Barkley Mad

Canadian Running - - FEATURES - By Sharon Crowther

Gary Robbins is re­turn­ing to the Barkley Marathons in April in his sec­ond at­tempt to be­come the first Cana­dian fin­isher of the race. Over 100 miles and 20,000 me­tres of el­e­va­tion, he knows he’ll be facing some of Ten­nessee’s harsh­est back­coun­try ter­rain, sleep de­prived and ex­hausted, with only his hal­lu­ci­na­tions for com­pany. The Barkley Marathons has re­de­fined what it means to suf­fer in ul­tra run­ning. Is this man crazy? You de­cide.

Gary Robbins is re­turn­ing to the Barkley Marathons this April in his sec­ond at­tempt to be­come the first Cana­dian fin­isher of the race which has re­de­fined what it means to suf­fer in ul­tra run­ning.

Over 160 kilo­me­tres and 20,000 m of el­e­va­tion, he knowns he’ll be facing some of Ten­nessee’s harsh­est back­coun­try ter­rain, sleep de­prived and ex­hausted, with only his hal­lu­ci­na­tions for com­pany.


Fools Rush In

At 10:42 a.m. on April 2, 2016, Gary Robbins st ands at a yel­low gate i n Frozen Head Na­tional Park, Tenn., with 40 other run­ners. The gate serves as the makeshift start line of what Robbins calls “the big­gest, bad­dest race out there.”

This is the Barkley Marathons: a five-lap, 100-mile ul­tra with a 60-hour time limit and a nearzero per cent fin­ish rate. The idea for this in­san­ity was con­cocted back in 1986 af­ter James Earl Ray (Martin Luther King Jr.’s as­sas­sin) es­caped from the nearby prison. He spent nearly 60 hours in the wilder­ness where Barkley takes place to­day, only cov­er­ing about 13 kilo­me­tres. The race’s ec­cen­tric founder, Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, jok­ingly mocked the ef­fort to run­ning bud­dies, sug­gest­ing he could have cov­ered at least 100 miles. Lake would name the race af­ter a run­ning com­pan­ion. Go­ing into the race, none of the run­ners ac­tu­ally know the “course,” a loose 20ish-mile loop on un­marked trails. Run­ners are es­sen­tially try­ing to fig­ure out their way in the for­est with a map and com­pass ( gps de­vices would take out all the fun so Lake has banned them). Past com­peti­tors swear the course is a few miles long (if you don’t get lost), and laps are run dur­ing the day, and also at night. Few run­ners have ever made it to the fifth lap. If they do, they are sent in re­verse. To prove that they’ve ac­tu­ally fin­ished each lap, com­peti­tors must lo­cate about 10 books and re­move a page cor­re­spond­ing with their race num­ber from each to bring back to Lake. Of course, run­ners get a new num­ber with each lap, so no one is tempted to cheat in the delir­ium that sets in af­ter run­ning for more than 2 4 hours. It’s one of the only races in the world where the or­ga­niz­ers don’t

ex­pect there to be a win­ner, be­cause in 36 years only 14 dif­fer­ent run­ners have ever even fin­ished.

It’s a race Robbins has had his sights set on for close to a decade, dur­ing which time he’s racked up an im­pres­sive ul­tra re­sume in­clud­ing hold­ing the record for the Hurt 100 in Hawaii (a gru­elling 100-miler that has a lower than 50 per cent fin­isher rate), a race he’s won three times now. He also has the fastest known time for the West Coast Trail on Van­cou­ver Is­land, near his home in North Van­cou­ver, and the Won­der­land Trail around Mount Rainier, Wash.

And he’s go­ing back to the moun­tains of Ten­nessee for noth­ing less than to fin­ish all five laps and be­come the first Cana­dian to con­quer the Barkley.

