It felt like it was the most vivid, horrific nightmare I have ever experienced. Waking up with a violent shake, I had a claustrophobic, smothering feeling in my chest. In addition, my heart was racing like it was trying to escape out of my chest cavity. Taking deep diaphragmatic breaths to try and erase the violent, horrific images of the nightmare, I proceeded to go to the bathroom and pour myself a hot bath to try and calm me down. In the morning my wife discovered me still wide awake lying curled up in the fetal position on the sofa.
Usually I am extremely careful to avoid the triggers that cause these panic attacks that come both when I am awake and in dreams. I am still haunted from witnessing the electrocution death of my former boss and co-worker/friend Ralph Snider 41 years ago. And I will go to extreme measures to avoid the triggers that bring on these anxiety attacks. This includes personal censors on what I read or watch on television. An example would be if the family is watching a movie where there is any form of physical aggression or violence or people dying unnaturally, I cannot cope. And I will have to leave the room.
It was Day #4 of the Monarch Ultra and I was hanging out in the RV with the wonderful Monarch Ultra crew before I joined runner Julie Vallieres on the second half of her 100k run. It was during that time that director Carlotta James quietly pulled me aside and gently asked if I would consider joining the team later on to help run some of the many open sections in Texas and/or Mexico. There were a lot of unregistered sections on this 47 day, 4,300 kilometer relay that follows the migration of the Monarch butterfly from Peterborough, Canada to Cerro Pelon sanctuary in the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains of Central Mexico. The mere thought of all those open sections must have been so daunting for the team. I was completely floored and humbled to be considered. I didn’t know how to answer Carlotta except to say that this 50k I was about to run on Day #4 of the Monarch Ultra was a test. Having just healed from Plantar Fasciitis, I was not sure how my foot was going to respond to the rigors of the 50k that day with very little training.
It turned out my 50k went flawless and I recovered extremely quickly. A week later I started my research into the possibility of joining the team. I wanted to help out the team as much as I could, and at the same time be as little of inconvenience as possible. I discovered that the cheapest way into South Texas was through a flight deal to McAllen International Airport, just north of the Mexico border. But I was drawn to taking a bus for several reasons. The carbon footprint of taking a bus is much lower. And I also wanted to have a bit of a feeling of what it was like for the Monarch Ultra team to travel on the road for 33 days up to that point. I also thought about my beloved Monarch butterflies which emerged from their chrysalis’s in my garden up here in Canada over the summer. What terrain, challenges and conditions would they be facing on their arduous migration? The bus would be travelling on a weekend, so I would not be missing any more time off work. Lastly the bus station in McAllen, Texas is right on the running route of the Monarch Ultra. With a 5:30 am arrival two days later, I would have time to freshen up and join the runner for 10 or 20 kilometers when he or she passes through a couple of hours after my arrival. A great way to loosen up the legs after 48 hours riding a bus.
My next step was to get permission from the church I pastor and the municipality I am crossing guard for, for time off. As time was ticking I drafted a letter directly to the township mayor explaining what the Monarch Ultra was all about and my reason for going to Mexico. Mayor Don Allen’s response was, “This is a tremendous opportunity for you, and the township fully supports you”. After that I contacted Carlotta if the team would still like me in Mexico to help run some open sections. A day passed with no response so I messaged her on a different medium. Another day passed. Nothing, and I tried again. Carlotta response that third day was “YES, I see this now and am telling you to come join us”. I then proceeded to purchase my bus tickets. As much I wished I could take the bus home, time constraints had me flying home from San Luis Potasi the day the running route would travel nearby the international airport.
Everything was coming together flawlessly. It was so exciting. Then I did something I will always regret. I started reading all up on Mexico. This included travel advisories in Mexico and news and magazine articles about the dangers of travelling there. Powerful drug cartels, kidnappings and missing people. Ambushes and highway pirates. And the anxiety attacks and nightmares followed. It got to the point where I could barely function, much less travel and run ultras down in Mexico. I went to my doctor who prescribed a sublingual medication to take whenever I had a panic attack. But he added that with the side effects, “You might not be able to do any running”. In reading up on panic and anxiety attacks I learned that “Blood pressure can be raised to alarming levels just by thinking or stressing about an event. Imagined events have as much psychological effect as real ones. In fact, this is the basis for PTSD”.
