Canada’s Gary Robbins will run The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc for the second time in 2013. He finished 53rd in 2012 as he was still recovering his fitness from a major injury. Let’s just say that he’s looking to improve his performance by several orders of magnitude this year. In the following interview, Gary talks about how he’s made UTMB his 2013 focus race, what he thinks about the massive competition, and why he’s sporting a beard.
[Editor’s Note: Here’s our full 2013 TNF UTMB men’s race preview.]
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Gary Robbins Pre-2013 TNF UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Gary Robbins before the 2013 UTMB. How are you doing, Gary?
Gary Robbins: Very good. How are you?
iRF: I’m alright. You were here last year seeing a little bit of the course?
Robbins: I saw all of the course. I came for three weeks last year as a recon and spent four days going around the mountain 10 days prior to the race. The thing I love about this place is you’re guaranteed to get great weather two weeks prior to the actual race day, but you need to field bets at the end of the month. It’s always a bit finicky the way the weather plays out at the end of August.
iRF: Speaking of which, it’s darn nice out there—Thursday morning.
Robbins: Yeah, we’ve got 24 or 36 hours (30 hours) before the beginning of the race and the forecast is great. It’s looking like the first, cross our fingers that a mudslide doesn’t happen out of nowhere, but it’s going to be the full, regular course for the first time since 2009, if I’m not mistaken. It’s great out there right now. It’s definitely cold at night which is not a big deal. No precipitation forecasted. So we’re really fortunate this year.
iRF: It’s a blessing out there, having suffered through that.
Robbins: We don’t want to do an interview outside in nice, sunny, mountainous conditions. We want to do it in here.
iRF: The French artificial lighting is just…
Robbins: I’ve seen some pretty astute runners… some pretty stout runners sitting in this chair doing interviews in the last couple years, so I’m kind of flattered right now.
iRF: Yeah. You’re in a good seat right now, Gary Robbins. You’ve been having a great year. You had a very good run at HURT 100; you had a good run at UTMF. I’d characterize your year as good, wouldn’t you agree?
Robbins: Oh absolutely, no doubt. I’ve had a great year. I’m really super-pleased with how everything has played out. I’ve structured basically my last 12 months around this race since I was here last year. Last year for me, like I mentioned, was more of a recon than anything. I finished 53rd last year and it took two weeks for me to come to terms with that. I was proud of it about two weeks after the race. I just showed up with a mind that was about six months ahead of my body in terms of recovery and fitness from my injuries. It took me awhile to recognize that. When I look back on last year’s race, I feel like I actually out-performed what my body had in it. So I’m proud of that, but I nearly DNF’d four or five times last year. I just told myself I wasn’t going to drop out after coming all this way to France. So it’s nice for me, the last 12 months have been structured around the knowledge that I gained last year, to show up here healthy and fit and ready to race. That’s how my entire racing calendar was structured this year.
iRF: Now having 12 months to really focus on one race is a blessing in some ways that you really get to plan it out. It’s also difficult in two ways: 1. Staying motivated, 2. Burning out or injuring yourself. How did you battle those issues?
Robbins: There was no issue staying motivated. That’s the great thing about a race like this. When you have the default world championship for 100-mile ultrarunning and you know the competition showing up, you can wake up in the morning and think of one of 20 guys that can really show you how it’s done out here and it doesn’t take must to get motivated and get out the door. The injury and staying healthy bit can definitely be difficult and I’m really pleased with how that’s played out as well given the few years prior to that. I raced HURT in January as you mentioned and UTMF at the end of April and I self-imposed very, very little running after each of those events. I came out in that third week feeling really fresh and fit.
iRF: So you really did take a structured 12 months, but you took rests during that period.
Robbins: Yes. After HURT, I felt like I could have been running five or six days later just because you have a positive race and that adrenaline is still coursing through your veins days afterwards and you feel invincible. I had to talk myself down and stick with the plan. I did, and I’m very thankful for that. I sit here now and I’m very fit and I have no injury issues whatsoever.
iRF: Very good. There is some ridiculous competition here.
Robbins: Yeah, that’s what happens with a race of this magnitude that attracts such an international field. You know, you can only have a race like this where you have guys like Timothy Olson and Tony Krupicka show up and people actually question whether or not they’ll actually make the podium in the race. It is an insane level of competition. The thing that’s great about UTMB is that last year, if I’m not mistaken, seven of the top 10 people were from different countries.
iRF: Something like that.
