It was October 23, 2019, and day 35 of the 47 day Monarch Ultra. After an incredible tour the previous day at the Papalote Museo del Nino Monterrey, this day that lay ahead of me appeared as a day of sheer adventure. I was going running, for my first time down in Mexico. This would be completely new territory. Because of our detour to Monterrey, the run I was to embark on was not part of the original Monarch Ultra route.
It certainly was still a part of the migration route of the Monarch butterfly. They were flying all around us at our meet up place, which was at the American School Foundation Of Monterrey (ASFM). A teacher in the school named Cory Austen contacted the Monarch Ultra via Facebook to see if the team would meet up with him. The American School Foundation of Monterrey has been advocating for monarchs for many years, and they are an official waystation and organize milkweed plant distribution.
Cory lives with his family inside Parque La Huasteca. Several years ago Cory left his original home province of Nova Scotia, Canada to teach at American School Foundation of Monterrey. He loved this region and all the adventure activities the region offered. This included big wall rock climbing. Cory is a hard core rock climber and has completed some extremely impressive climbing ascents in and around the park. The website Mountain Project mentions that “La Huasteca canyon is a huge canyon with many large 1,000+ foot walls”. La Huasteca has nearly 500 bolted routes along these sport crags, ranging from 5.7 to 5.14. Cory was the one who recommended that my run take place within Parque La Huasteca. Though the majority of these sport crags were completely out of my league, as a former rock climber way back in my 20’s, I was drooling the entire time. It ended up to be the most spectacular run in my entire life.
The logistics was that I would have a police escort to just inside the park, and I would continue running on my own. Our run director Clay Williams was busy coming up with possible spots for aid station locations, which are roughly every 10 kilometers. Things were being organised “by the seat of the pants” which would make my run so amazing and fascinating. My route was to run around 17 to 18 kilometers along a park road that travels through Huasteca Canyon following a river bed (that was dry at the time) to where it ended at a dam. I would turn around at the dam and run back to my start. At my start I would run right up that same spectacular road again to a yet determined turnaround. By the time I got back to the finish, my run would be over 50 kilometers.
As we were waiting for our police escorts to arrive, an extremely outgoing and friendly Mexican lady arrives. She was proudly waving a Mexican flag, while displaying on high beam this vibrant, continuous 300 watt smile. Who was this lady? Because she certainly seemed to know each one of us on the Monarch Ultra crew. This is the power of Social Media. Her name was Claudia Freeze, and she had been following the Monarch Ultra on Instagram with a ultra keen interest. Claudia and her husband Luis was another of many, many parties who invited the Monarch Ultra team to come to Monterrey.
Claudia and her wonderful husband Luis Caballero founded the grass root initiative Vuelo Monarca, which is translated “Monarch Flight” in English. I was able to connect with Claudia and Luis and ask a few questions of how the Vuelo Monarca began, and the impact this project is making within Mexico. Her inspiration began 4 years ago with that simple, yet important desire to want to do something productive to fulfill her life. With her dear husband Luis as an international airline pilot being away from home for long periods of time, Claudia felt she really needed to do something special to overcome the sadness and loneliness.
Claudia always loved butterflies. One day she came up with the idea of gardening some plants that can help butterflies and bees as pollinators. She started reading and researching about this plant called Asclepia Curassavica (commonly known as tropical milkweed) and how it helps butterflies. It was trial and error, but Claudia learned to grow it. A year after that initial inspiration Vuelo Monarca was born, and a year after that, the Vuelo Monarca Facebook page (found here) was launched. The page is in Spanish, but Claudia also speaks excellent English (she came to Canada to learn it). She has a degree in Communications and is also a Yoga instructor. Claudia’s and Luis’s project is completely self funded. They have dipped into their savings to buy in bulk seeds, dirt and equipment. And at low cost sold these plants to individuals and schools to help them get started. This enabled them to buy even more seeds and dirt. Eventually Claudia would love to see this as a foundation which is self sustaining.
