Gary Robbins (Montrail) is full of enthusiasm and he’s brought it over to Europe for the 2012 The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. After a 2011 filled with injury and a mixed bag of results in 2012, he’s ready to return to the 100-mile distance. In the following interview, find out more about his injury issues, how his training has gone this year, and why he thinks Americans have had such difficulty running UTMB well.
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Gary Robbins Pre-2012 TNF UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell here of iRunFar with Gary Robbins prior to the 2012 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. Are you excited to be here?
Gary Robbins: Super stoked to be here—absolutely. There are few places in the world that I can get this excited about a race this difficult.
iRF: How difficult do you think it’s going to be?
Robbins: We all know it’s one of the most difficult races out here for numerous reasons, and again, for the third consecutive year, we get to have weather as a factor in the race. So, I think this is about as tough as it gets.
iRF: It’s kind of nice right now, but that’s not going to be the case come tomorrow evening.
Robbins: We have a 45-second window where it’s not hammering down rain on us right now.
iRF: You live in Vancouver, BC, so you’re used to cold and rainy.
Robbins: This is 8 months of my life right here, so I feel I have home field advantage even though I’m nowhere near home—home weather advantage.
iRF: Yeah, you could have some nice snow tomorrow evening.
Robbins: They’re calling for snow upon the passes, yeah, so I’m going to sneak some small skis in the kit or something.
iRF: How are you set gear-wise? I was just talking to Luke Nelson and he was scrambling to pick up extra layers and extra waterproof gear.
Robbins: It’s quite funny. I arrived a few weeks ago. I spent four days going around the mountain; I really wanted to know what I was getting into. In four days I saw one cloud, and it was 45C most days, so 90F. I was loving it and thinking in my head, “I don’t think this is what’s going to happen on race day.”
My now-fiancée and I have done so many runs this year where we have had atrocious weather—the worst weather runs I’ve had in my life—and every time it happened I said, “I think this might be foreshadowing.” When I left North Vancouver, I actually brought four waterproof jackets with me, five pairs of gloves, six hand-warmers. I absolutely packed for the worst case scenario, and it looks like that’s how it’s going to unfold. I left North Vancouver anticipating this, and that’s how it’s unfolding right now.
iRF: So you’re not fazed by this.
Robbins: I have major circulatory issues with my fingers and my hands, but I’ve learned how to address that over the years, and that’s the number one thing I need to stay on top of is just circulation so that I can continue to fuel myself. But outside of that small thing with my fingers, I don’t mind running in the rain and snow.
iRF: So you’re used to running in mud, what’s your favorite Montrail mud shoe?
Robbins: My favorite Montrail mud shoe? I’m a big fan of the Mountain Masochist. I’ve been in the Masochist since about 60 seconds after I tried it on when it first came out, so that’s my go-to shoe. I love running in that in all terrain.
iRF: You’ve had a rough couple of years—was it last year’s Western States?
Robbins: It was since Western States 2010. That was obviously in July, sorry, late June. Then in August of 2010, I ran a 215k trail successfully. Then in October 2010, things went south. I snapped my foot—Jones fracture—which if anyone knows, it’s a complex fracture. It’s not your standard six-week healing process. I was on crutches for three and a half months. I got off crutches and thought I was good to go. I had about 90 days of clearance. I broke it, the exact same fracture a second time, and had a helicopter rescue in Hawaii which was actually quite cool. I was back on crutches for another four and a half months and had a walking boot after that. So in 2011, for the most part, I was on crutches for eight and a half months. It was not fun. So I took a very strategic and slow build back at things…
iRF: When did you start working back from that?
Robbins: I didn’t even get out of a walking boot until mid-October. Then I just walked and hiked for the rest of 2011. On January 1, 2012, I ran 10k, and that was a big success for me. That was a turning point. The month of January, I ran 150k. The month of February, I ran 250k. The month of March, I ran 350k. I think April was 450k. May was about 450k. June, I actually had the biggest mileage month of my life, so that was very positive; I had over 650k. I know a lot of guys do more than that, but for me, it’s not something I’ve ever gotten up to. June was one of the best running months I’ve ever had, so I’m happy about that. Then in July, I caught a cold and DNFed two races in 14 days. I had only ever DNFed on in my life. So I come into this with hesitation, but I’m excited and I’m well-rested.
iRF: So how are you going to approach it on race day?