The early April race starts at an un­known time dur­ing a 12-hour win­dow be­tween 11 p.m. Fri­day and 11 a.m. Satur­day, when Lake cer­e­mo­ni­ally lights a cig­a­rette. In 2016, Robbins was rest­less af­ter the long trip from Van­cou­ver to ru­ral mid­dle Amer­ica. When run­ners were called out of their tents with the one-hour warn­ing be­fore the start, he’d only slept an hour and a half. Robbins nev­er­the­less im­me­di­ately stepped up to join a lead pack of seven run­ners; a mix of vir­gins (as Lake lov­ingly calls first-timers) and veter­ans, led by by Jared Camp­bell, one of only two peo­ple to ever fin­ish the race twice.

“It was pretty in­tense,” ad­mits Robbins, “be­cause ev­ery­one knows your best shot at a fin­ish is to run at least one lap with a vet­eran, but Jared’s pace was way higher than any­body ex­pected. This wasn’t any­where close to 100-mile race pace.” Despite the pres­sure to re­main with Camp­bell’s pack, Robbins de­scribes that first lap as eu­phoric. “It was ev­ery­thing I wanted it to be,” he laughs. “When we reached the first book and I was tear­ing out my page I just re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘ holy shit, I’m re­ally in this. I’m re­ally do­ing it.’”

By the start of lap two, Robbins was the only run­ner left who was will­ing or able to match Camp­bell’s stride and so the lead pack be­came a pair. Camp­bell had com­pleted the race in 2012 along­side vet­eran Brett Maune, the only other per­son to fin­ish the race twice. Camp­bell de­scribes him­self as “a stu­dent of the course,” and in 2014 his am­bi­tion was to com­plete it en­tirely un­der his own ca­pa­bil­ity, which he did. In 2016, Camp­bell felt it was his time to be­come a men­tor and give some­thing back to the course by help­ing some­one new to nav­i­gate it. “We made a good team,” Camp­bell says. “We were like a well-oiled ma­chine,” agrees Robbins, and, for about three and a half laps, it seemed noth­ing could stop them.

Un­til, that is, night fell for the sec­ond time and the Barkley be­gan play­ing mind games with the un­for­tu­nate few still vy­ing to fin­ish. It’s what the veter­ans call “sec­ond night syn­drome.”

Los­ing It

Forty-some­thing hours into the race and it got ugly. Robbins was waist-deep in ra­zor-sharp un­der­growth and half­way up Bird Moun­tain for the fourth time. It was the dead of night, pitch black and bit­ter cold. All he could see was the sea of spiny bush, his own breath and Camp­bell’s back in the dis­tance, il­lu­mi­nated in the beam of his head­lamp. So far, the pair had cov­ered more than 70 miles and 21,000 m of el­e­va­tion to­gether. More than 40 pages from 13 books were shoved into their packs. Over the course of these miles, they talked about their fam­i­lies, their wives, what they do when they’re not train­ing for races, where they va­ca­tion and what sports teams they sup­port. But Robbins had a prob­lem. “I sud­denly couldn’t

re­mem­ber who Jared was,” he says, “and that was my first warn­ing that I was start­ing to lose it.” This mem­ory glitch would be the small thread that would un­ravel the en­tire fabric of his san­ity over the next 15 hours.

“By the fifth lap I was hal­lu­ci­nat­ing pretty badly,” Robbins says. “I was see­ing num­bers on the trees and faces in the leaves on the ground. I saw my brother’s face on a rock at one point. Then I started hear­ing voices com­ing from the river. That was pretty dis­turb­ing.” By this point in the race, Robbins and Camp­bell had gone their sep­a­rate ways, as the rules of the Barkley dic­tate that for the fi­nal lap run­ners must al­ter­nate which di­rec­tion they run the course. Alone, sleep de­prived and rac­ing against the clock and his own men­tal de­te­ri­o­ra­tion, Robbins knew he would have to un­der­take an ex­tra­or­di­nary and heroic feat to make the fin­ish line. “Re­al­iz­ing that I was phys­i­cally strong but that I still might not be able to hold it to­gether long enough was some­thing I’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore,” he ad­mits. “It was very fright­en­ing.”