As always my dear wife has supported me through my struggles with anxiety and mental health issues. This time around she was very firm by saying STOP reading articles on Mexico IMMEDIATELY. And I knew she was right. She also told me to quit checking my blood pressure, which I had been doing around ten times a day. It was not going to change in one hour. I have a love/hate relationship with social media, as I find the vast majority of posts are often “highlight reels” instead of “real life”. When I am struggling with anxiety I find social media is one of the worst places to be. I was extremely careful with who I trusted to share with regarding Mexico and that I was struggling. It ended up being only a handful of people I confided with. I went completely off of social media except sharing Monarch Ultra updates. And a few hours before I was to leave, I ended up sharing openly with one closed group on Facebook. It was the Facebook group of my New Zealand mindset academy coach Lisa Tamati. The group is always encouraging and is extremely non-judgemental. I knew I could trust them, and the support from those fellow runners from Running Hot Coaching was phenomenal.
So on the morning of Saturday October 19th at 5:45 a.m. I boarded my first bus of what would end up becoming an epic 57 hour ultra bus journey that would take me in to McAllen, Texas and later that day across the Mexican border into Reynosa. I was going to run with the Monarchs. The really cool thing with the bus is that it would follow almost the identical route the relay was traveling. All I would miss from the bus was the first day and a half of the relay from Peterborough to Toronto. The bus travelled just a handful of kilometers from where I ran with Julie on Day #4 near London, Ontario. And later my destination was the bus station in McAllen, Texas, which was directly on the running route.
In London, I had a young photographer named Conner sit beside me. He was from Chicago and had driven up to Canada to visit friends in London. Unfortunately his 2000 Jeep Cherokee broke down, and he had to leave it behind and take a bus home to make it to work on Monday. I had 5 transfers connections to make. They were Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Dallas and Houston. Toronto went smoothly and I arrived into Detroit on time. However the connecting bus was late and I missed my connection in Chicago. My newly issued tickets rerouted through Memphis and made my arrival time in McAllen four hours later. I contacted the team about the delay and they said they would work around my updated schedule.
That was until the tornado hit Dallas. On the highway I could feel the bus lurching around from being buffeted by the powerful winds. And the dazzling white lightning strikes all around our bus were so intense. I could sense we were driving into something extremely frightening. Then everyone’s phone on the bus started going off with the same sound, which is like an “Amber Alert” up here in Canada. My screen read “Tornado Warning. Take Shelter Immediately”. We arrived safely in Dallas, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Stepping off of the bus in Dallas, the rain was coming down so hard on the canopy it was like it was being poured out of a bucket. My bus was just a few minutes late on arrival in Dallas. I still had time to make my connection. Or so I thought. We all started to form a cue at the gate for the San Antonio bound bus. It was then an announcement came over the PA that a tornado had touched down in parts of Dallas and all connecting buses were delayed. I learned later that though there was no deaths or life threatening injuries, there was extensive damage. Damage estimates of the 2019 Dallas tornados is expected to exceed $1 billion US dollars.
Instead of feeling grateful I was safe, I was devastated. With this second delay, I knew the team could no longer afford any more time to wait for me and would be crossing the border in to Reynosa, Mexico without me. The relay needed to continue. Exhausted from being awake for most of the past 36 hours I came so close to purchasing a ticket home on impulse. I texted my wife to tell her what I was going to do, and she responded “Don’t do it”. Once I got reissued tickets (another route and different transfers again) I contacted Clay and the team. My first question to Clay was that same response, “Should I take a bus back home?”. Clay’s response was a gentle, “No, when you get here, we’ll figure how you can join the team. You’ll likely have to find a way to the border, and we can get you from there”.
