It was an e-mail that I dreaded to have to send. I had kept putting it off and putting it off, but the dear Monarch Ultra team had a right to know. I had Plantar Fasciitis on the right foot. I kept attempting to run, but just could not get past one or two kilometers. The pain was just too intense. Finally on August 25, less than a month before my 100 kilometer section of the Monarch Ultra I compiled the e-mail asking that they would remove me as one of their relay ultrarunners, and clicked “send”. I hoped they would understand, and have enough time to find a replacement for me.
Looking back I should have been listening more closely to my body. The foot had been bothering me way back last January, but I ignored the signals and kept running. The year 2019 was going to be huge for me. I needed to keep up with my training. Ran a few fun runs, which included the Ontario Trail and Ultra Series Spring Warmup. Had such a blast running with series director Pierre Marcoux. And the last Saturday in April was the notoriously tough 50k Pick Your Poison, my 4th year running it in a row.
After each run and each race my foot was bothering me more and more. But I behaved like an ostrich with it’s head in the sand. I continued to ignore a foot that was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, and continued to run. On June 2nd I ran the Barrie Half Marathon. It was a painful run, but for a 60 year I felt I finished in a fairly respectable time. It was just over 2 hours. The following morning as I got out of bed to get ready for my crosswalk duties I put my foot down. I couldn’t put any weight on it. An angry Achilles tendon was screaming at me in protest. I had to crawl up the stairs. And for the 1st time ever, drive the 2 blocks up to the highway for my crosswalk duties. Previously I have had Plantar fasciitis twice, both times in my pre-running days and on the same foot. Both times it took a full 8 months to heal. I had the gut feeling my running season was over.
Paying Attention and Acting on Warning Signs
The Monarch Ultra is a celebration of two types of superheroes: monarch butterflies and ultra-runners. Both cover long distances using their incredible body strength to arrive at a new (unknown) destination. When an ultra-runner is running those long distances for 6, 7 or 8 hours straight (and sometimes much, much longer) things can go terribly wrong. And the runner is not able to continue. Our bodies are amazing, and will give us warning signs (like a red light that comes on, on the dashboard of a car). As runners, it is imperative we act on those signs. It could be gastro intestinal where we can’t keep stuff in our stomach. It could be hydration. Are we drinking enough fluid? During those long runs, the runners are sweating profusely and losing a lot of sodium. Are we keeping up with our salt/electrolyte balances? When the warning lights of heat exhaustion, severe cramping, or throwing up are flashing, sometimes runners are able to immediately act on it and turn things around enough to finish the race. But it can be a tedious, messy process. Other times they are not able to, and the race is over.
For decades, the declining numbers of the Monarch butterfly has been like a flashing red light to warn us humans of the horrific way we have been caring for our planet. They have been like a “Canary in a Coal Mine”. A February, 2019 Miami Herald news article mentions that over 20 years ago there was close to a billion Monarchs on our planet. In 2013, that number had dropped to less than 20 million, a 97% drop. There are various possible reasons, which include climate change, habitat loss and pesticide use.
