Way back on September 22, 2019, when I was running my section of the Monarch Ultra north of London, Ontario, director Carlotta James quietly pulled me aside and gently asked if I would consider coming down to Texas and/or Mexico to help do some running. I was just coming back from injury, so I wasn’t sure if it was even a possibility. I told Carlotta that I would have to see how this section goes. And if I finished without further hurting my fascia, I would still need to discuss it with my wife and obtain clearance from my employer.
It ended up that my run went extremely well. So once back home I checked the registration “Plota Route” map that run director Clay Williams had drawn up. In the United States there were a few one day sections unregistered. South of Little Rock, Arkansas and into Texas there was two days in a row. As well as two days in a row south of Dallas.
What really alarmed and concerned me was how void Mexico was with registrations. It was completely wide open with no runners registered for 11 days from October 21st and October 31st. All except for one day almost in the middle on October 25th, that had a runner named Lucas registered. My first thought was how on earth can Clay and Carlotta (who are extremely strong runners) possibly run those unregistered sections AND do all the ongoing logistics and public relations and media work that is part of being directors. Is it even humanly possible?
My second thought was, “Who was this guy named Lucas anyways?” Because what he had registered for would likely be the toughest run of the 47 days of the Monarch Ultra. He would be taking on a 1600 metre climb (or 5,280 feet, which is a mile vertical) up into the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains. For someone like me, I would tend to choose an easier section. Lucas specifically chose this section because of the challenge.
My foot was okay after my run on September 25th. My wife gave me her blessings for me to go to Mexico. I obtained permission from my employer for who I am school crossing guard for. And to keep my carbon footprint low, I bought a bus ticket bound for McAllen, Texas where I planned to meet with the team. After four amazing days in Mexico, I would soon get to meet with this Lucas guy in the town of Linares of the state of Nuevo León.
One of so many things I admired about the Monarch Ultra team was how carefree and spontaneous they were. It is also what I see in a Monarch butterfly in flight. If we were to receive a homestay invitation along the journey, by being spontaneous we are not bound by a hotel reservation. Without a hotel reservation, it would be so much easier to accept that homestay invitation when they come our way. After a full day in Chipinque Ecological Reserve, it was quite late and well after dark when we pulled into Linares. We would be back on the original route that Clay Williams had mapped out almost a year earlier. But we didn’t know anyone in Linares. And we did not know where we would be staying that night. Which really adds to the adventure.
The first place in Linares we checked out was Zapata Hotel. From my first glance I had the feeling this place was really unique and amazing. For about the price of about $45 Canadian it would end up being one of the nicest rooms I would ever have stayed in. The place was oozing with history, authenticity and uniqueness. This was definitely not a run of the mill, carbon copy chain hotel. I looked up the Zapata Hotel history on their website once I arrived back in Canada, and using Google translate it reads as follows, “It is a building of 1880, currently remodeled, preserving its beautiful walls of ashlar, its old doors and windows. Inside Zapata Plaza & Hotel you will see a small sample of ancient and beautiful wooden furniture manufactured in 1910, which belonged to Don Pablo Salce Arredondo (1899-1973) journalist, professor and historian of Linares, Nuevo León”. Our group vote was unanimous. Zapata Hotel was where we would be staying the night.
Running through Huasteca Canyon a day earlier and hiking the current day in Chipinque Park, I was ready for bed. Plus it was going to be an early start the next day. We were to meet Lucas in the Linares city square at 7:00 am. In the morning it was rainy and unusually cool. With a temperature of 7C, it was more like an October day in Canada.
Linares has a population according to a 2020 update from World Atlas of 57,731. The feeling I had in Linares was like I was stepping back 50 years in time to what small cities in Canada were like when I was a kid. Linares was glorious. And it was intoxicating. There was a huge sense of community pride. In the city centre main square is what they call in Mexico a “plaza” (spelled the same in both Spanish and English). In Canada, we are more likely to refer to a plaza as a shopping centre. But in Mexico a plaza is most likely “an open area usually located near urban buildings and often featuring walkways, trees, shrubs, gardens and places to sit”. In Mexico each town plaza I saw was extremely inviting, well planned out and stunningly beautiful. It was 7:00 am, and shop owners nearby the plaza started to arrive to get ready for their day. They walked tall. And they walked proud. Linares had that feel of the downtowns and city centres I remember as a kid in Canada. I remember those downtowns used to be thriving with their family run businesses.