During the entire distance from Chicago I hung out with an atypical 52 year old named Bill. He is not your societal norm person, Bill was scruffy, he talked very loud and he had no teeth. I was noticing in the bus station waiting room in Chicago that people would deliberately go out their way to avoid Bill. Which saddened me. I had a lot of hours ahead of me to kill, so when Bill started talking to me I stuck around. And I learned the story of one of the most beautiful souls I have ever met.
It turned out that at 52 years old, Bill has never had the security of a place to call home. He had an abusive childhood and at four years old ended up in foster homes. These were no better, and several homes he tried to run away from. In the schools Bill attended he had behavioural problems and at every school he went to he was expelled. As a teen Bill ended up in youth detention centers due to his behavioural problems. As an adult Bill became addicted to hard drugs, and got in trouble with the law. Bill ended up in prison for crimes committed to fuel his drug habit. After serving his time in prison, Bill has lived in halfway houses, men’s shelters and on the street. He was leaving the state of Minnesota on that Greyhound bus with the clothes on his back and two bags of “food” (one bag was cans of Pepsi, and the other bag with Pringles, cookies and crackers). Bill was clean of drugs, living sober and heading to Brownsville, Texas for a fresh start. He didn’t know anyone in Brownsville, and only had the phone number of a social worker. Bill chose Brownsville because it was the birthplace of his great grandfather. Even though Bill never met his great grandfather, he heard his great grandfather had a great name.
While the vast majority of people in that bus station were stressing about the delays and missed connections (including myself), Bill was by far the most calm and relaxed person there. Nothing seemed to bother him. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. For a man who has experienced such a difficult life, missing a bus connection is absolutely nothing. It’s peanuts. Then Bill did something that had my jaw dropping. It was around 11:00 pm, and Bill started going around to any children and asking the parents if he could give them a Pepsi and a package of snacks he was carrying in his plastic bags. It humbled me watching those plastic bags being emptied out. Bill had so little, and what he did have, he was giving it all away. He had no idea where he was going to go and what he was going to do once he got off that bus in Brownsville, Texas.
Once we eventually boarded the connecting bus in Dallas, ever calm and relaxed Bill drifted off to sleep on the seat beside me almost immediately. And leaving me with my spinning thoughts about how on earth was I going to get across the border to join the team. My final connection was on schedule in San Antonio, Texas and on the final stretch to McAllen I got talking to a young couple who live in McAllen. They mentioned that the bus station was five to six miles (eight to ten kilometers) from the border, our Greyhound stop was the end of the line south, and my best means of getting to the border would be by taxi. About thirty minutes before my arrival in McAllen I get this text from director Clay Williams saying, “This man, Jesus, will pick you up in a red GMC”. Shaking with relief and excitement I kept reading and rereading this text. This was so amazing. Bill was dozing beside me and I had to tell him. So I nudged him awake. “Bill, there is someone coming to meet me at the bus station”. He gave me one of the biggest, toothless grins you could ever imagine.
I connected with Jesus (Jesús) with the phone number Clay had given me to arrange a meeting place. After a tearful goodbye with Bill outside the McAllen bus terminal, I waited for Jesús to come in his red pickup. After 57 hours of riding in a bus, it seemed no time at all for the red pickup truck to arrive. Jesús had such a kind, gentle, welcoming demeanour. As I boarded the red GMC Sierra pickup I was handed a nice cold bottle of water. Jesús kept apologising for being a few minutes late, and I told him it was no trouble at all. I was so grateful he came and got me. Jesús is an official for the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, and as I was digging out my passport while approaching the Mexican border I was told it would not be required. Border agents had already been alerted of my coming, and Jesús also has some sort of documentation sticker on his pickup. And with a nod of the head, we crossed the border into Mexico without even stopping. This was giving me goosebumps. I kept thinking, “WOW, this is so incredible”.
