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Outrunning death with the monarchs

Monarch butterflies face extinction. A group of ultra runners chased them the length of a continent to warn us.

Editor’s note: Distances in this story are measured in kilometers to reflect distances used in the Monarch Ultra Relay Run. 

The migration of the eastern North American monarch butterfly is an improbable feat. Every fall, an insect no more substantial than a potato chip flies up to 4,800 kilometers—roughly 3,000 miles—from southeastern Canada to central Mexico, subsisting on nectar and riding the wind. In 2019, a group of humans joined the butterflies for an improbable migration of their own.

The Monarch Ultra was humanity’s first attempt to run the length of North America, a point-to-point relay spanning three countries. Over seven weeks, 46 runners traversed distances of 50 and 100 kilometers at a time. They ran along shaded trails and highways littered with roadkill, passing out from heatstroke and dehydration, subsisting on Pepsi and gummy bears and the cheers of the occasional bystander. The route began in southern Canada, bisected the American heartland, and ended in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. It included 438 roadside aid stations, thousands of printed pages of Google map directions, and an untallied number of RV breakdowns.

All of this, because the monarchs are dying.

Carlotta James running during the Monarch Ultra. (Courtesy of Rodney Fuentes)

Carlotta James was running alone on a forest trail in Peterborough, Ontario, when a butterfly joined her. Then a second. Then more.

The insects’ appearance would not normally have struck her as particularly auspicious. But Peterborough was deep in drought that summer and many pollinators had died off. A conservationist and eco-landscaper, James saw only a handful of monarchs that season. As she ran with the butterflies that afternoon, she had an idea.

“It hit me at that moment: What would it be like to follow the monarch migration?” she says. “I thought, ‘They’re ultra flyers, ultra migrators, and so we need to find people who are also ultra runners.’”

Pairing the two just felt natural to James, a lifelong distance runner for whom the sport is medicine and meditation. She ran home and wrote out an event proposal.

In the spring of 2018, Clay Williams opened his email inbox to find a message from James. Williams, who lost two brothers to suicide, started a 750-kilometer run called Canal Pursuit for Mental Health in Ontario to raise awareness about depression. James had participated in the Canal Pursuit the previous year. She told Williams she wanted his help organizing a similar advocacy run—but instead of 750 kilometers it would follow the migration path of the monarch and stretch for 4,300 kilometers.

Williams wasn’t aware that North America’s best-known butterfly is dying off, falling from the skies at a torrential rate. Over the last two decades, the species has declined by more than 90 percent—a loss of approximately 900 million butterflies. 

A one-two punch of climate change and habitat loss is responsible for their rapidly  plummeting numbers. Climbing global temperatures push monarchs farther north in the warm months, stretching their migration route. In the United States, development and herbicide spraying have erased an estimated 165 million acres of the monarch’s breeding habitat. Milkweed, the only plant monarch caterpillars eat, is disappearing from wide swaths of the migration corridor.

Williams didn’t know any of this. A self-described “newbie conservationist,” he was drawn to the project not by its mission but by its sheer scale. He had coordinated ultra runs before (defined as any distance beyond the 26.2 miles of a marathon), but the Monarch Ultra required logistics on a scale he’d never seen. It took him 10 days on Google Maps to plot a route tracing the migration from Canada to Mexico. 

Meanwhile, James recruited two new members of the Monarch Ultra core team: documentary filmmaker Rodney Fuentes and chef Gunther Schubert. They bought a 1981 RV and named it “El Dorado.” In the fall of 2018, the team drove the length of the migration route from Peterborough, Ontario to Macheros, Mexico—a test run for the relay to be held the following autumn. Williams’s route held up, and in early November they stood among cedar trees in the Cerro Pelón sanctuary as a hurricane of butterflies swirled around them. They were ready to run.

Monarch butterflies in Mexico. (Courtesy of Rodney Fuentes)

Every year as summer slides into fall, a “super generation” of eastern North American monarchs is born. Instead of emerging from their chrysalises, mating, and dying several weeks later, this super generation abstains from its amorous activity to conserve energy for its journey south. The shortening days and cooling temperatures cue the monarchs to begin flight. One by one, they lift into the air, traveling up to 4,800 kilometers before settling in the forested peaks of the Sierra Madres. In the insect kingdom, only the Pantala flavescens, a dragonfly half the length of your forefinger, clocks a longer migration, traveling up to 18,000 kilometers: roughly the distance from Los Angeles to Santiago, Chile and back again.

