Out for a run one day, conservation-minded landscaper Carlotta James of Peterborough, Ontario, had an idea – one that brought her to Fort Wayne on Tuesday.
She started thinking about monarch butterflies. She marveled at how they fluttered their showy orange-and-black wings for more than 2,600 miles from her hometown at the northern end of their range to overwinter in central Mexico.
It was an unimaginable feat of nature, the 39-year-old said Tuesday. She knew the migration happened every year but “wanted to understand it in a visceral way.”
That's how James came up with the idea of organizing an event in which humans would run the approximate route of the butterflies as a way of raising awareness of their important, and increasingly tenuous, role in the environment.
After she partnered with Clay Williams, another runner who lives near Peterborough and had organized long-distance running events for charity, the Monarch Ultra was born.
Next fall, the Ultra's route will send runners through Fort Wayne, which is included as part of the route the butterflies traverse, according to a mapping expert working on the project.
James and Williams now aim to enlist local runners to cover 50- or 100-kilometer legs of the route through Indiana, either individually or as relay teams. The distances represent either about 25 or 62 miles.
Ultra runs are distance runs that typically go well beyond the standard long-distance marathon of 26.1 miles. Ultras typically start at a little over 31 miles but can include 50- or 100-mile distances or time periods of several hours or days.
The event the Canadians are planning is believed to be the first to link butterflies with ultra running. The run will also be filmed for a documentary by Rodney Fuentes, a cinematographer and director who also lives in Peterborough and wants to have the film distributed on Canadian and/or American television.
When Betsy Yankowiak, director of preserves and programs for the nonprofit Little River Wetlands Project that protects Eagle Marsh, heard about the project, her first thought was to get on board.
Little River and the marsh have hosted monarch festivals in the past, tagging the butterflies for scientific study and planting milkweed, monarch caterpillars' favorite food, at the marsh to encourage the species.
“When we told them 1,000 people come (to the festival) every year, they were like 'wha-a-a-t?'” Yankowiak said. “The visit today was kind of an opportunity for us and our organization to represent Fort Wayne as a community ... that supports monarch conservation.
“It was, first of all, letting them know there are people here who care and will want to help.”
Among those already indicating interest in helping with the project are the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Fort Wayne Trails, Yankowiak said.
James said a successful online fundraising campaign has paid for the first phase of the project, so organizers now are not seeking money. However, in addition to runners, organizers are also seeking volunteers for other roles, she said.
Contact information can be found through the Kickstarter campaign – kck.st/2RY2Ky9.
With current political tensions among the three nations united by monarch migration – Canada, the United States and Mexico – James said she wanted to create something positive that would connect people with each other and nature.
Many people don't realize that although it takes many generations of monarchs to migrate north in the spring, each butterfly travels south all the way from Canada to the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico in the fall to restart the cycle, she said.
“I always have such clarity when I run,” said James, who designs and plants gardens designed to attract pollinators including butterflies and bees as part of her business.
“One day, monarchs were around me, and I got the idea of running the migratory path – it was a natural connection,” she said. “But I really want to create a whole movement of people (who understand monarch butterflies) and their story – and who want to share it with the world.”