My dad always said when he was living, that the best investment a person can make was purchasing land, adding, “They don’t make any more of it”. So five years after my dad’s passing, when I was 20 (over 40 years ago) I actually bought a 63 acre parcel of land. Land was so much cheaper back then, and the previous owner (a friend of the family) took back a mortgage at a rate far cheaper than the banks. The first few years I was away a lot with work, so I rented the land out to a small scale farmer. I was home more after five years, so I started working with the wettest 10 acres to regenerate it back to it’s natural state. This was a dream of mine. I started planting tree saplings among the grasses and wildflowers that were quickly re-establishing and regenerating themselves. They included the milkweed, the only food source of the Monarch caterpillar, and the goldenrod, a popular source of food for the Monarch butterfly. The field was buzzing with happy bees, and abounding with many species of butterflies, including many Monarchs. It gave me so much joy to be able to create this natural oasis. I was making the world a better place. However, in the summer of my 3rd year working my oasis I received a registered letter from my municipality stating that I was in violation of the noxious weed act because of the milkweed, and I had 30 days to eradicate it. If I did not, the field would be sprayed with herbicide, and I would be billed for the cost. Spraying with weed killing poison was out of the question, so I got a farmer to mow the field flat with his hay mower. Unfortunately, all the tree saplings I had lovingly planted were sheared off in the process. In total frustration I unloaded the property on the real estate market, taking a significant financial loss in the process. To add insult to injury, the buyer of the property not only sprayed with herbicide any natural plant life that was re-establishing itself, he obtained permission from the township to subdivide the entire 63 acre agriculturally zoned property into 3 to 5 acre estate subdivision lots. Soon upscale luxury homes were built, with their multi car garages, swimming pools, and underground sprinkler systems to maintain that “perfect” inedible chemically sterile carpet which produces no seed, nectar or fruit. No doubt the municipality would be very pleased with the extra annual tax revenue from those excessive homes on oversized lots. I was young and naïve back then, and had no idea how little of importance the natural world is to our governments. When I think of it, if landowners across North America are forced to eradicate the milkweed, the only food source of the Monarch caterpillar, it comes as no surprise that Monarch numbers plummeted by 97% over the following years.
Standing Up to the Challenge
As I was crawling up the stairs in my home on June 3rd I knew I was in deep, deep trouble. It was only 14 weeks before my 107 kilometer section of the Monarch Ultra. There was a huge challenge ahead of me. The internet has all kinds of websites wanting to sell all kinds of gadgets and solutions to “cure” plantar fasciitis. But I stuck to focusing on the stretching exercises from my New Zealand Mindset Academy coach Lisa Tamati as well as foam rolling several times a day. The second part was nutritional. I have a book on my bookshelf called “Eat Right for Life” by Dr. Raymond A. Schep where I have made cursory glances at from time to time. There was one page only devoted to Plantar Fasciitis, but I followed it religiously. A nutrient rich natural diet with additional natural supplements of Vitamin C, omega-3 oil, glucosamine chondroitin sulfate, and copper. Dr. Schep mentioned that the material which joins the foot tendon to the ankle bone is cartilage. That’s the same material inside our joints that protects our bones against pounding when we are running and walking. He mentioned it takes 3 months to heal a broken bone, and Dr. Schep’s nutritional plan was 3 months for healing from Plantar Fasciitis. Just as important was removing as many toxins as possible out of my daily lifestyle. Shunning any manufactured, chemically-charged and processed food, and eating a natural diet with minimal processing. It meant buying organic fruits and vegetables instead of those laden with pesticides. I ditched my commercial deodorants and shampoos and bought locally produced cosmetics produced onsite by an organic chemist named Dana at the Organic Body Shop. Lastly, I started drinking home filtered water to remove chlorine. Chlorine does kill any bacteria or parasites, but it is also a toxin when ingested. I can’t expect to heal if I am constantly overloading my body with toxic substances all the time. I needed every bit of help I could get.
When it comes to the Monarch butterfly and all pollinator species they need every bit of help they can get. A June 2019 Science News article mentions there have has been over 500 types of pesticides approved for use in the United States at one time or another. Thirty seven have subsequently been prohibited by the EPA and ninety seven have been voluntarily withdrawn by pesticide manufacturers, often because the pesticide sold poorly. Wouldn’t be amazing if all pesticides were withdrawn because people stopped using them. It is still a very toxic world out there. The same Science News article mentions that in 2016 alone, the United States used 544 million kilograms of pesticides. There are 72 types of pesticides used in the United States, that are outright outlawed or being phased out in the European Union. Public traded corporations have a legal responsibility to increase profits. It is the law. When there is money at stake, the survival of a one gram butterfly would be very low on those companies priority lists. If at all.
