It was Friday October, 8th, the day before my long anticipated 50k run with the Monarch Ultra. I was heading up to the highway for my afternoon school crosswalk duties. As I was walking by the school, Principal Marci called me over and asked if I had a couple of minutes. The students had been working really hard, and had something to present to me.
What a beautiful sight. The Grade 1 were all holding up for me to see this magnificent banner they had made. It had the words “Go Carl Go” and bordered with the most beautiful artwork. Plus I was given a wonderful stack of individual artwork with such encouraging messages for my run. I couldn’t linger too long as the kindergarten class also had something for me. They were all holding up this amazing banner with the words “Spread Your Wings Mr. Wright”. Then they all made motions with their hands that replicated butterflies in flight. What a tremendous send off for me and my run the next day. The beautiful thing about these dear children is that they have been learning all about the Monarch butterfly in their studies.
The idea for the Monarch Ultra began a few years ago with a simple thought by ultrarunner Carlotta James upon observing a Monarch butterfly in flight, “How appropriate it would be to raise awareness for Monarch conservation through the eyes of a runner.” That thought kept lingering until she acted upon it and followed through. With hundreds upon hundreds of volunteer hours of planning involved, the Monarch Ultra became a reality in 2019. With film director Rodney Fuentes, run director Clay Williams and team chef Günther Schubert, along with 46 ultrarunners the Monarch Ultra was an incredible accomplishment. It started at Peterborough, Ontario and ended 4,300 kilometers later at the Oyamel old growth cloud forests at Cerro Pelon sanctuary at Macheros, in the Sierra Madre mountains of Central Mexico. This first-of-its-kind international event took 47 days for 46 runners to complete while supported by the Monarch Ultra team. Through 3 countries (across 2 international borders), 113 counties and municipalities, 14 states and provinces and 5 major ecoregions. The decision to run the route of the southern migration of monarchs from Canada, through the United States, to southern Mexico, through never-say-quit spirit of ultra-runners, who train tirelessly to be able to run extreme distances over multiple types of terrain and under adverse circumstances. It was an attempt to bring international attention to the plight of the monarch butterfly. This is a species whose Eastern population has crashed more than 90 percent in the past 20 years.
I have loved the Monarch butterfly and have taken them for granted ever since I was a child. However, because of the ubiquitous use of weed-killing herbicides in monoculture agriculture, millions of acres of habitat for milkweed have been wiped out across the United States and the Southern regions of Canada. Milkweed is an essential plant for the monarchs’ life cycle. Along with the loss of milkweed habitat there has been extreme weather events due to climate change. The Monarch butterfly numbers had precipitously declined as much as 90% since 1996. Their disappearance has prompted a national outpouring of support to bring this species back from the brink of extinction. In my province of Ontario the milkweed was finally taken off of the noxious weed list on April 11, 2014. You can now legally plant milkweed in Ontario.
While the ultrarunners were busy running the migration route of the Monarch from Canada to Mexico in 2019, the support team was engaging with the news media, government officials, school groups, and horticultural societies in Canada, United States and Mexico. Anyone who would give a listening ear. It was a way to raise awareness of the plight of the Monarch. And also to encourage people to provide habitat for the Monarch. It can be as simple as not mowing a section of your monoculture lawn and let it regenerate back to nature. You would no longer be working against nature, but would be working with it.
Because of COVID-19, the Monarch Ultra was not able to repeat it’s cross border international relay like in 2019. Instead an amazing 21 day, 1,800 kilometer relay through Southern Ontario was mapped out. Even with the shorter distance, it ended up being Canada’s longest relay run. The Monarch begins its great migration to Mexico in Southern Ontario. How appropriate to have this relay run through this region. Runners had two distance options, 30 kilometers or 50 kilometers. I registered as soon as it opened on February 26th, and was so fortunate to find myself running 50 kilometers on that final day right in my home township.
Because of COVID it was such a long seven and a half months since registration. I hadn’t run in any races since 2019. Lots of virtual runs including the long distance Great Virtual Run Across Tennessee both in 2020 and 2021. Even ran a 100 kilometer virtual this past summer. I trained for the 2021 Monarch Ultra, but there was always that question if it was enough. I was so excited of running that final day. But as the big day drew closer and my running partner Michelle (who I had not met) and myself were going to bring it all home, I was getting quite nervous.
It ended up being an amazing day. Our starting point was in Wyevale. I had just met Michelle, she and I had photos taken with the children’s banners and we were off. There was a light drizzle in the air. We were following what is known as the Simcoe County Loop Trail. Much of it follows abandoned rail line. But the route also goes on a lot of road. I’m guessing about a third of our distance was on road. Our 1st aid stop was in Elmvale. Michelle and I were greeted with hearty cheering from a dear 86 year old lady from my church named Myrtle and her friend Mae. It was so sweet of them to come out and cheer Michelle and myself on.
