contribution.”
Running is hard, she said, and takes dedication and grit. But the teamwork and camaraderie keeps her in the game. Even being a crew person handing out water or cheering for runners makes her feel called to character, as she put it.
“Somebody’s out there and they could be struggling. You don’t know what they’re going through. It’s a big deal to be there.”
Andrea exhibited that strong character on the final 10k of her Monarch Ultra leg on the Monon Trail in Indianapolis. She came upon a young woman crying and slowed to walk alongside her. Sixteen miles into a 20-mile training run for her first marathon, the woman was out of water and overheated on the 90-degree day and didn’t think she could make it. She’d called her boyfriend and the three of them crossed the 50k mark together.
|Making pals on the path
When I mentioned that I was touched to see her walking, a huge smile on her face and chatting with the young woman she replied, “Sometimes we have to carry each other – cheer for each other and just slow down and walk either each other.”
Andrea started and ended her Indiana Monarch Ultra experience helping others. I’m not sure what her finish time was, or even if she cared about that. I do know that somewhere in Indy is a young woman who met a human butterfly that traveled for a while alongside her on her long journey.
Leg 2: Cynthia Craig Thompson– A late bloomer to running, Cynthia ran her first 5K in 2015 and then she said, “Went off the deep end from there.”
She joined a running club of 6,000 women in Columbus, Ohio, called Moms Run This Town, and now can’t imagine not running. It clears her mind to be in nature listening to birds and seeing wildlife.
“How can you be miserable when you’re out there in nature?” she asked, rebuffing the ‘dreadmill’—aka ‘Satan’s Sidewalk’.
And while the majority of her leg of the ultra was on pavement she looked forward to educating those she met along the route. “The opportunity to talk to people about natural places and the ecosystem is huge for trail runners because they utilize those spaces.”
|Cynthia and Janet
She and her friend Janet Best, a Boston qualifier for 2020, showed up in monarch wings and bright orange shoes to take the baton from Andrea and follow the Indianapolis Cultural Trail through downtown toward their endpoint near Martinsville. Supporters came out to send them off with enthusiasm, and a monarch fluttered by as they headed down the path.
In a message Cynthia sent me a few days after the race she that aside from the blistering heat, the thing that struck her most was meeting the people who came to cheer at the start – realizing that there are others out there who are dedicated to this cause – and meeting Clay, Carlotta and the others and feeling the excitement they have for this journey. “I love following the other runners on the course since we finished, and knowing that in our small way, we are part of something so much bigger.”
She would like to be at the end of the race in Cerro Pelon, or even to run another leg, but timing and obligations prevent that. She’ll be there in spirit, though. And she’s thinking of putting in a butterfly garden that she’ll register as a monarch waystation. “My neighbors and grandkids would love it!” Echoes of that theme of belonging to a community, a shared journey, a passion. It’s a powerful thing.
|Janet, Cynthia, Carlotta, and me
Sunday, September 29th. Matt Flaherty.
The morning sun hadn’t yet risen when Matt began his 100K run just north of Bloomington. I was fifteen minutes late and caught up to the team at Matt’s first rest stop. Within thirty minutes he zipped in, had a quick drink, and was gone in the darkness again.
|Matt before dawn
It’s a good thing I got to interview him days before the run and in a follow-up email afterward, because I’m starting understand that his daily pace is actually the speed of an ultra-runner on a 100K race day.
Matt lives in Bloomington, Indiana, my hometown. In fact he lives in an area of town that was my cross country training ground too many years ago to divulge. He’s a professional runner who discovered the Monarch Ultra through a friend who knows Carlotta and Tim.
Since meeting the team last year during their scouting trip he’s become an ambassador, sending emails and searching out sponsors within his large running community.
|He’s a running coach, a former attorney, a student in the prestigious School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University working on a dual degree in environmental science and public affairs. Oh, and he’s a newly-elected city councilman. And though he didn’t volunteer this information, he’s apparently a freelance writer in his, uh, spare time producing thought-provoking pieces like this one on protecting Indiana’s trail system.
He saw participating in the Monarch Ultra as a natural fit for an ultra-runner whose interests include trail conservation and ecosystem services of pollinators. And, like the runners before him, he is mindful of the symbolism of traveling the migration path of monarchs with whom we share a connection to the land.
“It was amazing that while running solo, I knew it was part of a greater conservation effort — running in solidarity with all of the other runners to raise awareness about biodiversity and the plight of pollinators.”
Matt’s day was long and hot but he had the support of the Monarch Ultra team and some beautiful southern Indiana scenery to keep him motivated. Matt also said he’s been keeping track of the racers and team as they make their way south.
Just like all of the runners I’ve interviewed, just like me. We’re all cheering for the others in this, our new community.
The Monarch Ultra race is just about half way complete, and there’s still time to join as a runner, accommodations host, or provider of cheers and flip-flops.
Clay wears a size 13 and seems to blow through a pair every week. I fancied up pair shown above for him that he’s already destroyed so if you’re on their route you could surprise him with new ones.
Also, Carlotta is the sole female of the Monarch Ultra team. Show her your sister spirit by bringing your squad out to cheer her on!
P.S. I planned to publish the pieces on Carlotta, Clay, Guenther, and Rodney this week, but I just didn’t feel ready to say goodbye.
I’ll be heading to Texas to catch up to them before they cross into Mexico next week so stay tuned for one last ultra cool blog on them.