Gary Robbins’s journey into ultras is nothing short of amazing. It’s a bit like an offbeat, coming of age, indie movie. It has it all–travel, partying, crazy jobs, heartache, redemption, and a good-old dose of the feel-good factor. I sat down with Gary to get all the juicy details.
iRunFar: You got into the world of endurance sports fairly late, but I’d like to know a little about the younger Gary, where you grew up and what and what you got up to?
Gary Robbins: I grew up in Newfoundland, on the east coast of Canada. Actually, the most eastern point in North America, Cape Spear, was only about a 20-minute drive from my house. A buddy of mine, his uncle owned the most easterly house in North America. So I grew up in Newfoundland and I was there right through until I was 19 years old.
iRunFar: Cool. Were there any sports at all back then?
Robbins: I played hockey growing up because that’s what all Canadian youth do, and I played it passionately. We used to play street hockey everyday as a collective group of kids. I never did anything other than that—well, the funny thing is that I remember playing soccer three times. On the third time I remember the ball came to me in the middle of the field and I caught it with my hands! [laughs] That’s the worst thing you can do and I remember my brain thinking, This is so ridiculous, if my hands are going to make it easier, why wouldn’t I use them! That was the end of my soccer experience. With hockey, I never got to a high level. I played on my high-school hockey team and, for me, that was as good as it was gonna’ get.
iRunFar: Running was a long, long way off at that point? Would that be a correct assessment?
Robbins: Oh yeah, it wasn’t even close, honestly. When I was growing up, I was a little bit heftier. In my group of friends, I was the one that carried that extra bit of body weight. Then, when I was 16 years old, I decided to get in shape. I went to the gym and lifted weights and I ended up dropping 15 or 20 pounds and it was the first time in my life that I was actually fit. At the same time, I decided that I was going to do a run, I was like, It’s going to be a great! I’m going to be a runner! So I signed on to a race called the Tely 10, one of the most historic road races in Canada. If I’m not mistaken, I think it’s almost 90 years old. I remember my parents bought me a pair of running shoes and I had all these promises of training but time just evaporated and I didn’t do anything.
Quite literally, the night before the Tely 10, I was like, “Oh shit, I need to do this tomorrow, I need to train.” There was a gym that had an indoor track that was about 200 meters long and I literally ran around there for 45 minutes and thought that was good and that I could run the race the day after. The next day, I show up and am at the start and there’s this girl that I know from school and she was like, “Hey Gary, I didn’t know you were a runner.” And I was like, “I’m not!” Then she said, “Is this your first-ever 10 miler?” I was like, “What do you mean 10 miles? This is a 10-kilometre race.” I freaked out that I was going to be running 16 kilometres that day.
iRunFar: Ouch. How much carnage was there?
Robbins: Well, I started the run and I literally made it a kilometre before I got a side stitch. I didn’t know what I was doing. So I’m bent over in the middle of the road, in this famous race that has hundreds of runners, and people are coming along and patting me on the bottom saying, “You can do this!” I’m thinking, I can’t do this. I cant even breathe right now. Eventually I got it together and finished in an hour and 12 minutes. It was my first inkling into what running was and that I could actually run a little.
iRunFar: Sweet. We’ll get back to running later but you graduated high school around that time too, right? Did you stay in Newfoundland after that?
Robbins: Yeah, I graduated high school and then went went to Memorial University in Newfoundland for a semester and what I found was that I was very distracted as a 19 year old and needed to get out and go on some adventures. Newfoundland, being an island, my childhood consisted of road trips to small towns. I was yearning for something bigger. I did some research and found out that the Banff Springs Hotel in Banff, Alberta, hire by phone interviews. I applied, got an interview, and got employed at the Banff Springs Hotel. After one semester at university, I moved out to western Canada and told my parents that it’d be a six-month thing. I remember very clearly flying into Calgary, Alberta and when you’re coming into land there, you can see the Rocky Mountains. I looked at the Rockies when I was flying in and I knew then that I was never going to live in Newfoundland again. I love the province, I love my family and friends, and I love going home to visit but when I saw the Rocky Mountains, I knew I had found something that I had being yearning for for a very long time.
iRunFar: Going from Newfoundland to Banff, how did your lifestyle and mindset change? I can imagine that you let your hair down a little?
Robbins: Well, moving there as a 19 year old, who is now technically legal to drink and party for the first time, I went straight and heavy into partying for about three years. I was working at the hotel and one of the great benefits and, at the same time, curses of the Banff Springs Hotel in 1996 was that you lived in staff accommodation. Rent was $99 a month that came straight off your paycheck and you had a food card so you could always get food from the staff cafeteria. Quite literally, you could spend every last dime that you had and you’d not go homeless and you’d not starve.
I partied hard and very rapidly declined into being that overweight person that I was prior to getting fit. It was the heaviest I’d veer been in my life. I was over 185 pounds, which is over 30 pounds heavier than I am now. I was a very talented drinker and a very talented partier because I could drink and party all night long, then get up and do it all again without ever missing work or having issues with my job. I did it for over three years and during that time I was meeting a lot of international people that were coming to Banff to work and live. That sparked my interest for international travel and, then, on the 31st of December 1998, I was bartending at the hotel and I was thinking it was time for a change. I just wanted to do something; I wanted to go on an adventure.
iRunFar: You did manage to have some fun in the Rockies? Weren’t you skiing at that time?
