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On the afternoon of April 3, 2017, practically the entire trail running world watched as Gary Robbins sprinted his way to a DNF at the Barkley Marathons, having become disoriented in the final miles of the race and accidentally taking a wrong trail back to camp.
Even the race’s founder, Lazarus Lake, was shocked. “The race always seems to produce a lot of drama,” he says. “But that’s as close as anyone’s gotten. There’s been people who made it to the fifth loop and didn’t finish … but no one who’s gotten two miles from the finish.”
In a sport now dominated by young track and road converts, Robbins is somewhat of an anomaly. The 40-year-old Canadian grew up playing hockey, and was in his late 20s (30 pounds heavier and quite a partier, he says) when he discovered adventure racing. After a few years, adventure racing gave way to trail ultrarunning.
He was 31 when he won his first ultra, and has been at the top of the sport ever since, with top-10 finishes at the Western States 100 and HURT 100 to his name, as well as FKTs on the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, and Canada’s West Coast Trail and East Coast Trail.
“Barkley is very well known in the adventure racing world,” says Robbins. “So I had heard about it within my first few years in the sport, as early as 2006. I’ve wanted to do it ever since.”
His path to Frozen Head, though, has been riddled with false starts and near misses. Just months before sending in his application in 2010, he broke his foot, and wound up on crutches for the better part of 2011. Last year, at his first attempt, he finished the first four loops before timing out in the final loop.
This year—with 130,000 feet of vert under his belt in the final four weeks of his last training block—he returned to Frozen Head State Park with “every expectation” that he would finish.
The race went smoothly, with the exception of a few key navigational missteps. “Gary looked strong, determined and focused throughout the race,” says Robbins’ wife, Linda, who was there crewing for him. “Before loop five, he broke down, but … it was more of a cry knowing that he was achieving this massive goal, rather than one of fatigue and pain. I never doubted his ability to finish. I still don’t doubt it.”
Says Robbins, “When I got [the last book], I thought, ‘Oh, my god, I’ve got it, I can get to the gate with five minutes to spare’… I would be the slowest Barkley finisher ever.” He took the page, turned around and watched the fog envelop the mountain.
From that spot, Robbins was supposed to bushwhack a few hundred feet, hit the apex of a u-shaped trail and head left. Instead, he drifted a few degrees too far west and hit the trail from an unexpected angle. Disoriented, he wound up heading right.
“After about eight minutes, I came to a staircase, which doesn’t exist on the Barkley course,” he says. “At that point, my brain was just hardwired to think ‘get to the gate in under 60 hours,’ so I decided to bushwhack down the mountain instead of backtracking.”
He ultimately arrived—and promptly collapsed—at the park’s yellow gate from the wrong direction, six seconds after cutoff, a DNF in no uncertain terms.
“There is lot of emotional baggage with coming so close to finishing the Barkley,” he says, nearly two weeks after the race. “I feel immense pride at what I accomplished and, at the same time, massive disappointment. The pendulum is starting to swing closer to the latter, but it’s still in flux.”
Says Linda, “I know Gary’s story with Barkley does not end this way. I am excited to be there when he finds his finish.”
Indeed, Robbins says he does plan to return, though he’s not yet certain if he will do so immediately. “It’ll be a few months before I can feel my toes again,” he says of the nerve damage he suffered in his feet at this year’s race. “Last year [the nerve damage] lasted 10 weeks. So I’ve been saying that when I can feel my toes, I’ll know if I want to run Barkley again next year.”
For more photos from this year’s Barkley, check out this gallery by Howie Stern.
In Gary’s Words
On starting the race in the dark
Because of the early start time, we were running in the dark for longer than last year. That changes the dynamics. There was heavy fog for the first four books. The fog was so thick it looked more like a prison break than a race, with people all over the woods looking for books, just panicking.
On getting lost at book four, loop five
I couldn’t stop moving, because I was so cold that if I stopped I started to get hypothermic. I couldn’t just sit and look at my map and compass—I had to look at them while waking in circles at a brisk pace.
On that fateful wrong turn
If I could do it again, I would have backtracked to the right trail. If I had turned around and come down the right trail, we’d be having a conversation about how Gary Robbins finished the whole Barkley course but came in three or four minutes over the time limit. That would have been the headline. Not that Gary Robbins took a wrong turn and came at the gate six seconds over the limit from the wrong direction.
On the final moments of Barkley
In the video, which I’ve watched, there are people applauding me, but in that moment, I didn’t hear those people applauding. I think it was a combination of the fact that I had buried myself so deeply that the outside world wasn’t registering, and the fact that I knew those applause were misplaced.
On reaching the yellow gate
I knew that the immense disappointment was going to come, but in that moment I just felt the awkwardness of everyone else’s disappointment. At that point, I realized I needed to say something, to thank Laz, to make light of the situation, to stand tall and then deal with the emotional aftermath later.
On John Kelly’s finish
It’s funny, when I came in, I didn’t know that John had finished. Nobody told me.
When we had headed out on loop five, John was a mess. He was so tired. Then, out on course, the page numbers I thought were his had not been removed.
I didn’t learn that John had finished until hours later [after the scene at the gate]. After coming in, I had gone and taken a two-hour nap. Jamil [Coury] came to wake me up to say goodbye, and told me that John had finished.
I got up immediately and went and congratulated him.