The annual disappearance and reappearance of certain animals has long baffled humans. Aristotle developed the first rudimentary theory of migration, though he also posited that birds passed the winter buried underground. In the 1600s, English scientist Charles Morton suggested birds took annual holidays to the moon. The concept of migration didn’t gain widespread acceptance until 1822, when a count in Germany shot a stork from the sky with a spear “of African make” still lodged in its neck. Since then, scientists have tracked the movements of animals from great white sharks to elephants to wildebeests to hummingbirds. Zooplankton hold the title of smallest migrator; blue whales, the largest.

But our understanding of how animals migrate—how new generations find their way to precise locations, in some cases even the same tree, as their ancestors—remains fuzzy. Theories about how monarchs find their way to Mexico abound. One suggests they smell the urine of butterflies that flew ahead of them. Another posits that the earth’s magnetism pulls them south. A third suggests they track the scents of monarchs that died on the route.

While it’s romantic to imagine butterflies winging their way across a continent using their ancestors’ bodies as a guide, the reigning theory is less dramatic. Monarchs primarily use the sun to stay on course. On cloudy days, a miniscule magnetic compass in their antennae helps them navigate—a sort of back-up GPS. Still, this doesn’t quite account for how and why they touch down in the same trees, in the same forests, on the same remote peaks, year after year after year.

In the case of the eastern monarch, only every fifth generation makes the one-way journey south. This super generation will never return to its birthplace. Instead the butterflies mate while wintering in Mexico—usually around Valentine’s Day—and take flight several weeks later, heading briefly north before dying. A second generation flies a little farther north and a third flies a little farther still, until the super monarchs’ great-grandchildren arrive home. That fall a new generation of super monarchs will find their way to the same Mexican forests, alighting in trees where their great-great-grandparents once rested.

On the morning of September 19, 2019, the Monarch Ultra team assembled in a Peterborough park for the inaugural event’s send-off party. Local elementary students read a poem and people donned butterfly wings. There were songs and speeches, and then the first runner of the 4,300-kilometer relay took off to cheers. Across southern Ontario and the northern United States, super monarchs were rising into the sky, little flares of flame against all that blue.

Clay Williams’s route hit its first snag on Day One when it led him smack into a construction zone. On Day Two, the air conditioning unit of El Dorado was swept clean off when the team drove under a low bridge. But by a stroke of luck, Day Three’s runner was a roofer who arrived with a set of tools and repaired the roof before setting out on his segment. That week, southern Ontario set records with an autumn heat wave, so while those in the van enjoyed the AC, the roofer struggled through 25 kilometers before heatstroke knocked him down. “He was in really bad shape,” Williams said. “He was spasming and his muscles were cramping.” Williams and James picked up where he left off.

On Day Five they crossed the Canada-U.S. border by ferry into Algonac, Michigan to the applause of bystanders. Then, for four weeks, the Monarch Ultra traversed the midsection of the United States. Days collapsed into a routine that began in the predawn and finished at twilight. The first runner of the day read the Peterborough students’ poem by the light of a headlamp. Participants who signed up for 100-kilometer relay segments ran 12 to 14 hours on end. El Dorado’s toilet stopped working and then the shower gave out. Most nights, Williams opted to sleep in a tent outside the RV. Inside, Schubert prepared meals, accounting for allergies and gluten intolerances and vegetarian diets, as well as Williams and James’ ultra runner calorie intake. (“Poor Gunther said he’d never seen people with such big appetites,” James said.)

The team originally planned to cover the entire route point-to-point, with each runner beginning exactly where the previous runner had left off. But within a few days, they conceded that accounting for every last kilometer was next to impossible. Not every runner finished their segment. When someone dropped out, the team cut their losses and drove El Dorado to the next starting point. 