In the end, a ba­sic nav­i­ga­tion er­ror near Brushy Moun­tain State Prison, a piv­otal land­mark in the course, would cost him two-and-a-half hours and, ul­ti­mately, his race. In the en­su­ing hours, a crazed Robbins tried des­per­ately to cover ground fast enough to fin­ish within the time limit. Through a se­ries of “abra­sive face-first falls,” he be­came “con­sumed” by the un­for­giv­ing ter­rain. Fi­nally, at 5:30 p.m. on April 4, 55 hours af­ter the start of his race and 90 hours since he last slept, Robbins laid down in the dirt at the bot­tom of Rat Jaw Moun­tain, put his head on his back­pack and ac­cepted de­feat.

Back to Barkley

Six months af­ter his Barkley at­tempt, Robbins fi­nally be­gan to feel nor­mal again. It’s the long­est re­cov­ery he’s ever had from a race that he says “phys­i­cally and men­tally de­stroyed me.” Com­ing to terms with his fail­ure also meant com­ing to terms with the fact that he would have to re­turn to un­der­take the race all over again, a de­ci­sion he’d made

within 2 4 hours of his crush­ing de­feat at the bot­tom of Rat Jaw. “Barkley is just some­thing that I have to do,” he says. “Would I be com­ing back if I’d fin­ished the race in 2016? Nope, no way, never.”

While Robbins has kept much of his train­ing sched­ule for 2017 the same as 2016, he says his mo­ti­va­tions this year are very dif­fer­ent. “It’s been hard to repli­cate the fear fac­tor of the Barkley this time around,” he says. “Last year, it was such an un­know­able beast and my train­ing was largely driven by that. This year it’s not so much the race it­self that scares me as the prospect of fail­ing again. Know­ing I’ll have to keep try­ing un­til I make it is ter­ri­fy­ing,” he says, laugh­ing. “I feel like I should get a re­minder of that tat­tooed some­where so I don’t for­get that’s what I’m train­ing for: to fin­ish the race and not have to come back for a third time,” he adds.

Robbins’ train­ing for the Barkley be­gan in late Jan­uary when he started to “load the ver­ti­cal” by run­ning reps on nearby Grouse Moun­tain, a 2.9k climb with a leg-burn­ing el­e­va­tion gain of 853 m that’s aptly dubbed the Grouse Grind. It’s where he’ll be do­ing the ma­jor­ity of his train­ing. For many, one run up the Grind is a sea­sonal ac­com­plish­ment. Robbins will do it a few times in one work­out, and he’ll spend hours on the moun­tain in prepa­ra­tion for the Barkley. “It’s not the most ex­cit­ing way to train,” he ad­mits, “but Barkley is all about the el­e­va­tion. Those are the only stats that mat­ter. And in win­ter in North Van­cou­ver there’s very few trails with good height gain where the snow’s been packed down.”

His train­ing is sup­ple­mented by ski tour­ing and ski moun­taineer­ing, which he re­cently started com­pet­ing in with im­pres­sive suc­cess. (It’s hardly sur­pris­ing given that his back­ground is in ex­pe­di­tion ad­ven­ture rac­ing.) A ma­jor dif­fer­ence in his prepa­ra­tion for the 2017 Barkley is that he’s al­lowed him­self a ski sea­son. “I didn’t do the Hurt 100 this year and in­stead I’ve been cross-train­ing more, which I think will put me in a bet­ter place for this year’s race. I won’t be go­ing into it on the limit, I’ll be a lit­tle bet­ter rested.”

In ad­di­tion to his phys­i­cal prepa­ra­tion, Robbins has also joined the Greater Van­cou­ver Ori­en­teer­ing Club where he’s been brush­ing up on his nav­i­ga­tion skills. “Map and com­pass isn’t sec­ond na­ture to me,” he ad­mits. “It’s some­thing I needed to get bet­ter at so that, when I’m out there and I’m sleep de­prived and ex­hausted, I can still put a com­pass on a map and take a bearing.”