Several kilometers out from Elmvale we saw a runner coming towards us. We said hello, and she introduced herself. It was Kris, a Twitter friend (who I had never met). She wanted to surprise me and ended up running 15 kilometers to get to where we were. For the next 15 kilometers, until she got back to her car we were now a group of three. It was so much fun running with her and getting to know her. Kris took a quite a few photos for us while we were running together. The next 4 photos are hers. We had an aid stop in Phelpston (only 8 kilometers from where I live) and the next stop was 10 kilometers further where the trail crosses a quiet country road. These stops are wonderful for an ultrarunner, because it is a chance to refuel. It also means we don’t have to carry nearly as much hydration and nutrition with us to save some weight.
During the 4,000-5,000 kilometer fall migration of the Monarch butterfly it is critical that there are places to refuel during their epic journey to Mexico. They are called “waystations”. Monarch Watch describes the requirements of the Monarch. They need sun but also shelter. They need nectar plants for fuel. Particularly for the multi-generational spring migration, Monarchs need milkweed plants. You can register your waystation with Monarch Watch. As of October 4, 2021 there are 36.863 waystations registered.
A few more kilometers and Kris was back at her car. She ran 30 kilometers that day, 15 kilometers to where Michelle and I were. And 15 kilometers with us back to her car. Except for a short 2 kilometer section of trail, the remaining 14 kilometers were all on road. For a couple of kilometers on Snow Valley Road it poured rain. Traffic was busy and fast, and personally I felt extremely vulnerable. It was quite demoralizing. There are a lot of subdivisions in that area with another massive one just breaking ground. This is urban sprawl all centered around car dependency. The Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition mentions “Developers have already put in 70+ more requests to develop another 6400 hectares of more land in Simcoe County, pressuring the County to enrich these developers at the expense of our health and bank accounts.”
Although our ultra was not a race, it was important that Michelle and I make it to Barrie City hall at 5:00 pm or no more than a few minutes after. There was going to be a reception waiting for our arrival. The last aid stop was at Sunnidale park, only 3 kilometers from the finish. We ended up having over a half hour to kill, so we all just hung out together. I hadn’t seen the Monarch Ultra team in 2 years. It was so wonderful to be with them. During that time Michelle got a temporary tattoo of Monarch butterflies on her face. We all shot a short video that was posted on social media. Then Michelle and I were on our way. I was so blessed to have Michelle as my running partner. We started together as strangers and we were now we were finishing as very dear friends.
After a major climb a few kilometers earlier, it was now all downhill for us. We crossed over the Highway 400. When this highway opened on July 1, 1952 it was the first full fully controlled access highway in Ontario. At the time it was well north of Barrie. The highway has brought with it so much urban sprawl. It now goes right through the middle of the city. As growth continued, widening of the highway to six lanes began in 1971. Because the population of this region is expected to explode from 357,000 people to 555,000 people (excluding Barrie and Orillia, which would make the totals 50% more) over the next 30 years, Highway 400 is in the process of expanding to 10 lanes. It means 16 bridges have been, or are in the process of being demolished to accommodate the widening. This is only going to create more urban sprawl and more car dependency. Plus south of Barrie, a highway called Holland Marsh Highway (Bradford Bypass) is proposed to be built through designated provincially significant wetlands at a cost to Ontario taxpayers of $1.5 billion. In a climate emergency like we are in, we have to do better. Our car culture carries with it such a hefty health and environmental burden. An article in Vox states that Vancouver remains the only major city in North America unmarred by freeways. The city’s success traces all the way back to the 1960s and ’70s, when the extraordinarily prescient citizens of Vancouver rejected a plan to build a network of urban freeways through the city. A goal was set to have 50% of all trips in the city taken by walking, biking, or transit rather than automobile by 2020. That target was met in 2015, five years early.
In races there is always that final push to the finish. For Michelle and I, we kept having to slow down during those last 3 kilometers. We didn’t want to show up at City Hall early. To kill more time, we ran a casual loop around Queen’s Park and then worked our way right through downtown Barrie. One block from City Hall we started to pick up the pace a little. A lady on a megaphone was calling out, “The runners are coming in. They have just run fifty kilometers”. People were lined up on each side of Michelle and myself with their cameras and phones taking pictures and videos. Others were cheering and waving signs. It was a precious moment coming in to that finish. I could not have shared this moment with a more wonderful human being than Michelle.