My two police escorts arrived to accompany me from the entrance of the American School Foundation of Monterrey and into Parque La Huasteca. It was just over two kilometers. A police motorcycle would go ahead of me, and a patrol car behind. The police were so kind, gentle and friendly. We had lots of photos taken together. And then we were off. This was a canyon I would be running through, and Monarchs by the hundreds were following it to get to their winter destination. The sight of them was so amazing and gave me so much strength.
One thing that Cory never told me (which I am glad) was that to get to the turnaround at the dam it was 17 to 18 kilometers of uphill running. Cory did not to mention the uphill climb in case I would get discouraged. The grade was not drastic, but I could definitely feel it. However, this park was so magnificent and gave me so much energy. Around each corner there would be another dramatic limestone crag to admire. I would be eyeing it up dreaming I was Alex Honnold. Looking for a line, or a possible route to climb to the top. The countryside was very arid, but at the same time it was prolifically filled with the most beautiful desert wildflowers. Bees were abounding, and there was so many varieties of tropical butterflies which I had no idea what they were called.
Little lizards would quickly dart beside me. They were so fast I would jump, thinking it was a snake trying to strike me. Wild burros would slowly amble across the road in front of me. I loved running this road so much. There was some traffic, but drivers were all extremely respectful. Many waved at me. What I was most amazed with was the cyclists. Parque La Huasteca is located right on the edge on Monterrey, and it was a cyclists paradise. There was the occasional local utility bike rider, using his or her bike as active transportation. But the vast majority of riders were fully decked out in tight fitting Lycra and were quickly clipping along on high end carbon bikes such as the familiar Treks and Giants. I even spotted a Canadian built Cervélo.
What I found amazing running in Parque La Huasteca was that each rider in that steady stream of cyclists was so incredibly friendly. It is just not nearly like this in Canada. When I was running, cyclists meeting me or riding by me would always wave and heartily call out “Buenos Días”, translated “Good Morning.” Or later in the day it was “Buenos Tardes”, translated “Good Afternoon”. When I arrived up at the dam for an aid station stop, there was a group of local Mexican men hanging out with the team. Like so many dear people we met along the way, they were just blown away by the magnitude of this Monarch Ultra project. The dear Mexican people love being in pictures. These men were no different. So there was lots of picture taking before I headed back down the canyon.
It was now a nice long gradual downhill for me. While I was running, Carlotta and Guenther from the Monarch Ultra team was joined by Claudia from Vuelo Monarca to do a presentation at the American School Foundation of Monterrey. Clay, Rodney (and joined by Claudia’s husband Luis) were providing me those much needed refreshments approximately every 10 kilometers on this super hot (for Canadian standards) 33 degrees Celsius day. I was picturing in between each rest stop our incredible Monarch Ultra photographer and filmmaker Rodney would be in his glory capturing amazing footage within Parque La Huasteca for the upcoming Monarch Ultra documentary.
After my aid stop, I would get one or two kilometers ahead of the support team and the Monarch van would slowly drive by me. I would give a thumbs up and they would continue on and wait for me at the next aid stop. I was now running in the same direction as Vuelo Monarca or Monarch Flight with their migration. As I marvelled at these magnificent little creatures flying gracefully overhead, I was always wondering which ones came all the way from Canada. And how many more days before they arrive in the unique oyamel fir forests, which are found between the elevations of 2,400 and 3,600 metres of the Sierra Madre mountains. This is the destination and wintering grounds of the Monarch butterfly. There are four Monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico. The end destination of the Monarch Ultra was Cerro Pelon sanctuary.
These same forests have been a battleground between Monarch conservationists and the logging industry over the years. The forests are now protected from logging to provide a safe wintering ground for the Monarch. Revenue from tourists who visit these sanctuaries are a means of replacing the revenue lost from logging. Plus this revenue is sustainable, which means it will steadily keep coming in for generations to come. As long as there is Monarchs in existence to take on their arduous migration to the wintering grounds. My new friends Claudia and Luis have visited two of these sanctuaries, Sierra Chincua, and El Rosario. They mentioned there is still a lot of poverty to be found. Many homes don’t have electricity and sometimes not even water. The issue is the tourism dollars benefit the people directly involved, but not often the real people who live there.