It’s a re­lent­less prepa­ra­tion sched­ule for an ath­lete who is also co-founder of B.C.’s in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar Coast Moun­tain Trail Se­ries and has a 17-month-old baby at home. But if Robbins lives by one mantra it’s “tomorrow is promised to no one.”

“I turned 40 at the end of last year and I’m in the best shape of my life, but I’ve also suf­fered a long-term in­jury in the past so I’m not go­ing to take any­thing for granted,” Robbins says. The in­jury he’s re­fer­ring to is a twice-bro­ken foot that pre­vented him from sign­ing up for the Barkley in 2010 to race in 2011. He spent a year on crutches and was told that he may never com­pete in moun­tain sports again. “I can’t waste any year that I am phys­i­cally healthy and able to train enough,” he says. “I know I have to take my chance to fin­ish the Barkley while I have it.”

Robbins is also well aware that the Barkley is a race that is get­ting harder. Each time some­one fin­ishes, more el­e­va­tion and dis­tance are added to the following year’s race. Jared Camp­bell, who hopes to sup­port Robbins’ ef­fort this year be­fore re­turn­ing to race again next year, has al­ready ex­trap­o­lated his own fin­ish times from 2012, 2014

and 2016 and con­cluded that, “if you look at the num­bers, I shouldn’t be able to com­plete this race within the cut-off time in 2018.” “That’s the scary thing,” says Robbins. “No other race in the world be­comes more unattain­able the more you fail to com­plete it.”

Barkley in the Blood

To bet­ter un­der­stand the al­lure of the Barkley, a race which seems to con­sume those un­for­tu­nate enough to se­cure a place with a fever­ish and sin­gle-minded ob­ses­sion, I reached out to Ari­zona’s Ed Furtaw the orig­i­nal Barkley fin­isher who is pre­par­ing for his 20th race at­tempt this year. “Barkley gets into your blood,” Furtaw says sim­ply. “It’s less a race and more like a fam­ily.” Furtaw, who Lazarus refers to as a Barkley Elder, is bet­ter known among the Barkley fam­ily as Frozen Ed, a nod to Frozen Head Na­tional Park and a nick­name he’s car­ried with him for nearly 30 years. At 69 years old, Furtaw’s at­tempt at this year’s race will be noth­ing short of ex­tra­or­di­nary, but he ad­mits he no longer races to com­pete. “It’s one of my favourite places in the world,” he says. “I love the land­scape and the wilder­ness there. Peo­ple de­scribe the Barkley as bru­tal and ter­ri­ble and it is, but it’s also very beau­ti­ful.” Dur­ing the race, Furtaw plans to scat­ter the ashes of his friend and fel­low Barkley Elder, Stu­art Gle­man, who passed away in Septem­ber 2016, a day af­ter run­ning 111 miles at A Race for the Ages, an­other race con­ceived by Lazarus Lake.

Last year he scat­tered the ashes of an­other Barkley Elder, Chip Tuthill, in the same spot that has be­come known as the Barkley Me­mo­rial Cairn.

“The good news is I’m still alive,” says Furtaw philo­soph­i­cally. “But the bad news is I’ve been run­ning this race so long that all my friends are pass­ing away.”

But Furtaw is op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of his beloved race and the con­tin­u­a­tion of the Barkley blood­line.

“Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Lazarus had 20, maybe 30 en­tries to the Barkley,” he says, “Now he gets over a thou­sand. The next gen­er­a­tion of Barkley run­ners, and I hope we’ll be count­ing Gary Robbins in that gen­er­a­tion this year, are in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant. With­out peo­ple like Gary and Jared who are crazy enough to take it on, there is no race.”

Race of Fools

An email lands in my in­box from Lazarus Lake. “You can reach me here.” is all it says. It ’s an ap­pro­pri­ately enig­matic f irst con­tact from the Barkley Marathons race di­rec­tor who is no­to­ri­ously hard to track down. We ex­change a few emails and agree to speak on the phone at mid­night in Lake’s

time zone. As he only sleeps for four hours a night, he as­sures me it’s no trou­ble. Per­haps this ex­plains why sleep was never fac­tored into the Barkley Marathons.

