TO BIG HELL – AND BACK
Only 15 runners have finished the notorious Barkley Marathons in the wilds of Tennessee. Canadian ultramarathoner Gary Robbins came six seconds short.
Brendan McAleer reports on a rising mania for extreme endurance, and Robbins's quest to pick up where he left off
Gary Robbins is playing hockey on the patio with his 20-month old son, Reed, while the family dog, Roxy, eyes one of the tasty-looking orange balls. The only clues that the bearded father is one of Canada's most decorated ultrarunners are his bruised, blackened feet.
Over the past dozen or so years, those feet have racked up some 32,000 kilometres, between training and competing in ultramarathons, events of up to 160 kilometres or more, often completed in a sleep-deprived state. That's a year's worth of mileage for a car, plus a return trip from Newfoundland to British Columbia – and Robbins has logged every one of those kilometres off-road, up hills, through mud, over rocks and roots.
The purple toenails are a souvenir from the Barkley Marathons, a race made famous by a 2015 Netflix documentary, and described by Outside magazine as "60 hours of Hell." A 160-kilometre slog through the rugged Tennessee bush (the actual distance is rumoured to be closer to 210 kilometres), it is as nearly impossible to enter as it is to finish, with a secret entry process that sees just 40 participants chosen from as many as 1,000 applicants. The attrition rate is nearly 100 per cent: In 30 years, only 15 people have managed to finish before the 60-hour cutoff.
Robbins's 2017 attempt in March included 67,000 feet of climbing, more than double the 29,035-foot elevation of Mt. Everest. After making a wrong turn in the fog after 59 hours, Robbins took a compass bearing, made a best guess, and headed into the bush. He bushwhacked through the forest, swam a rain-swollen river, and sprinted to the finish, arriving just six seconds after the cutoff. The close finish was irrelevant, as he'd veered off course with just three kilometres to go, but the story went viral. In the aftermath, Robbins has weathered a barrage of media attention.
"If you're going to script a story that gets the most uptake from people," he says, "this would be it. If you were going to script a story you have to live through, this would not be it."
Canadian Running editor Michael Doyle witnessed Robbins's dramatic near-finish. "He showed a great deal of class and grace in handling it – I think a tougher defeat than any of us can imagine. And to go and direct a 50K and 100K race the next weekend, to be a leader, to be a friend, to be responsible. It's just incredible."
Less than a week after returning from Tennessee, Robbins was back at his day job: growing the sport of trail-running. He and and his wife, Linda Barton-Robbins, were out on the trails in rain slickers, managing the Diez Vista ultramarathon through some of the wettest weather the event has experienced.
The sport's growth, on the West Coast and elsewhere, has only recently made it possible for Robbins to step into a full-time role as a coach and race organizer. He and a partner founded the Coast Mountain Trail Series in 2013 but, as recently as 2012, Robbins says, "I was working at a sushi restaurant to pay bills." It took several years for the series to become sustainable, but it is now an established success, providing not just challenges to the ultrarunner crowd, but an entry point for those interested in taking their first strides into the forest.
At 40, Robbins directs 10 running events and coaches 20 athletes in-person, and by phone, from as far away as Australia. He's an immediately recognizable figure on the trail: at a wiry 155 pounds and 5 foot 9, with an enormous bushy red beard, he looks like someone put one of Tolkien's dwarfs into Willy Wonka's taffy puller. His beard even has its own Twitter account.
"The Squamish 50 [Robbins's largest event] has become one of the most highly regarded races in the world," Doyle says. "It's become a destination race internationally, and sells out really quickly. I think it's because Gary, as a race director, puts so much into it, maybe even more than he gets out."
"He's always present," says Ean Jackson, a Vancouver trail-runner since the early 1990s. "He puts lots of himself into these events, there with his family. Everybody knows Gary."
Born in Mt. Pearl, Nfld., Robbins left his hometown at 19 for the open spaces of Banff. There, he worked as a doorman and lived as a dissolute youth, partying until the wee hours on a regular basis.
When he saw Eco-Challenge, a televised expedition-racing series that would become the genesis for Survivor, Robbins was inspired to make a change. He bought a one-way ticket to South America, planning to train as a dive instructor. But a dangerous mishap on an 80-foot dive beached him, with medical advice not to dive again or risk losing his hearing. In 2004, he moved to Whistler, B.C., to pursue adventure racing. There, he was introduced to long-distance running.
"I knew so little … I didn't know there was such a thing as a trail-running shoe," he says. "I bought a low-cut hiking boot, and that's what I ran in that day. I didn't know it at the time, but the first eight people I met in the B.C. running community were Ean Jackson, and Dom Repta … some of the most accomplished runners in Western Canada."
Trail-runners being trail-runners, the first way the community helped Gary was by lying to him. Telling him they'd be running about 15 kilometres, the group conned Robbins and a friend into doubling his furthest-ever mileage.
"They did lie to us that day, and trick us into doing more than we anticipated and wanted to do – which was great, because they showed us right away they understood breaking down that mental barrier with people."
Jackson laughs at the memory. "Oh, they saw God that day. But Gary took all that in stride."
Robbins completed his first team adventure race in 2006, at Primal Quest in Utah, sleeping just 24 hours over a nine-day period. Discovering that the running segment was his best fit, he turned to the discipline of ultrarunning, and in 2008, entered his first 100-mile race in Squamish, B.C. He won, and set a course record.
The next year, riding a wave of confidence, he entered the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in Squaw Valley, Calif. "You feel invincible up until a point," he says. "I didn't fuel properly, I ran too fast off the start, I made it to 80 miles at the river, and my legs seized up." He gutted it out, walking to the finish line over the next six hours.
In 2011, coming off the previous year's course record win at the internationally acclaimed HURT 100-Mile Trail Run in Hawaii, and holding fastest known times on both the West Coast Trail in British Columbia and the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland, Robbins broke his foot – twice, within three months.
After being evacuated by helicopter from a Hawaiian ridge, Robbins stared down the possibility of never racing again. Then, in 2012, after a long convalescence, he returned to HURT to become the first person to break the 20-hour mark, smashing his previous record by 37 minutes.
His training schedule is intense. In the previous run-up to the Barkley, he spent so much time running the North Shore mountain trails from pre-dawn to dusk that residents assumed his truck had been stolen and abandoned at the trail-head. Local police called Robbins to check in.
Gary's marriage to Linda goes beyond mere support: it is a partnership. She's an experienced ultrarunner in her own right, and the pair split their training schedules based around the demands of family life and the work of organizing the summer racing series.
"I couldn't imagine how difficult this would be for someone who doesn't have a partner that either is doing the same thing and fully understands that, or has their own passion that you can support them in."
Gary trains in winter for spring and summer while Linda trains through the summer for fall events such as this year's IMTUF 100 in the Salmon River Mountains of Idaho. She speaks eloquently of the growth of the sport.
"It was so small, everybody knew everybody," she says. "It became this really close-knit family. And now it's getting to the point where it feels less homelike, and more like a race."
Gary nods his agreement. "One of the things I'm aware of with [organizing] the running series is how to do my utmost to create that energy, that community. Beyond the running experience, how do we get [participants] to meet new people, to connect, and to feel like it's more than the run itself?"
Even as he plots the series calendar for 2017, Robbins is already looking to new adventures. In July, he'll attempt the Nolan's 14, a self-organized multisummit 100-miler, racing in partnership with three-time Barkley finisher Jared Campbell.
Eventually, Robbins says, there will be a reckoning in Tennessee: "I'm 100 per cent committed to going back in either 2018 or 2019. I like to joke that when I can feel my toes again, we'll be able to make that decision."