So Claudia was inspired to begin a project called Somos Monarca, translated “We Are Monarchs”. Through her Instagram followers, she made a call for donations to help these dear people in and around the Monarch sanctuaries. Claudia mentions one school in Monterrey had an event to gather donations of clothing and toys. People also dropped off donations at her house. Then a big van was rented in Monterrey and loaded with clothes and toys for the needy people within and around the sanctuaries. Claudia mentioned it was so rewarding when you give a plastic ball to a kid and a minute later you see a team of 10 kids playing soccer with a ball instead of playing with an empty coca cola plastic bottle. They were so happy.
It would have been an awesome and exhausting experience for Claudia and Luis. They really do need more hands and more donations for the next Somos Monarca campaign. There is great things happening in Mexico environmentally. There has been a slight rebound in Monarch numbers. Which is wonderful. Others times the news can be extremely sobering and difficult to swallow. Such as the recent suspicious death of Homero Gómez González. He was the manager of El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Preserve. A January 31, 2020 Time Magazine article quotes, “For the last decade, Gomez Gonzàlez fought to keep loggers out of the reserve, leading marches, demonstrations and anti-logging patrols. He tried to persuade the government to increase the meager stipend that local farmers receive for preserving trees”.
With about seven kilometers to go, I received news from Clay as he drove by that Adrián de la Garza, the mayor of Monterrey (a city of 6.5 million people) was going to be at my finish at a specific time. There was also going to be reporters and a film crew. I had so much energy at that point. I was running down grade, the wind was at my back in this spectacular park. And I was really looking forward to finishing my 50k to meet everyone. The challenge now was to adjust my pace to arrive just at or soon after the mayor arrives. With about three kilometers to go Clay dropped off a Mexican flag for me to arrive at my finish with. I had been slowing down, but I was told I needed to slow down even more. Had a wonderful 15 minute rest under a shade tree with a beautiful view of the mountains before my final push to the finish.
To the cheers of the Monarch Ultra team, Cory, Luis, Claudia, reporters, security police and Adrián de la Garza (the mayor of Monterrey) and others who were there as spectators, I carried the Mexican flag to the finish. There were hugs all around with the Monarch crew and my new friends from Monterrey. And lots of handshakes with the mayor and the news reporters. It was day 35, of the 47 day Monarch Ultra. I was asked to stand with the mayor while several news reporters shot photos. Then I stood behind the mayor proudly holding the flag of Mexico (I was towering over the mayor when I was beside him) while the mayor shared a message for the film crew. It was the end to such an incredible day. I will never forget Parque La Huasteca. This includes my new friends Claudia, Luis and Cory who I met.
I have a friend and former co-worker named Alicia who mentions that there are certain human powered experiences I have undertaken that have affected me so profoundly, I am literally vibrating as I relive that experience in conversation. It does not happen often. Sometimes it can happen once a year. Some years not at all. There was running my first ultramarathon in the spring of 2016. There was climbing in December 2017 with my own flesh and blood, my daughter Naomi in Mt. Cook National Park, New Zealand. In August 2018, there was completing the extremely challenging three day 150 kilometer stage race Bad Beaver Ultra. And meeting the extraordinary human who masterminded the route, Canadian Extreme Adventure athlete Ray Zahab. In October 2019, running 51 kilometers through spectacular Huasteca Canyon in the state of Nuevo León, Mexico was added to that exclusive list. An eco-system so different in this spectacular, magnificent mountain park to what I normally encounter in Canada. Plus running on my own in this foreign country was exploding every one of my senses on every level. A country I was afraid to travel to, after reading far too many news articles. Every friendly wave of a passing motorist. Every smile, wave and hearty greeting with a “Buenos Días” and “Buenos Tardes” from such incredibly friendly cyclists just blew me away. And then to have the mayor of Monterrey (a city twice the size of Toronto) come to meet me at my finish (I’m just an ordinary man who just loves nature and just loves to run) had me stunned. With day 35 of the Monarch Ultra in the books, I was literally vibrating when I got in the van to head back to the hotel. Thank you Parque La Huasteca for an experience I will never forget.