For the truly competitive athlete, every loss or DNF is a tough one. But there have likely been very few losses tougher than Canadian ultra-runner Gary Robbins’ result 2017 Barkley Marathons. After nearly 60 hours of racing, a missed turn in the last moments took him off the course as he approached the finish. He crossed the finish line from the wrong direction, a few seconds after the 60-hour time limit. It was unequivocally a DNF – and probably the most heartbreaking DNF in the history of DNFs.
It’s the kind of result that has a less willful runner saying ‘never again’. Gary Robbins, of course, is not the kind of runner, and after a quick recovery – he ran the Nolan’s Fourteens just a few months later – he was back on the Barkley horse.
After last year’s dramatic non-finish, Gary hit his saturation point talking about the race – no, really, he even told us so – so we figured we’d better focus on this year’s race. Read on to find out how his training and preparation is going.
Third time training for the Barkley Marathon: What’s different?
Through the first two years, I was definitely on the starting line with the physical and mental capabilities to finish the race. My training has been successful. I don’t believe that there was anything in my training for the first few years that I had to alter.
But I did find that by focusing on this specific race for so long, that had me moving through difficult terrain at 2 miles per hour, I got really efficient at moving 2 miles per hour – so I haven’t done much run training for the last few years. So, when I got back into my training in November my focus was on more run training. I got back into more 100-mile distance weeks, rather than vertical-based weeks for a couple of months in the winter. It helped to increase my fitness level. Last month the focus has shifted to 100% vertical training. Initially 20,000ft of climbing, then 30,000ft, and last week 40,000ft of climbing.
So I did change my training a bit initially to gain some fitness that I felt I was lacking. But the actual training block leading into the last Barkley worked so well that I’m actually looking at replicating that again.
Ready to go from dawn till dusk – and much much longer. (©Ian Corless, iancorless.com)
Last year the race kicked your ass. How do you plan to deal with it on the course?
The race kicked my ass both years.
Last year, getting through the full 60 hours and the full five laps of the course was infinitely harder than even doing four laps. John Kelly even mentioned that there’s such a steep curve of fatigue and difficulty and pain threshold that it’s unfathomable how much more difficult doing the additional lap could be. I came out of that even more physically and mentally beat up. But – I recovered from the ass kicking very well in 2017. Well enough that only a few months later I went to Colorado and finished the Nolan 14’s, which is 14 consecutive 14,000 ft peaks in under 60 hours.
That was the big difference in 2017 – that I recovered well after the race. In 2016 I really struggled for 6 to 8 months afterwards because I had done so much before the 2016 race. For the better part of 10 months, I have been healthy fit, been a runner, and feeling good about things which set me up to be able to withstand that ass-kicking this time.
Any non-traditional training?
Nothing non-traditional. Definitely kept focusing on orienteering and cross-training with strength training, things that I feel that are big components for success at the race. There is a large element of core and upper body strength that comes into play with a race like this – and moving smarter allows you to move a little bit slower because every mistake that you make means you need to move faster to make up for it. So, the better you can be with navigation, the more luxury you can give yourself with time on course.
Do you feel like you’re in better physical shape?
I could be in the best shape that I’ve been in going into any of the Barkley’s. I had a couple of setbacks in training – getting sick, and we lost our dog which we had for 12 years so that set me back emotionally for a little bit. But outside of those setbacks, I feel like this is one of the best training blocks that I’ve had in many, many years. My fitness is reflecting that. If things continue to go well I could show up at the Barkley in the best shape I have been in.
How about mental fitness – how do you train for a rest like this mentally?
Every long-distance race gets to a point where the race is completely impossible if you’re not all in mentally.
For the Barkley it’s true, but it’s true much earlier. It’s impossible to complete even a single lap without it becoming mentally draining. I’ve proven to myself in the first two attempts that I have the mental wherewithal to push through. That gives me a level of comfort, beyond year one fear of the unknown and year two fear of what I did know, I feel like this year three I have a lot less worry at how that’s going to play out. I’m almost looking forward to the mental challenge because it is so unique for this race.
In training I try to replicate that challenge – I don’t train with a partner because you need to become self-sufficient and to learn how to motivate and rally yourself in the low times.
Who else has a strong chance of winning or finishing?