Robbins: Going around the mountain, the thing that I learned was it’s just a beast of a race. It’s completely unrelenting. As soon as you think you’ve gotten past a difficult section, there’s more to come and more to come and more to come. So my strategy for race day is just patience—absolute patience from start to finish. If I can just start intelligently—this is very difficult to do with 2,300 runners just streaming behind you. I think that’s where a lot of people make mistakes in the first few hours of the race. My intention is to start at a respectable pace and not be in the top 100 runners in the first section of the race. Then I’ll try my best to work my way up from there. Like I said, 2011 I didn’t get much in. So just finishing this route is going to be a success for this year. [There was a dog that looked like it was going to come pee on our feet.] So, I’ll start intelligently, be back in the high double digits or even near 100, then make a push from there and see how it goes. My number one goal is to finish. I really would, I mean I tweeted out many, many moons ago, many months ago that I wanted to go for top 10. Top 10 is an exceptional achievement at a race like this, and it’s a stretch for me this year given everything that’s happened. We’ll see how it unfolds.
iRF: Great. That strategy worked well for Mike Foote last year. He was 11th, but…
Robbins: Mike Foote is … exactly he missed by one, but…
iRF: He was way back of the pack.
Robbins: This is just it. I’ve been watching this race for years, and Mike Foote ran what I consider to be one of the most intelligent races last year. He did miss top-10 by one spot. But it’s kind of the Mike Foote plan this year. I hear he’s super fit, and he’s going for it from the start this year.
iRF: Well have fun out there, Gary. It’s good seeing you back out on the course.
Robbins: Thank you very much. You didn’t want to put me on the spot on that question about the runners? I’m ready for it.
* * * * *
iRF: Bonus question here. Last night, Gary Robbins sold North America up the river.
Robbins: That is not how it happened. I will defend my honor right now.
iRF: Alright. Dear Mr. Honorable Gary Robbins, what do you think North Americans’ problems have been here at UTMB?
Robbins: Let’s go back a step. The Montrail team was being interviewed by the French Press. The question posed was: Why is it that so many runners from outside of France have come this way and not finished the race and not had success and not come back? Why does the history dictate that North American runners have not had success here? Do we believe that this is the case?
I said: We can’t argue with facts. The facts are that North American runners have not had success here. It’s very unfortunate, but it’s very true. I then said that European runners have had great success coming over to our races. [To dog: Oh, you are going to come say hello.] The European runners have come over to our races and have had great success. So it only fuels the argument. I agreed with his statement. You can’t argue with facts. North American runners haven’t done well. But my take on it was that it’s very culturally different in these parts than it is at home. Our races are very different as well. This race, although you can compare it too Hardrock and other events, there’s a mountain culture that pervades and exists here that we don’t have at home. As an example, when I was out doing this route, I saw mothers breastfeeding at 8,500 feet and families everywhere and women all over the place through the passes which is fantastic. It’s very unique. We don’t have that. My take is this. Our North American races, a lot of them are much faster and you need to be a very efficient runner. From what I see, a lot of the top North American talent comes from a track background. We can see that. Whether they were successful or not, they did race track at some point. They went through varsity—every single one of the elite runners. You see the European runners and that’s not the case. I don’t know, but I’ve not seen a history of any of these runners having anything to do with track and road and marathons. They come from mountains. They are mountaineers. They’re born into the mountains. They’ve been going to the mountains their entire lives. They’re in their 30’s, and they’ve been going into the mountains for 25 years or 30 years. That alone, just the ability to take care of yourself in the mountains in and of itself is very unique, and I think it’s what makes this race more challenging than most. That’s why the Europeans have had great success here. And I think North Americans are starting to figure it out a little more, and the North Americans are poised to have success in the coming years, starting with Mike Foote tomorrow where I believe he’s going to have a top-10 finish which doesn’t happen very often.
iRF: We’re going to call this the GR Hypothesis. Geoff Roes also wrote something very similar on iRunFar a couple of weeks ago.
Robbins: Who’s Geoff Roes?
iRF: Some guy—one of your Montrail teammates.
Robbins: Isn’t he a has-been?
iRF: But he was saying the same thing that to have success in the mountain 100 milers, you need to spend time in the mountains.
Robbins: You need to be comfortable in the mountains all day by yourself. That’s exactly what this culture is. It’s what it dictates. It’s what they’re born into. It’s not the same as back home. So I think that’s why they’ve had success in these races.
iRF: You’re not going out in the mountains by yourself, but have fun out in the mountains this weekend.
Robbins: Thank you very much. Au revoir!