An ac­com­plished ul­tra­run­ner him­self in his younger years, Lake held the inau­gu­ral Barkley Marathons, a 50-mile race, in 1986. The 100-mile ver­sion of the race wouldn’t be held un­til 1995 but the pur­pose has al­ways been the same: “push­ing run­ners be­yond what they be­lieve to be phys­i­cally and men­tally pos­si­ble.”

Each year, on what Lake calls “Fools Week­end,” he watches his hand-picked field of hope­fuls set off while he waits by the yel­low gate, watch­ing his race un­fold and its run­ners un­ravel. From here, he has seen ev­ery tri­umphant fin­isher’s re­turn and ev­ery hum­bled quit­ter’s re­treat.

“It’s a pretty in­ter­est­ing place to stand,” he ad­mits in an easy Ten­nessee drawl. “You see these run­ners come through and they have all these ter­ri­ble things wrong with them and they’re try­ing to fix them­selves up enough to go back out there.”

“Quit­ters al­ways look the same,” he con­fides. “Just washed out phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally drained. Usu­ally their mind goes and that’s what causes them to mess up. That’s what hap­pened to Gary. If he could have thought clearly, he could have fixed his mis­take but he couldn’t.”

His mat­ter-of-fact ex­pla­na­tion of Robbins’ story is typ­i­cal of Lake’s way of telling the sto­ries which have de­fined the race over the years.

He is un­sym­pa­thetic to­wards fail­ure. Per­haps that’s to be ex­pected from a man who has wit­nessed so much of it over the past 30 years.

“I’ve seen peo­ple only man­age a cou­ple of miles, get com­pletely lost and then wind up right back in camp. They’re usu­ally re­lieved to be back too,” he says.

But when I ask about his favourite win­ners mo­ments, Lake’s mat­ter-of-fact tone changes to some­thing not un­like ad­mi­ra­tion.

“When some­one fin­ishes five laps, it’s in­cred­i­bly in­spir­ing,” he says. “The fact is that every­body that’s fin­ished this race has had to com­plete the fifth and fi­nal lap faster than the fourth one. Which means you have to be just a lit­tle bit su­per-hu­man.”

I ask Lake if he can re­veal any­thing about what Robbins and the rest of the field can ex­pect from this year’s race which, be­cause of Camp­bell’s fin­ish last year, will al­most cer­tainly be longer, higher and harder than be­fore.

“Well,” he drawls, “we’re not sure if we’ll add any more el­e­va­tion this year. We think that might be un­fair on the run­ners.” He pauses for dra­matic ef­fect and I sense there’s a “but” com­ing. “But we’ll def­i­nitely be adding some more down­hill and you can pass that in­for­ma­tion on to Gary. We think he’ll be pleased. We’re look­ing for­ward to hav­ing him back.”

OP­PO­SITE Race founder/di­rec­tor Gary“Lazarus Lake” Cantrell ac­cepts his first New­found­land li­cense plate as part of Robbins’ en­try fee

ABOVE Gary Robbins joined the Greater Van­cou­ver Ori­en­teer­ing Club to help hone his nav­i­gat­ing skills

LEFT Gary Robbins and Jared Camp­bell mid-marathon fill­ing up wa­ter in the Ten­nessee wilder­ness OP­PO­SITE Robbins and Barkley brother Jared Camp­bell head­ing out on a lap dur­ing the 2016 Barkley Marathons

OP­PO­SITE TOP All eyes are on Robbins as he re­ceives a fresh num­ber for his next lap ABOVE Robbins, Camp­bell climb the in­fa­mus Rat Jaw Hill try­ing to avoid draw­ing blood from all the saw­bri­ars OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM Robbins shov­els down calo­ries be­tween laps

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