When I think of this kind of chemical onslaught it blows me away that any Monarch butterflies make their migration down to Mexico at all. Despite that 97% decline, their numbers are slowly increasing because people are standing up to the challenge. After decades of lobbying, in my province of Ontario the milkweed was finally removed from the noxious weed act on April 11, 2014. Finally, environmentally conscious land owners are allowed to have milkweed grow on their property without being forced by the government to eradicate it. Also in my province of Ontario, on Earth Day 2009 amends were made to the pesticide act prohibiting spraying for “cosmetic reasons” to make lawns look good. An example would be spraying weed killer to kill off dandelions. Municipalities are getting more and more on board when it comes to environmental issues. Whether it is composting programs, bicycle lanes to get more cars off the road, improved public transit, or planting more trees and pollinator gardens. It is all making a difference. More and more people are buying organically grown, pesticide free produce. And homeowners are faithfully planting more and more pollinator gardens at their own residences. Not only do these gardens beautify a property, they provide much needed nutrient rich nectar as a food source for our beautiful winged creatures.
Encouraging One Another
When I e-mailed Clay and Carlotta on August 25th to find another runner because I wasn’t nearly going to be ready to run on September 22nd, I was extremely touched by their response. Clay responded with these words, “Hi Carl, I understand the physical and the emotional struggle of injury, and I really hope this one heals up for you. On Sept. 22rd, there is another runner who is doing the full 100 km. I have a suggestion: How bout you hanging out with the support crew for most of the day, and then joining Julie later in the afternoon as she’s slowing down. This will be her first 100 km run, and in case she needs to quit early, you can finish up the day. How does that sound?” Carlotta added her sentiments in a separate e-mail, “I’m so sorry to hear the news Carl, I really hope your foot heals quickly. Clay’s idea is a great one, plus it means we get to see you on the journey. Hope these photos makes you feel better! Best wishes, Carlotta”.
Those words from Clay and Carlotta were such an encouragement to me. I had been doing slow 3kph walks all along to prevent atrophy in the foot and leg muscles. But now was all the more determined to get some mileage in. The 1st week after my e-mail I was able to walk slowly for 36 kilometers. The next week a run/walk of 21 kilometers, but the foot was very sore. The final week before running my Monarch Ultra section I achieved an 8 kilometer non stop run. This was my 1st non-stop run since June 2nd, 13 weeks earlier. But more importantly, the 1st time my foot was completely pain free since last January. Those 8 pain free kilometers was the base I was going to use on September 22nd.
It was a dark drizzly morning where my wife dropped me off at a lonely intersection at 6 am north of London on September 22nd. It was nice to meet up with the Monarch Ultra team once again. And to meet Julie for the first time, who would be running her 1st 100k. Riding those 1st 50k in the Monarch Ultra RV while Julie was out running was an amazing experience. It was like a control centre where social media updates were made, logistics were continually discussed about where to park to meet the runner each 10k. Arrangements were being made with a gentleman named Mark, who generously had offered to feed the team at his restaurant. New developments were ongoing. It was very beautiful witnessing the team work so closely in harmony.
I was not sure at what portion of Julie’s portion of her 100k that I should join. But deep down I wanted to run at least 50k if I could. After all, it is called the Monarch ULTRA. And besides, I sort of let the “cat out of the bag”, when I said in a CTV news interview I wanted to run up to 60k. So at the 50k mark, while the Monarch Ultra RV was waiting for Julie to arrive I laced up. Not long after a pickup truck pulls up on this deserted section of country road, and a friend named Elton gets out (who I have seen only once in the last 11 years). He used to work with me for years, but then moved to this area which was 4 hours away after our factory we worked at closed. He had a vague idea of my route, and kept driving back roads until he found me. What an incredible encouragement this was for me.
So at the 50k mark I joined Julie where my goal was to run the next 50k with her. Her dear father-in-law has been fighting leukemia, and these 100k were dedicated to him. I could really sense how important finishing was to her. By Julie’s 50k mark the sun had been out for some time, and it had gotten extremely hot. We were also running against a very strong 70kph headwind. On one hand it kept us from being drenched in sweat. On the other hand, running into a strong, steady wind like that for hours on end really drained us of energy.