On the official route, Williams plotted 438 mobile aid stations (an exercise that took, by his estimate, “a few hundred hours”). Every 10 kilometers, he’d search for a place to swing El Dorado off the road, into residential driveways, commercial parking lots, and public parks. When runners passed, Williams handed them fresh pages of Google Maps directions (printed in advance), water, snacks, and fresh clothes. The runners swapped out shoes and ate energy gels or potato chips washed down with Gatorade. They iced and stretched, coaxing cramped muscles to loosen. 

Then they started running again. As the hours passed, sweat dried into a sheen, breaths grew shallow, waves of nausea crashed and receded, legs grew heavy and wooden.

The work of ultra running boils down to staying afloat through both the crests of euphoria and the dips of pain. In time, even the pain passes. The phrase Williams thinks about most during the unbroken hours of an ultra is “Wait 10 minutes.”  

“There’s going to be hunger, there’s going to be thirst, there’s going to be happiness and sadness and darkness at some point,” he says. “If you’re feeling really terrible, if you’re nauseous, wait ten minutes— chances are things are going to change. Likewise, if you’re feeling really good, wait 10 minutes— chances are things are going to change.”

For an activity that seems bent on this kind of mental and physical punishment, ultra running has enjoyed a frankly astonishing spike in popularity. Among certain runners, a marathon’s 26.2 miles are a mere warmup for the real event. Ultra running is one of the fastest growing sports in the world; websites that host ultra races track a 1,000 percent increase in the number of events held over the past decade. 

The Monarch Ultra’s finale would coincide with the monarch butterflies’ arrival in Mexico. The route’s last stop was Macheros, a farming community or ejido on the border of the State of Mexico. A paved road snakes up a mountain toward the community, the air cooling and trees thickening as it climbs. After 20 uphill kilometers, a sign appears warning cars to reduce speed as they enter “the butterfly zone.” This would be the last stretch of the Monarch Ultra (“It doesn’t look uphill on Google satellite view,” Williams later admitted).

The community of Macheros sits at the base of Cerro Pelón, one of the monarchs’ wintering sites. For decades, tourists descended Macheros on day trips to see the butterflies, and buses ferried them to and from nearby towns. Now Joel Moreno and Ellen Sharp, partners and the co-owners of J&M Butterfly B&B, are working to keep people here. 

Enticing tourists to stay in Macheros is not a hard sell. In the mornings, the sky turns peach and roosters announce another day. The Sierra Madres rise up on all sides so that the community seems to rest in the cradle of ancient arms. From the rooftop of the J&M Butterfly B&B, guests can watch the sky bleed into sunset. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s a sleepy and bucolic place, though its residents are focused largely on survival and subsistence work.

Joel Moreno was born here, one of ten kids growing up in a wooden house. He watched the butterflies descend every year as a child while his father Melquiades served as one of the community’s original forest rangers. In the intervening decades, Moreno has seen the thick clouds of wings grow sparse. Today the original Moreno family home is gone, replaced by the compound that he built after a decade of living and working in the US. “I like to tell people my placenta is buried somewhere over there,” he jokes, gesturing toward the yard. Today his mother and eight of his nine siblings work in the butterfly business: cooking in the restaurant next door, serving as forest guardians, guiding butterfly tours up the adjacent Cerro Pelón mountain. 

When he first moved home from the U.S., Moreno worked as a butterfly guide leading tours to nearby sanctuaries. This is how he met Ellen Sharp, a cultural anthropologist with a pragmatic demeanor. Before meeting Moreno, she had studied vigilante justice in the highlands of Guatemala, observing a group of citizen organizers who took it upon themselves to enforce law and order by locking up local drunks, implementing a prohibition, and running a con artist out of town. The two kept up a long-distance relationship while Sharp finished her PhD in Los Angeles. On November 4, 2015, they were married on the roof of the bed and breakfast. During the ceremony, monarchs drifted down from the sky like confetti.

The couple founded Butterflies and Their People two years later. The nonprofit employs locals as forest guardians to monitor the monarch colonies in the winter and protect the sanctuary from illegal logging year round. Through JM Butterfly B&B, they have diversified tourist activities in Macheros, expanding from butterfly visits to bird watching, hiking, artist retreats, and cooking classes.