It was a cool, rainy late afternoon, and so many people had come out to the reception. They included my sister Linda, her husband Al, and my nephew Tony. Christine, another Twitter follower who I had just met a week earlier at my Hillsdale run meet up was there. And of course, my dear wife, Lynne. I met so many environmental champions at that reception who are working tirelessly and are making a difference. Local politicians Ann-Marie Kungl, Bonnie North and Clare Riepma who work tirelessly for the betterment of our planet. There was Steve Jones who has converted vacant industrial land into these amazing productive vertical gardens for local food security. And 7 year old Morgan from Morgan’s Monarch’s. Morgan with her family’s help collect Monarch eggs off of milkweed along roadways before it gets mowed down. She then raises them through all the stages until they become the mature Monarch butterfly.
Morgan reminded me of the children at Hillsdale Elementary School who made the beautiful banners for me. For me running close to 50 kilometers, anything could happen. I did not want to fail these children. There is an old Proverb that goes like this, “We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children”. This advice prods us to consider the future, and not to focus on the present or on the past. Instead of living just for today and gratifying our own immediate needs, we should think about how our current actions will affect the planet and the future generations to come. We cannot fail these children.
A NASA report on Global Climate Change mentions that since 1880 the earth has warmed 1.18 degrees Celsius. Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975. It might not seem like a lot, but it really is. This change is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all the oceans, atmosphere, and land by that much. In order to grasp how much energy is involved, Humble Energy ran an ad in Life magazine almost 60 years ago bragging that every day they supply enough energy to melt 7 million tons of glacier. That’s just one smaller oil company. Humble Energy is now part of Exxon-Mobil, the 6th largest oil producing (glacier melting) company in the world. World Population Review mentions we are consuming 97 million barrels of oil daily. Each barrel is 46.4 US gallons producing 5,800,000 Btu. Which does not include other non renewable energy sources such as coal or natural gas. This is a major factor in driving the Climate Crises. With all the fossil fuel energy produced by the giant oil corporations, how much ice loss would that equate to? NASA goes on to mention that every year “the earth’s polar ice sheets are shrinking annually by 427 billion metric tons”. Our polar ice sheets are the air conditioners of the planet. But they are quickly shutting down. Scientists have calculated the energy generated required for that magnitude of loss of ice would be equivalent as if five Hiroshima bombs were dropped in the oceans every second. An article in CNN mentions “the amount of heat we have put in the world’s oceans in the past 25 years equals to 3.6 billion Hiroshima atom-bomb explosions”. This is all measured by satellite. Not only are glaciers and polar ice sheets melting, but heat waves are more frequent. There are more wildfires, stronger hurricanes and more catastrophic flooding.
It is not just about Global Warming and Climate Change. Even if there were zero emissions tomorrow, humans are terrorizing the natural world, eradicating wildlife, tearing down world forests, destroying wetlands and polluting the oceans, rivers, lakes and very air we breathe. All in the name of profit at all costs. World Wildlife Fund 2018 Living Planet Report reveals that we have killed 60% of all wildlife in the last 40 years. The latest findings from Environmental Research is that exposure to particulate matter from the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for the premature deaths of 1 in 5 people worldwide. We are in a Biodiversity Crises. Scientists predict that on our current trajectory of habitat loss and global warming, between one third and one half of the planet’s 1 million species of plants and animals will vanish forever by the end of this century. I think of my precious grandson. I think of those beautiful children who made the banners for me. What kind of a planet will we as a society be giving back to them?
After the presentations at the reception for the finish of the Monarch Ultra, I wanted to make sure we got a photo of the children’s banners at the finish. These children are such an inspiration to me. Their school, Hillsdale Elementary School has been involved with what is known as Ecoschools Program for the past 12 years. Kindergarten teacher Lauren MacInnis shared with me “We have been a certified school since 2010. Over the past 12 years, we have received Platinum certification twice (last year was our most recent one) and we have been Gold certified for 9 years. There was one year a few years back where all Ontario schools received “certified” as we were in contract negotiations.”
Including Canada, there are 68 nations involved in Ecoschools programs around the globe. I did a Google search and learned in 2020 there were 14,600 public schools in Canada. In 2020 there was 10,100 elementary schools, 2,600 secondary schools and 2,100 mixed elementary and secondary schools. Of those numbers, in 2020-2021 there was a network 1219 schools (just over 8% of all schools) that participated in the Ecoschools program. Of that number, 747 schools across Canada achieved certification of either bronze, silver, gold or platinum. Schools that began an application but didn’t earn enough points to be certified at the Bronze level are designated as Participants and are welcome to attempt certification again the following year. What an incredible achievement that Hillsdale achieved Ecoschool platinum in 2020-2021. The highest award possible.
There are 43 different actions where participation and how well you achieve those actions all earns different levels of points. In this climate emergency there is so much we can learn from these children. Initiatives such as waste free lunches, refillable water containers, Earth Hour, Earth Day, National Sweater Day all help the environment. The school has an amazing pollinator garden and No-Mow Zone to help our vital pollinators. If it is not raining, every day this fall as I walk by the school coming or going for crosswalk duties I will notice in the distance several outdoor classrooms happening on the school property. Connecting with nature while learning is so powerful. One parent mentioned that my run with the Monarch Ultra was all his grade 1 son talks about. That I am running to save the butterflies.