To pass the time Julie and I spent most of our time talking while running. We pretty much got to know each others life story. We both learned from each other that we both struggled with mental health issues. And how running really seems to help. One of the things I really appreciated about this section is that much of the running took place on really quiet dirt roads, which made it much easier on the foot. My goal of this run was to support Julie in every way I could to help her achieve that 100k distance. But in reality she was there for me. Every couple of kilometers she would check in to see how my foot was doing. She shared some of her natural energy gummies when my energy was lagging. And I was sharing my salt/electrotype capsules when her fingers were swelling. They helped bring the swelling down. I guess we were supporting one another.
Connecting Concerned Citizens and Communities
As important aspect of the Monarch Ultra Relay project is the opportunity to connect communities and their people across North America with common goals of Earth stewardship & biodiversity conservation. That these people who work so hard to make the environment a better place are not islands, but part of a much bigger picture. And that picture is magnificent. One of those people who comes to my mind is a gentleman farmer by the name of Chris. For runner Julie, she was at the 87 kilometer mark in this brutally hot 36C weather on September 22nd. There was an aggravating stone in her shoe, so she sat down beside this driveway/road allowance to take her shoe off, and get rid of the stone. A red pickup truck drives out of the driveway and stops right beside Julie. The driver had a friendly, inquisitive look on his face.
The gentleman’s name was Chris. We told him who we were and what we were doing running on this blistering hot day, as part of a 4,300 kilometer relay following the path of the Monarch butterfly. We could literally see his jaw drop in astonishment (love it when that happens). Then his face lit with excitement as he asked if there was a way he could donate to the project. For the next few minutes Chris so proudly shared with Julie and myself the numerous sustainable agricultural practices he uses on his farm. The amazing thing he also mentioned that as many as 35 bobolink birds made his farm their nesting home. I was not even sure if I had ever seen a bobolink before, so I looked it up on my favourite birding field guide website, Audubon. Turns out in my 61 years I had never seen one before. There was also lots of milkweed on Chris acreage for the Monarch caterpillars. Milkweed is the only plant capable of sustaining the Monarch larvae. Chris was fulfilling what I had dreams of accomplishing with the acreage I owned several decades ago. It got quite emotional for me as I continued on my way after this amazing conversation with Chris.
While we were chatting, Chris invited Julie and I into his home for some water. As a team we welcome hospitality so much, but we knew the RV support vehicle was waiting 3 kilometers away for our 90 kilometer aid station. We regretfully had to say no. We also knew that darkness was approaching quickly. At the final aid stop Julie and I restocked our hydration and nutrition, took some pictures and grabbed our headlamps. It ended being a long final 10 kilometers. Several times we thought we saw lights or heard voices in the distance in the darkness, but they were a false hope each time. At last we saw a vehicle with 4 way flashers on and several people outside with headlamps on. I was so excited to finish those 50 kilometers. But even greater joy was to run together with Julie to the finish as she put her 1st 100 kilometer run in the books. What an incredible accomplishment for her.
Day 4 was a tough day. One day. Two runners. Each dear runner participating in this epic event on different days would have their own story to tell of the pain and the struggle to cover their distance. But when I really put it in perspective, my day was only 1 day of a 47 day Monarch migration. And covering only half the normal distance a Monarch typically covers in one day, my 50 kilometers covered just over 1% of what the Monarch butterfly would travel in their migration from Canada to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Central Mexico, their winter home. That just blows my away. A Miami Herald article mentions, “To put this truly extraordinary migration into perspective in relation to size and distance, a person weighing 150 pounds would have to circle the earth more than 10,000 times to travel as far as a monarch butterfly that journeys over 2,000 miles and weighs less than a gram”. That is just so incredible!