With Jesús picking me up at the McAllen, Texas bus station and then getting me across the Mexican border in such an unforgettable way was the first of countless ways Mexico went above and beyond for myself and the entire Monarch Ultra team during our time in Mexico. Jesús drove me to the location where ultrarunner and Monarch Ultra director Carlotta James would be finishing her run for the day. It was at the Reynosa Cultural Center and Park. I was introduced to Martha, a very dear lady who is chief of the Global Climate Surveillance House and Educational Centre, which is found right on the same grounds. Martha did so much work making sure all the state departments were informed of our arrival. Jesús gave me a wonderful tour of the Casa de la Tierra (Global Climate House), where he works as an expositor during school hours for the busloads of school children who come in for in for educational tours. This was the first time he ever done a tour in English. He did a marvelous job.
After the tour I sat and chatted with Martha, and shortly after was joined by Elda and Arnolfo. Elda is head of the Department of Conservation of Species and Ecosystems. The department is responsible for the conservation program of the migratory route of the Monarch Butterfly as it passes through the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Arnolfo is with the same department, and serves as Biodiversity Director. In the video at the end both Edna and Arnolfo are interviewed. They have since become beautiful friends, and through on-line connections I hope we will always stay close. We moved our chairs in a circle and with such passion and pride Martha, Elda and Arnolfo shared with me what they are doing for the protection of our beloved Monarch butterfly. It includes public education from school children up to adults. They pay farmers to allow a certain nectar producing flower to remain in their fields for the butterflies. And they have been proactive in planting pollinator gardens throughout Reynosa and in the state of Tamaulipas.
We learned that Carlotta had arrived from her run, along with the Monarch Ultra team and police escorts. A television film crew had already set up their equipment outside and were interviewing Carlotta for the news. Things happen fast in Mexico! I could tell immediately that Carlotta was stoked. Noticing me off to the side, she subtlety acknowledged me with a big grin and carried on with her interview. After the interview, Carlotta came over and gave me a big, welcoming hug along with as Clay, Rodney and Guenther. And I learned what happened during Carlotta’s run through Reynosa. Hundred’s of school children had lined the streets cheering her on while waving Monarch crafts and artwork. And giving her high fives and hugs.
As the film crew were packing up, two other Tamaulipas state officials introduced themselves. They were Raymundo and Abilgail. They both work as expositors in the Global Climate House. After being over 60 hours on the road and in Reynosa, with 2 border crossings and in the end 6 bus transfers since I left home, I was very self conscious of how I looked and smelled. But Abigail came up and gave me such a big, lingering serotonin boosting hug. It was like she could sense I needed one. Abigail was known among our team as the “fixer”. She worked on many details to ensure our visit was organized to perfection. It was amazing how well everything was organized. In Canada, with our boards, committees and sub-committees, the reception like we had in Reynosa would take weeks to organize. In Mexico, with very little preparation notice, they just went ahead and did it with precision.
We were given an amazing tour of their pollinator gardens in the parkland around the cultural center. Monarch butterflies were everywhere, above us and all around us. Then we had a tour of the Reynosa Cultural Center. There was an art exhibit for a well known Mexican painter. Extremely gifted, he painted with a wide range of styles and techniques. After that we were shown the auditorium where concerts, films and stage acting shows are held on a regular basis. Martha mentioned proudly that this would be one of the locations of the premiere of the Monarch Ultra documentary.
After that we were gifted from Martha and all her wonderful colleagues from the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico to an absolutely amazing meal at one of the finest restaurants in all Reynosa. Martha sat beside me and graciously explained the menu to me, as it was written in Spanish. As I had not had had any protein or produce in the last three days, I had seafood and vegetables. Servings were generous, and everything was prepared perfectly. I had a glass of juice made from local Mexican fruits. The flavours were so intense. We had four musicians come to our table who played several songs. Their harmony and the rich sound emanating from their unique instruments was just magnificient. I wanted this night to go on forever. I was back with the Monarch Ultra team, my first time since September 22nd. And I was becoming friends with some of the most beautiful people I have ever met. As the Monarch Ultra moved ahead the next day, we would have to say our goodbyes.