Along with birding guidebooks, the coffee table of the JM Butterfly B&B holds a worn copy of an August 1976 National Geographic. The cover shows a woman standing between trees carpeted with monarchs, smiling down at the butterflies that line her arms. “Discovered: The Monarch’s Mexican Haven,” the cover reads.

The woman on the cover is Catalina Trail (formerly Cathy Aguado), a Michoacán-born naturalist commissioned to find the Mexican overwintering sight of the monarchs by Canadian zoologist Fred Urquhart, who had studied monarchs for decades with his wife but lost the migration path at the Texas-Mexico border. After months of trekking through the Sierra Madres, Aguado and her then-husband Kenneth Brugger followed locals up Cerro Pelón to stand among the monarchs on January 2, 1975. The confirmation of the wintering site provided the bookend to the unfinished migration story.

Joel Moreno spoke with Carlotta James in the forests near Cerro Pelón. (Courtesy of Rodney Fuentes)

Of course, the monarchs’ winter haven can only be said to be “discovered” by Aguado and Brugger in the same way Machu Picchu was “discovered” by Hiram Bingham. For generations, the families of Macheros and surrounding communities had watched millions of butterflies descend in early November and take flight in March. Yet the natural wonder went unremarked on, at least to the outside world.

This reticence to share the monarchs’ winter home is one of the most puzzling aspects of the migration story. It’s possible that it might simply have been an issue of access: “I think it speaks to how isolated and excluded and cut off this area was, and in many ways still is,” Sharp said. It’s also possible that locals who knew about the butterflies had bigger preoccupations, like survival (Consider again Peru’s magical Machu Picchu, and the indigenous farmers who farmed for their lives among the Incan citadel’s ruins). Perhaps they didn’t have time to consider how this natural wonder might impact the outside world, how it could mean some measure of wealth or exploitation or, more likely, both. 

Another theory? The monarch’s sacred symbolism made people reluctant to speak about them. Because they arrive each year around Día de los Muertos, folklore holds that the butterflies are the souls of the dead returning home. Moreno has heard rumors that locals in Macheros used to believe the butterflies carried their ancestors’ spirits. “I like to think that it is true,” he said. “Because [that means] they already had respect for the butterflies.” In another twist, the community referred to the butterflies as palomas, or doves. This coded language made it difficult for outsiders to put the pieces together, as nobody outside Macheros knew that when people spoke of doves they meant monarchs.

Whatever they called the butterflies— the doves or the dead—those who lived at the base of Cerro Pelón never felt the outside world needed to know about the millions of butterflies that descended on their village each year. Only now are they learning to use this natural wonder in their economic favor and to market Macheros as an ecotourism destination. 

But then there’s the problem of the butterflies disappearing.

The forested mountains near Macheros. (Courtesy of Rodney Fuentes)

The Monarch Ultra’s mission calls to mind cinematic scenes of runners surging together, passing through Indiana cornfields and Texas sagebrush like a cloud’s shadow. The monarch’s migration, mythical in size and regal, literally, in name, ought to be the same: an orchestra of wings beating as one. But in fact, neither of those things are true. The runners jogged alone or occasionally in pairs, El Dorado chugging along nearby. The butterflies, too, are singular in their flight. Though they cluster on the same trees by the tens of thousands during winter, they find their way to the forests alone.

Monarchs evolved to accomplish their epic migration over thousands of years, building endurance since the end of the last ice age, when milkweed spread throughout the central United States. Humans, on the other hand, aren’t built to traverse extreme distances by foot. But try telling that to an ultra runner. 

Journalist and runner Adharandan Finn traced the sport’s explosion of fandom in his book, The Rise of the Ultra Runners. In an effort to understand the ultra runner mindset, Finn considers the words inked on Spanish ultra runner Azara García’s leg. The English translation of the tattoo reads:

The Devil whispered in my ear:

‘You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.’

I whispered back: ‘I am the storm.’

“Is this the appeal of ultra running?” Finn asks. “To push ourselves to a place where we stand face to face with the devil, the depths of the struggle, but then to rise up and overcome it?”