That’s an interesting question because they don’t release a starters list. So you don’t know who is in the race unless that person publicly proclaims that they are. There is a waitlist that they pull from and you do get to see the people that they select from the waitlist. In terms of the first 40 people selected, I only know about 4-5 people who may be doing the race. I know a few people who have had to pull out of the race for one reason or another.
The other thing to keep in mind is that it’s not within the rules to speak about someone else’s Barkley aspirations unless they have made it quite public.
So what I can say is that the race initially had a very high level of runner, and potentially the highest level of female runners they have ever seen with many recognized and hugely accomplished runners. The hope was that we were going to see a female fun runner (3 laps), a female onto the 4th lap or even finish all 5 laps this year. But a few have had to pull out for one reason or another.
There is one name that I can say because everyone knows that he is in the race because he qualified by winning one of race organizer Lance’s other races. That’s French runner Guillaume Calmettes. He is a good friend that I’ve known for many years. He’s a staunch competitor and a wonderful person who I’m looking forward to potentially spending some time with during the race. He’s never been to Frozen Head before (the location of Barkley Marathons) so he is a complete virgin.
Will this be Gary's final Barkley?
Your fans are asking and I’m sure your family as well, if you win is it the last one - or will you keep coming back?
The joke I made when during the “Where Dreams Go To Die” movie tour was that I hope you can tell that I love my wife and I want to stay married to her. So this is one and done.
Truly, I have a lot of other goals that I’d like to pursue that have been taking a back seat to completing the Barkley. Not only has this taken longer than anticipated, it’s taken more out of me. I don’t have a desire to be a multi-time finisher of the Barkley. I want to be a finisher above all else and when that does happen I would be very happy to return to the park, hang out in the campground and mock those who head out on to the course for the weekend.
We know that you use Suunto watches for training but can’t use a gps watch during the race. Anything change in your 2018 gear or kit?
Over the first two years, I’ve run in the Salomon Sense Pro, because that shoe was the best fit for me. I had some issues with traction, but my feet held out because it was the best fit for my foot. I really wanted a more aggressive tread on a shoe for this race. Along came the Sense Ride in Fall 2017, and I put it on my foot and it’s my dream shoe for trail running. It fits perfectly and the lug on it is so nice. So one of the few changes I’m making this year is going with the Sense Ride footwear from Salomon.
The only other change to really report is that through the first two years I only used music in the last lap when I knew I would run alone. But I love music and enjoy listening to music when I’m running, doing difficult things or lacking motivation. Over the last few months, I have been building out my music systems with different MP3 players and Bluetooth headphones. I intend to use music much more readily throughout the race to assist in keeping my mind in a positive state. I haven’t done that before and I’m curious to see the benefits.
Music assists Gary in keeping his mind in a positive state.
Sweet – so what's on your playlist for getting through Barkley 2018?
Old school Beastie Boys is right up there near that top of my list. Certainly some Tragically Hip. There will be some Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave mixed in there. I like a good 90s playlist – when George Michael “Freedom” comes on, for some reason, my step kicks up a notch. Probably some Beck.
‘Where Dreams Go To Die’ has been all over the ultra-running community. How has re-living one of your toughest life challenges been?
The film itself, though, I only watched for the first time two days before the first showing. I didn’t realize how deeply seeded the scaring actually was. I believed before going on tour that I would watch it two or three times and rationalize it and be fine. But that wasn’t the case. I never got the point where I was able to watch it without becoming upset.
In hindsight, looking back at that film tour, that was such an incredibly unique and special experience that I’m so thankful for. It was a huge commitment, tens of thousands of dollars, and we took a real calculated risk in the belief that it would work. And it did. The experience itself was exceptional and I would do it ten times out of ten.
The further we got into the showings, we were more and more sleep deprived, which leaves you more emotionally raw. There were some really rough nights, where I was doing everything in my power not to become upset again for the seventh time. It was unexpected. It provided valuable insight into what my family went through in camp while I was on the course. That more than anything gave me more fuel to know that we are all in as a family. They are so invested in every moment of that race with me. It’s not just me out there. It’s me, my wife and my child that are trying to get this done.
Stay tuned for a follow-up report after Gary’s third (and hopefully final!) Barkley Marathons. In the meantime you can watch Where Dreams Go To Die here.
Main image © Ian Corless, iancorless.com