After this fabulous meal at this wonderful restaurant we went to the Reynosa Holiday Inn to give a presentation for the Reynosa Rotary Club about the Monarch Ultra. Many important people were to be there, including the Mayor of Reynosa. The meeting was in an upscale room and everyone was all dressed up. The Monarch Ultra team was quite “ragtag” in comparison. I smelled really foul by now, yet we were all welcomed and loved with open arms. Guenther is a rotary club member in Peterborough and Guenther (with Rodney assisting) did an amazing job with their presentation in Spanish. Then there was another meal with cake to follow. After that there was lots of picture taking. Everyone wanted to have their picture taken with us. Selfies, group photos, the dear people of Mexico absolutely love being in photos.
After many minutes of “goodbyes”, “thank you’s” and “so wonderful to have met you’s”, it was time to go to our home stay accommodations. They were graciously offered to us by a couple of members of the Reynosa Rotary Club. Carlotta stayed with a lady name Luisa, and the four of us men stayed with the always smiling Francisco (he goes by the name Paco). Paco was so kind to us, even giving up his personal bed for us and sleeping on the couch downstairs.
At last I had a shower and felt and smelled much better. It had been 68 hours since I last laid my head on a pillow. It had seemed like it had been over a week. I was totally exhausted, but yet I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about the long road I just took to Reynosa. I took the bus because of a lower carbon footprint. But I also wanted to see the route of our beloved Monarch butterfly. What the Monarch would have had to face on their arduous journey from Canada to Mexico. And lastly I really wanted to have a bit of a taste of what the Monarch Ultra crew would have been facing on their own journey in the 33 days until I joined them. In a round-about-way I think I might have gotten that taste. But for me on a much, much smaller scale.
The Monarch Ultra was such an incredible dream for Carlotta James. To have a project that would combine ultrarunning and the migration of the Monarch butterfly was such a cool concept. Such a massive endeavour that involved three countries and a 4,300 kilometer distance like Carlotta was proposing had never been attempted before. For over a year director Carlotta had been writing grant proposals to various corporations trying to obtain a major sponsor to make this dream a reality. Staying up past 1:00 am each night, she spent hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours trying to get a corporate sponsor to catch her vision and dream. A car manufacturer or car rental agency to provide a reliable vehicle. Or perhaps a hotel chain to provide a couple of rooms for the team each night. After all that effort, no corporate sponsor came through. But instead it was the small local businesses, individuals and small environmental groups who valued the importance of this project that gave. There was enough funds come in from these smaller grass root organizations and individuals for the green light for the Monarch Ultra to become a reality and move forward on a tight shoe string budget. The team obtained a 31 year old RV which was affectionately named “Eldorado”. Unfortunately the RV was a bit of an “Achilles heel”. It kept breaking down again and again and again all the way limping through Indiana, limping through Arkansas and limping through Texas. It had gotten to the point that Carlotta was no longer posting about the RV woes, because all the comments were about the RV instead about the run and our beloved Monarchs.
In Texas, both Carlotta and Clay ran massive distances on those sections that did not have registered runners. This was on top of all their many other responsibilities. At the bottom of Texas the team decided it best to leave the RV behind and rent a van on the Mexican side of the border. With a shoestring budget the team was living on, the van they rented was “very used” and definitely had it’s own issues and personality. This included a side door that would not lock (the lock did get fixed before we left Reynosa).
There were challenges that had to be overcome on a daily basis. When there is an unbelievably incredible reception like what the team received in Reynosa, it changes perspective and provides renewed strength, hope and resilience for whatever new challenges lay ahead of us. Without the resources we might have in Canada or the United States, the dear folk of the state of Tamaulipas gave sacrificially. They gave us their very best. For myself, when I was experiencing my anxiety attacks back in Canada, I was afraid of Reynosa. Instead I was greeted with a deep genuine love, sacrifice and unconditional acceptance. And a welcome and reception that was second to none! Those magazine articles I read up in Canada never mentioned any of this. And now I have beautiful friendships I believe will endure for the rest of my life. Jesús, Martha, Abigail, Paco, Elda, Arnolfo, and Raymundo…”Muchas Gracias. Te quiero. Nos volveremos a encontrar “. Thank you very much. I love you. We WILL meet again. (Google translate)! 🙂
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