In part, yes. This idea accounts for at least some of ultra running’s rise. Athletes who run ultra marathons are seeking a degree of suffering and the transcendence that they say comes beyond that suffering. They’re looking for the “pain cave”— what long-distance runners call the moment of crisis in a race, when pain absorbs everything besides the desire to stop. But on the other side of the pain cave, or maybe within it, is transformation.

“There’s a time when you realize that your brain has to control what your body is doing,” Williams says. “Your body is telling you that the best thing to do right now is to sit down and lean against that tree and go to sleep. You have to find something inside of you that is more valuable than that little bit of sleep.”

Williams began running ultras later in life, compelled by an urge “to see how far is too far.” He ran his first hundred-mile race when he was 49. Well over half the finishers were around his age, which is not uncommon in the sport. Maybe it’s because middle-aged runners have more time to train. Maybe it’s because, in the second half of life, people look for ways to defy the body’s inevitable decline. Running absurd distances, it seems, is at least a little bit about outrunning death. It allows us to push back our physical limits and therefore our mortality, if only for a handful of hours or days.

For Williams, running extreme distances on minimal sleep also serves as a touchstone for what his body can do. “It seems a little petty, I guess, to be really focused on torturing yourself for 30 hours so you get a shiny belt buckle,” he says. But the buckle is just a symbol of how far he can go. “In my normal life, if I’m in a difficult situation or a tight spot, to have that in the back of my mind—that if I can run 225 kilometers in 48 hours, then this [situation] is a cakewalk.”

Williams’s route carried the runners through Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas. In the Midwest, they ran along fields of large-scale monoculture farming, bisecting acres of corn, wheat, soybean, and cotton. They found a region devoid of wildlife corridors, pollinators, or wildflowers. As pesticides, herbicides, and mono-cropping consumes the Midwest, it also consumes the monarchs’ breeding and feeding habitat. “Monsanto’s profits cannot come before the monarch’s future,” warns George Kimbrell, the legal director for the Center for Food Safety. But in these regions, that’s exactly what is happening.

The devastation of this habitat took its toll on the team, as did the absence of public attention. “It was really quiet in the States,” James says. “There were some days I’d be running that I didn’t see anybody.” But there were pockets of optimism, too. Along the route they met like-minded activists: teachers and conservationists and hobby gardeners who cheered the runners on and showed off their pollinator gardens. The Monarch Ultra team spoke at schools and city council meetings, sharing their mission and the plight of the monarchs. Even in the regions dominated by monoculture farming and chemical usage, it seemed there was always one teacher or community member conserving a small patch of land for the butterflies.

Somewhere around Day 30, James hopped out of the El Dorado to run a segment along the Monarch Highway in Texas. Originally designed as a monarch habitat lined with milkweed and other pollinating plants, the highway’s constant traffic has effectively cancelled out any conservation effort. Semis roared past her, roadkill littered the shoulder, and the torn bodies of monarchs papered the dirt. James sidestepped other carcasses on that stretch: snakes, armadillos, and deer. Nothing could be further from her Peterborough run several years ago, with its wooded trails and monarchs and a sudden idea. But by now she had entered and emerged from the pain cave so many times. She could do it again. And, besides, Mexico was now in sight.

Monarch Ultra runners were joined by a local running team in Mexico. (Courtesy of Rodney Fuentes)

On Day 34, the Monarch Ultra crossed into Mexico. Williams’s route snaked through the states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, and Michoacán, finally dipping into the State of Mexico. It traced highways and overpasses and cobbled roads, and gifted a few lucky runners with trails in Chipinque National Park and along the Sierra Madres’ rippling ridges. In Mexico, they ran past extraterrestrial wildflowers, cacti, yucca trees, and more monarchs. October brought dry, radiating heat and filmy skies. When the asphalt grew too hot, they stepped off the road and ran in the dirt, water bottles strapped to their chests and waists.

In contrast to the solitary miles of middle America, running through Mexico was communal. Monarch Ultra runners were joined at various points by other ultra runners, cyclists, even a baseball team. In Queretaro, students from a local university joined Williams on a 50-kilometer segment. In Michoacán, a runner named Bricio ran alongside an ambulance, police cars, and a crew of onlookers waving ribbons. An entourage of local officials—police officers, highway patrol, paramedics—often escorted them in and out of towns. “Every level of government supported us, from the federal to the state to the municipal,” James said. Officials planned aid station stops, set up barricades and escorts, and generally took the logistical burden off Williams’s shoulders. 