Over the decades the suburbs have won and taken over in Canada. Sprawling subdivisions where you need a car to get anywhere. Strip malls with their chain store franchises and gigantic corporate shopping centres with massive, jarringly ugly asphalt parking lots paved over prime farmland. The small downtown family run businesses could never compete with these gigantic corporations. Their demise was very swift.
Our towns and cities where I live in Southern Ontario have lost so much, do to the erosion of our downtowns. Both economically and demographically. Over the years, volunteers have worked extremely hard to try and bring people back to our city centres and downtowns by means of dressing them up like a carnival for a day or for a weekend. Each town and city seems to have their many festivals with special entertainment and their temporary food and shopping vendor stalls. The festivals are indeed entertaining. But compared to our downtowns of bygone days, they tend to be superficial. These festivals are extremely successful however. In a roundabout way, they do draw communities together. Which is so important. And they appear to bring people who have moved away back, and even bring in visitors. Even if it was for this one day occasional visit.
The downtown of the city of Linares, Mexico was not a carnival. It was not superficial. It was authentic. It was the real thing. Proud shop owners would arrive well before store opening dressed in their typical dark trousers and their immaculately crisp and bright white shirts. In a few moments they would be out front with a corn broom sweeping the sidewalk in front of their business. Rain or shine, the sidewalk sweeping was something I noticed in every town in Mexico we visited in this region. Personally I never thought there was anything that needed sweeping on those sidewalks. But taking so much pride in their business, they wanted to make sure it was spotless. There is so much community, culture, tradition and pride tied up in those Mexican towns and small cities. I don’t know how much longer it will be before these Mexican towns and small cities are sadly taken over by the giant corporate franchise neon, plastic and chrome interests. If and when it happens, sadly these towns in Mexico will never be the same again.
To keep the streets themselves clean were the street sweepers. Their equipment consisted of a 2 wheeled dolly hand cart with a 45 gallon drum, along with a corn broom and dust pan. A dear lady was really working hard on this cold wet morning by where I was standing. She would park her cart and then meticulously sweep the next 20 to 30 feet. Our police escort car came along and parked right alongside where the lady was working by her garbage barrel cart. A side window rolled down, and the police reached over and subtlety handed her a sandwich wrapped in paper. The lady smiled, shyly took the sandwich and thanked him. Then she stood over in front of one of the stores and quickly ate the sandwich, while at the same time greatly enjoying every mouthful. In a couple of minutes the lady was back meticulously sweeping the streets clean. I was the only one who witnessed this little act of kindness by the policeman. It was so incredibly beautiful.
After the logistics were worked out with the police, our runner for the day Lucas Werger was on his way with his police escort. It was still raining when Lucas began his run. But the rain soon tapered off, and by the time he hit the mountains the sun was out. It had me wondering if the old adage that my dad always went by “rain before 7, fine by 11” was also true for Mexico. Lucas ran an incredible pace coming up to the mountains. As we got closer and closer, and the mountains loomed larger and larger, I kept thinking “this is going to be so tough”.
Running up mountains that climb a mile vertical takes a tremendous amount of fuel. We knew that Lucas would need something much more substantial than the granola bars we had in the van. Or he was going to crash. We had come across nothing for food businesses in the countryside outside of Linares. Our only option was to drive on ahead to find something. But where? We kept climbing and climbing higher and higher into the mountains. Past our next aid stop location we kept going. Nothing but mountains and forests. Then around five kilometers past the next aid stop there was a humble little roadside family run eatery. A sandwich board sign on the side of the road announced they were open for business with tacos and other authentic Mexican cuisine.
This was the authentic Mexico I was hoping to experience. The rustic establishment had a wood fired stove and a little outdoor eating area. The friendly lady proprietor was kind enough to allow us to take photos as she prepared our lunches right in front of us. Even encouraged me to go around to the other side to see the open fire for a photo. We quickly ate our lunch just beneath the clouds within the magnificent Sierra Madre mountains. And with several tacos packed for our runner in hand we backtracked to meet Lucas.
The timing could not have been more perfect. Lucas was just arriving at the spot Clay had marked out as a possible aid station spot just as we ourselves were arriving. Lucas was able to get refueled for this continual gruelling climb. Back running, he continued climbing until he came to a beautiful little town called Iturbide. At 1,896 people, Iturbide is the name for both the town and the municipality (much like what we call townships here in my area) and covers an area of 719.2 square kilometers. This works out to around 2.6 people per square kilometer.