The one action that I am sort of involved with the children is in the area of active transportation. An incredibly large percentage of the students who live on the other side of Highway 93 will walk or cycle to school. It is so wonderful to see. For many of those students, their active transportation will amount to travelling over a kilometer each way. Their route involves crossing extremely busy and dangerous Ontario Provincial Highway 93. My role as school crossing guard is to get them across that highway safely. Several things are involved for their safety include a 2 whistle system and setting up 10 bright orange pylons along and in the centre of the highway up to 400 feet both directions from the crosswalk for visibility to traffic. This is a means to try and calm down speeding traffic. As one who is religious on the importance of active transportation instead of car dependency, I am grateful to all the parents who entrust their children to me to get them across that busy highway safely. It creates a healthier planet and healthier children. Whether it is in Hillsdale or any other busy school crossings, school crossing guards are critical for a school’s active transportation program to be successful. If parents do not feel a signalized crossing (aka beg button) across a highway or busy street is safe without a crossing guard, parents will never allow their children to walk or cycle to school.
Every day through Hillsdale I will see lots of drivers drivers going well over the posted speed limit. And most days I’ll notice at least one driver texting and driving while travelling through Hillsdale during crosswalk hours. Completely oblivious to his or her surroundings. CAA ran a poll to determine what are the greatest road safety concerns of Canadian drivers. Here are the top 10 road safety concerns in order, “Texting or emailing while driving; drinking and driving; drivers running red lights; speeding on residential streets; driving aggressively; sleepy drivers; driving after using illegal drugs; talking on cell phones while driving; driving well over the speed limit; and talking to or engaging with their in-car systems”. These 10 safety concerns puts pedestrians and cyclists in a very vulnerable position as they attempt to cross any busy highway or street. Parachute Canada, a non-profit preventative injury group, say child pedestrian incidents are a leading cause of death for Canadian children under age 14. So parents end up driving their kids to school. When parents end up driving their kids everywhere, including school, the children learn that it is acceptable to drive everywhere. Even short distances. Children then are more likely to develop a sense of car entitlement when they themselves get old enough to drive. That simple action leads to more cars on the road, more highways built and more highway lanes expanded. More urban sprawl, more melting of glaciers and polar ice caps. More air pollution, and more climate change related deaths. Walking and cycling to school is 1 of 43 important actions in the EcoSchool program. In 2020-2021 Hillsdale Elementary School received the the highest award; the platinum award.
In order to achieve a platinum award for the EcoSchools program everyone has to get on board. Teachers, parents, students, librarians, custodians. Even that crossing guard. In takes sacrifice and cooperation from everyone. For parents it means more effort preparing a nutritious waste free lunch, when it is far easier just to purchase a corporate brand manufactured “food like” substance made in a factory. Then after the product is consumed there is the waste to deal with. It means getting the children up, dressed, have breakfast and ready earlier so they have enough time to walk to school. When it would be so much easier to just drive them to school.
Five days after my run with the Monarch Ultra that finished in Barrie I had the privilege of speaking to the Barrie Rotary Club. I breezed through 65 slides, talking about the Monarch butterflies epic migration to Mexico, and the Monarch Ultra relays both in 2019 and 2021. I then explained how the actions of humans have brought the numbers of Monarchs to dangerously low levels. We desperately need our pollinators for our own food security. When I shared the photo of the children from Michelle Read’s Grade 1 class with the “Go Carl Go” banner and asked the question “What kind of planet are we passing on to our children and grandchildren?”, And added “These children are trying so hard. We must not fail them,”, it felt like the air was being sucked out of the room. The message had hit home. Afterwards I was bombarded with question after question about how to go about helping the Monarch butterfly populations. The people at Barrie Rotary Club really wanted to take action.
Nature does not need people. It is people who need nature. The survival of our pollinators is critical for food security and the survival of the human race. As a planet that is in a Climate Emergency and a Biodiversity Crises we possess the knowledge to redefine our relationship with the planet. The far biggest issues are human entitlement, greed, our runaway production, consumption and wasteful habits. This fuels the mindset of profit at all costs for those gigantic corporations, even if it means our planet is destroyed in the process. And last but not least, there is often the lack of any moral or ethical compass from our world leaders. We cannot solve a crises until we treat it like a crises. In order to turn things around it will take massive cooperation and sacrifice from everyone. The words of Greta Thunberg who as a 15 year old addressed the politicians at the UN Climate Change conference at Katowice, Poland in December, 2018 speak volumes, “We have not come here to beg the world leaders to care about our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge. And since our leaders are behaving like children we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.” and “You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”