When he couldn’t find his typical aid station snacks, Williams served the runners tamales and Pepsi. James, sick of energy gels at this point, developed a taste for the shredded coconut bars sold in local shops. They came in various florid colors, occasionally patterned after the Mexican flag, and were hurt-your-teeth sweet; the perfect jolt of caloric energy for a long run. 

In Mexico, they were euphoric. Even on the hottest days, there seemed to be nothing that a little water and a coconut bar couldn’t fix. “It was so hard running in the States,” James said. “Some days it was just, ‘Okay, keep going, we’re on a mission.’ And then in Mexico, it was like we were all on this drug of happiness from the moment we crossed the border.”

One evening, near the end, the Monarch Ultra passed through Apaseo el Alto in Guanajuato. James ran the final kilometers into town and the team checked into a hotel. After a quick change, their hosts drove them to the town square. It was November 1; Día de los Muertos was in full swing. Thousands of people packed the plaza wearing La Catrina makeup, their faces painted as intricate skulls. 

The team was escorted to the front of a parade. As the band struck up, the runners led the celebration through town. Onlookers shot fireworks into the darkening sky and lifted star-shaped lanterns overhead. In the crowd people wore monarch wings, welcoming the souls of their loved ones home.

Monarch Ultra runners greeted in a Mexican town. (Courtesy of Rodney Fuentes)

Even monarchs that complete the journey from Canada to Mexico face death within the Cerro Pelón sanctuary. They can only fly at temperatures above 55 degrees Fahrenheit and become immobile in cooler temperatures. While they wait to warm up, they make easy prey for orioles or rats, which feast on the butterflies’ heads and abdomens. Males give body fat to females while mating and can die of starvation if they don’t reach nectar in time while females occasionally expire from over-mating.

In the sanctuary, shards of wings litter the forest trails. During butterfly season, forest guides lead tours up those mountain paths, ushering visitors into clearings where clusters of live monarchs roost thickly on cedar, pine, oak, and oyamel trees. From afar, they look like dead leaves. These butterflies that pass the winter in Mexico are not the brilliant orange that James saw in Peterborough— their scales, arranged on their wings like shingles on a roof, fall off over the course of the migration as they age. Yet up close they form a shimmering mass of orange and brown, rippling in the sunlight. 

In the forest clearings, visitors move slowly across a carpet of pine needles, eyes on the clumps of butterflies roosting together. Occasionally these clusters break open like cracking eggs in a breach that butterfly guides call explosiones. When the clusters burst, monarchs fill the jigsaw pieces of sky visible through the forest canopy, their wings making tiny shadows that race over the ground and the upturned faces of visitors. Their flight sounds like snow falling, wings beating an almost-inaudible pattering in their air. They look like snowflakes, too: lifting, floating, swirling, sifting. 

When their season of rest is over and it’s time to fly north, the monarchs will leave together. Over the course of a few days, they will pour down the mountain, flowing through the ravines of Cerro Pelón in a river of wings. Soon after that, they will die. The next generation will pick up where they left off in their relay home.

After a day in the sanctuary, guests gather back at J&M Butterfly B&B for dinner. 

“What was it like being in the sanctuary for the first time?” a first-time visitor asks a returning guest.

“Oh, it was incredible,” she replies. “I cried.”

One guest in her twenties wears a monarch wing (sourced ethically, she explains) encased in glass around her neck. She sells these necklaces on Etsy. After learning about Butterflies and Their People, she began donating a portion of her proceeds to the nonprofit. She grew up in the Midwest along the migration route and now raises monarchs in her apartment, watching them transfigure from egg to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly. When they hatch, she waits a few hours for the newly-winged butterflies to dry, then releases them into the sky. 

A guest asks her if it was hard to let them go. “It’s getting easier,” she says. 

In “A Sand County Almanac,” the naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote, “We can be ethical only in relation to something that we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” This is what James hoped for— that if people ran with the monarchs, they would begin to act differently toward them. That by seeing and understanding the butterflies as fellow creatures capable of remarkable feats of endurance, they would become advocates for their continued existence.