Robbins: You can’t ask for a more balanced international field than that.
iRF: It feels that same way again this year. Canada and North America or the U.S. are well-represented. Obviously so are a lot of the European countries including some smaller ones. You have Hara from Japan. It’s just…
Robbins: Hara could really do some special things out here.
iRF: Yeah, what was it that he did?
Robbins: So this was actually quite comical. At UTMF, I think we were about 15 or 20 miles in and there’s a very steep ridge up and over, and as we came down heading into an aid station, all of a sudden this runner just blows by me like he’s running a 10k. I think initially, is he even in the race? But then I see the bib. I just remember his bag was hardly even attached to his back. There was so much movement on his backpack. I thought, Oh, okay, he’s a Japanese runner. I’d paid attention to the competition at the press conference the day before. He was not one of the people brought to attention. I thought, Okay, he must be looking for the accolades of being the first Japanese runner. He’s going to come into this aid station in third. That will be it. He’ll fade. He’ll be lucky if he finishes. 10, 20, 30 miles later and there was an out-and-back and he had 10 minutes on Julien [Chorier]. I was in thirdat that point. We were both like, “Wow, this guy’s legit.” We now know he is a 6:33 100k runner and he made up all this time. In UTMF there are these nasty climbs and descents followed by a long stretch of flat running and that’s where he annihilated all of us. So he’s a very, very talented and balanced runner. I watched the interview last night and he’s very typically Japanese humble. He could come away with the title this weekend.
iRF: So at Fuji you were fourth, correct, behind Hara, Julien, and Sébastien Chaigneau?
Robbins: Yes. I actually was in second for 85 miles. I passed Julien in the night on one of the mountain stages. I got a little too excited. I wasn’t expecting to catch him that quickly on that stage. I think the adrenaline caught me and I went a bit too fast over the next five or six miles and paid the price. I made what I consider to be a rookie mistake that I don’t normally make. Then I just really started to fade at about 85. Then Julien caught me. Then Sébastien caught me. It was funny because he’s such a positive, happy person and I didn’t realize he spoke limited English. So I asked him if there were other runners with him and he said, “Oh yes.” So I thought there was just a pack of runners tracking me down. What happened really in that race was that the course profile didn’t exactly match up to how the race really was. There were a few changes. On that climb where Sébastien caught me it looked like in my profile that we were about to top out. I said as much, “Oh, we’re almost at the top?” He laughed; he’d been there a month and said, “No, no, the steepest climb is yet to come.” So it was…
Robbins: Yes, very much so. At that point I was very much in survival mode and very pleased to hang onto fourthplace ahead of Brendan Davies in the end.
iRF: This race is not so mixed in its terrain. There’s a lot of up and down—pretty nice trail. What kind of shoes do you pull out for a race like this?
Robbins: Salomon Sense Mantra. Those are my go-to shoes since the moment I put them on my feet. They just have the perfect fit for me. It’s a 6mm drop which I really like. I consider it to that perfect, all-around shoe. That’s my go-to shoe for this race. In light of what you said, this course is really nine or 10 climbs—up and down and up and down and up and down. Some of the guys have alluded to it—there’s certainly a bit of running between those climbs, but if you don’t have the quad strength and resiliency to continue to go through those climbs, it’s a long day for you in the end.
iRF: I hope you have a shorter day than you think. Have fun Friday and Saturday and good luck out there.
Robbins: Thank you very much.
iRF: Gary, a quick bonus question for you.
Robbins: I love the bonus questions.
iRF: You’ve got to love the bonus questions.
Robbins: Everyone waits and you’re expecting a bonus question now.
iRF: You get one today. Not many of them have come out so far in France. The beard.
Robbins: It’s pretty powerful isn’t it? I just noticed—you have a beard and all the sudden the world looks at you differently. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.
iRF: Hockey beard?
Robbins: That’s right. My hockey team, the Edmonton Oilers, have missed the playoffs for six years now.
iRF: Are they still in the NHL?
Robbins: They’re about to be relegated to the AHL. I’ve decided to grow a beard until they make the playoffs again, which I hope is this year.
iRF: Oh man, I don’t want to see you at The North Face 50 in December.
Robbins: No, the main thing about the beard was in June I was training really hard and I directed four events in three weeks and I just was lazy and busy and I didn’t shave. All the sudden one day my fiancée just looked at me and said, “Keep the beard.” I thought, Alright, I’ll do it.
Robbins: That’s the funny thing, everyone’s like, “Is your fiancée going to let you have that beard for the wedding?” I’m like, “She’s the one driving the beard bus right now.”