What I loved most about this little town was once again the town plaza, which is located right in the centre of town. For a town of less than 2,000 people their plaza was a showpiece. A place as a community to gather and spend time together. There was such a slow laid back pace here. The main road bypasses the town, and every five or six minutes a car might slowly amble through about the speed someone would casually ride a bicycle on a Sunday afternoon. The school was right across the street from the town plaza, and it was wonderful seeing the children getting out of school.
While in this wonderful town we decided to support one of the local eateries. Located near the school and across from the plaza, we went to a place called Manolo’s. The place had such an incredible vibe. When we told the owner who we were, and what we were doing all the way from Canada in his town and restaurant, he was so proud to serve us. His smile never seemed to change the entire time we were there. I really love how the Monarch Ultra really endeavoured to support those local family run businesses.
After a delicious meal, for the next while we just casually hung out in front of the eatery. Lucas (and I think we all did) needed some time to properly digest this amazing food we were served. It was so peaceful here. While we were lounging around and talking, a car slowly pulls up and the driver calls out, “Hey you guys speak English”. It turns out the gentleman was from Chicago, and moved to Iturbide as an expatriate. I think he found paradise when he moved there.
Shortly after our conversation with the expat, Lucas was on the run again. Naturally going uphill. So interesting how the vegetation quickly changes through these mountains. By the many varieties of cactus now growing, it appeared to be much more arid here. We drove on ahead, as Lucas continued running with his police escort. Our final aid stop had an incredible panoramic view over the mountains. This spot would be where Lucas would finish his run for the day. Rodney promptly pulled out his drone, and set it in flight over the surrounding countryside. I cannot wait for the Monarch Ultra documentary to see his drone footage from numerous locations.
Once Lucas arrived to where we were, it was the end of his run. Day #37 of the 47 day Monarch Ultra was in the books. Even though Lucas’s run was finished, our wonderful police escorted us to a nearby town where we were to spend the night. On the outskirts of this next town, the concentrations of Monarch butterflies in migration were the thickest we had seen this far. They gave me goosebumps. The wonderful town was called Galeana. Have I told you how much I love the town plazas of these Mexican towns and small cities? Galeana sticks to that same blueprint. It’s town plaza was located right in the centre of town and was so incredibly magnificient.
Galeana is a town of around 7,000 people in a municipality (much like we call counties in my area of Canada) of the same name. The municipality itself comprises of over 7,000 square kilometers, and has a total population of around 40,000 people. Which is very small for the area. This link is really cool. It lists all the villages and towns within the municipality of Galeana. From the village of Adolfo Ramírez Rayas, which has one inhabitant and right up to the largest population town, which is the town of Galeana itself at 7,000 people. As with the other small towns the Monarch Ultra encountered in Nuevo Leon, the town of Galeana was pleasantly devoid of commercial, corporate franchises. There was such a beautiful, friendly community vibe found there.
We checked in to our hotel called Hotel Jardin Colonial right across from the town plaza. It was a very simple, bare basic hotel. I would share my room with Clay that night. My bed gave out an extremely loud squeak every time I moved, and there was a room window view of the hotel’s linens drying in the back alley. I wouldn’t want it any other way. As Clay and I were heading out to join the others to have supper at another local eatery, we were timidly approached by a beautiful indigenous woman and what appeared to be her preteen daughter. I can still picture this young girl with these big, bright shining eyes. Through the language struggles we learned that we were being asked if we would like to buy some tamales. They are described as “cornmeal dough rolled with ground meat or beans seasoned usually with chili, wrapped usually in corn husks, and steamed.” If they tasted as good as they smelled, they were going to be absolutely amazing. Clay’s run the next day would be even more remote than the day we just experienced, and he said “This will be perfect for me”. As he paid the Canadian equivalent of less than $2.00 for a huge bag of tamales, the look on the ladies eyes and face was so full of gratefulness. My heart was overflowing with happiness being in that place and time. Day #37 of the 47 day Monarch Ultra was so incredible. I fell in love with the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains and the spectacular, tranquil towns in the area with their simple grandeur and elegance. Free from the trappings of large corporate franchises. And did I mention their inviting, relaxing town plazas found right in the middle of each town that just beckon a person to come and slow down and spend some time there? Breathing in the kindness, cordiality, simplicity and humility of these precious, beautiful local people left a mark on me that I will always remember. Thank you Linares. Thank you Iturbide. Thank you Galeana.
The video below by You Tube contributor Tere Sanel follows a portion of the route that Lucas Werger ran with the Monarch Ultra ran on October 25, 2019. Coming off the main road and into the central plaza (Plaza de Armas) in the tranquil mountain town of Iturbide, Nuevo Leon, Mexico.