A week after the monarchs left Cerro Pelón to begin their return journey north, the Center for Biological Diversity issued a press release announcing that year’s tally of eastern monarchs. The population, it reported, plunged by more than 50 percent from the previous year’s count, putting the monarchs “well below the threshold at which government scientists predict the migration could collapse.” It’s possible that these numbers are off; as Sharp pointed out, only one organization is authorized to gather data on the monarchs in Mexico, and citizen science is prohibited. 

“The health of the monarch migration could be better—or worse—than we think,” she wrote following the report.

There are many connections between the monarchs and the runners, some more on the nose than others. The runners like to talk about transformation: the way they enter a 50- or 100-kilometer run and emerge different on the other side, à la caterpillar to butterfly. 

But a more obvious connection, perhaps, is how futile it all seems: a small group of conservationist runners trying to alert the world to a species’ near extinction. One individual up against thousands of miles, running, or flying, alone.

In the end, the inaugural Monarch Ultra received less press and attention than the team had hoped. The team struggled to recruit enough runners. Whether it was due to inadequate publicity or a lack of interest, James wasn’t sure. When segments remained unclaimed, Williams or James filled the gaps. All told, the two ran 400 and 500 kilometers of the route respectively, moving alone across plains and deserts and overpasses with only the occasional flicker of orange wings overhead. But some things have changed. People living along the migration route planted milkweed to sustain the monarchs. Butterflies and Their People recently hired their sixth forest guardian, a step that helps protect the butterflies’ wintering sanctuary and employs another Macheros resident. 

You might call these shifts a single scream into the storm. Or you might see them as the only way the monarchs will survive, as humans become more ethical toward something we can see, feel, understand, and love.

In Arkansas, a runner named Micah finished her relay segment beneath a sky streaked with coral. “I think this is what I’m born to do,” she told her onlookers, a little winded, a little ecstatic. “I kept trying to find something bigger, or thought there was something more, but I think this is it—it’s running with the butterflies.” 

(Courtesy of Rodney Fuentes)

On November 4, 2019, seven people ran up the mountain to Macheros: Williams and James from Canada, a couple from the United States, and three local runners from Mexico, all of them carrying their countries’ flags. They entered Macheros, passing through an archway freshly painted with a mural of monarchs, and climbed the base of Cerro Pelón. 

There, after more than 4,000 kilometers, they stopped. And they partied. 

Moreno and Sharp had mobilized the community for a welcome reception, with dances by local students and a female-fronted mariachi band. Flowers left over from Día de los Muertos adorned tables. At Sharp’s urging, people arrived with their own plates and utensils to reduce waste, so that at one point she saw the director of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve drinking horchata from a coffee cup. 

“I remember so many people coming up to me and hugging me and we all had tears in our eyes, but I think I was just in a state of shock,” James said. Williams was similarly lost for words when I asked how it felt to arrive in Macheros. “It was a little overwhelming,” he said. “It’s hard to describe.”

Several thousand feet above the party, on the highest trees of Cerro Pelón, the first monarchs were settling into their overwintering sites. 

James had to get home to her family, and so the day after the party she took a bus to Mexico City. Looking out the window, she saw a sea of monarchs flowing toward Cerro Pelón. It turns out the runners arrived one day before most of the butterflies. 

“We beat the monarchs,” she said. “That gave me such such a sense of joy: they were going home. And I was also going home.”

But these super monarchs weren’t going home, not really. They were going to die. 

In a handful of months, their great-grandchildren would arrive at the northernmost range of milkweed where this journey began. In September, a new super generation would emerge from their chrysalises and begin the same endurance event south. The cycle will start again, and will continue as long as we let it.

Edited by Peter Bailey-Wells, designed by Anagha Srikanth, funded by Sunday Long Read members.

Annelise Jolley is a journalist and essayist who covers food, ecology, travel, and the terrain between. Her work appears or is forthcoming in National Geographic, Hidden Compass, Civil Eats, The Millions, Life & Thyme, and has been noted in The Best American Travel Writing 2019.

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