Robbins: Yeah, I became a ski bum when I moved out. I was skiing 75 to 100 days a year and that was it… a little hiking… but skiing and drinking was what I was specialising in. [laughs] So that New Years Eve when I was working in the bar, I was putting away a pallet of strawberries and it said “New Zealand” on it. I thought, That’s it, that’s what I’m going to do. A year from now, I’m going to be in New Zealand for the millennium, the first place to see the sun. For the next year, I put away some cash, didn’t drink as much and, and 12 months later I was in Queenstown, New Zealand to greet the millennium.
iRunFar: Wow, fantastic. This was the beginning of your next phase, when the wanderlust kicked in?
Robbins: Yeah, I had four months in New Zealand and eight months in Australia. I traveled pretty much the entire time and slept in my tent eights months out of those 12 months. I enjoyed every second of it. Also, because, I was traveling and moving around, not partying as much, I started to get back in shape a little bit. I was in Port Douglas, Australia, in the year 2000 and had gotten a job as an extra on South Pacific with Glenn Close and Harry Connick Jr. I did well enough that I actually got some face shots. Why this is relevant is that, I was living in Port Douglas, I was starting to become fit again and it was the first time since the Tely 10 that I thought that I’d like to start running again. I bought some running shoes and started running in the mornings on the beaches and I kept a running log. I made it to day nine and then the last entry on the day was, “Running is stupid, I hate this!” [laughs]
iRunFar: There was some kind of warped attraction to running, though. That’s the second time that it had nibbled at your consciousness without taking a proper bite?
Robbins: Yeah, there felt like there was something at a deeper level, where I intrinsically knew that I could do well it but it was hard. [laughs] That was it: I knew that I could do it and, maybe fairly successfully, but it was not easy. I was still coming to terms with that at that point in my life.
iRunFar: Okay. After the year you headed back to Banff, right? Was it straight back into partying or had you changed after your travels?
Robbins: No, I had made a shift in my life and I wanted to enjoy the mountains—I didn’t want to be the drunken party-er anymore. I made a list of all the mountains and peaks around Banff that I’d never gotten the chance to do. I hung it next to my bed so every morning when I woke up there was something on there that I wanted to accomplish. I was very fortunate that the person who ended up being my best friend and best man, Mark Fearman, and I met and ended up becoming adventure partners. He and I together ended up taking advantage of every free second we had that year. We would finish work at 10:30 at night, drive north toward Jasper, sleep in our car, and wake up the next morning and scramble to the top of a peak and get back to work in Banff for five. It was clockwork. We still partied a little but it wasn’t the focus—mountains were now the focus.
iRunFar: That must have represented a big shift and opened up some new possibilities and adventures for you, Gary?
Robbins: For me, that was the moment when my life felt like it took a major shift for sure. That summer I signed up for a half marathon and I said that I was going to start training for that half marathon. So again, I got some running shoes and went on probably 12 to 15 five-kilometre runs. That was training to me; that seemed like a lot. The 2001 half marathon in Canmore, Alberta came around. It was a net-descent half marathon, so that will make the time make sense. I lined up thinking that because I’d scrambled all summer, spent a lot of time on my feet, and done my 5k loops, I thought that I’d just run this thing and see how it goes. I ran in surfing board shorts and a t-shirt and I ran in 1:32. I had beaten many people around my from work that had been training for it. That was the moment right there that I knew I could run and people around me who were runners were saying, “I know how little you’re doing here. You can obviously run.”
iRunFar: Do you remember that as a good feeling, that you had finally found something that you could focus on?
Robbins: Yeah, I remember it felt very empowering. You know, I’d played hockey and always dreamed of being a professional hockey player, even though I never once thought that would be a reality. You still dream of it as a kid. Then, when I moved to Banff, I held this dream of becoming a professional, sponsored free skier. Again I never thought it’d be a reality. Then I got into running and I’ve got this empowering feeling of actually being good at something. I think the underlining sensation was always wanting to be good enough at a sport, whatever that sport would be, that would allow me to be competitive in that sport. I definitely have a competitive nature. Up until that point it felt like I was searching different avenues for that fulfillment and that was the first day where there was an inkling that this could possibly be what I’d been searching for and something that I could excel at if I put the time in.
iRunFar: Even though you felt that, it took many more years for you to actually do that and put the time in, right?
Robbins: Yeah, that it was for the running right there—that race, that day. I didn’t run after that. It was funny, when I was on one of my 5k training runs leading up to that half marathon, my neighbour in the condo next door came out to me and said, “Gary, I just want to tell you how proud I am of you.” We’re the same age and it didn’t really make any sense to me that she was saying that she was proud of me, so I was like, “Proud of me, why?” And she was like, “You know, for doing it, for making it happen.” I still didn’t know what she was talking about; it was so vague.
Then she said, “The alcoholism, for getting past it, I’m really impressed with you.” That was a serious conversation that my neighbour had with me in 2001, congratulating me on getting past my “alcoholism.” That was one of the few moments in my life where I stepped back and thought, Holy shit, do people think I’m an alcoholic? Like I said before, I was a talented drinker and party-er but I didn’t realise how it looked from outside. I was just having fun. I think it boiled down to the fact that I had a lot of energy and when I direct that energy toward something, I put of lot into it. At that time, I was putting a lot of energy into partying. [laughs]
iRunFar: After the realisation that maybe people thought you were a little too fond of the booze, how did your life progress or change?
Robbins: Mark and I just had a phenomenal summer going through our checklist of peaks. Then, he went back to college in Ontario and I felt like Banff was not a town where you could get ahead. I was yearning for another international trip. I made a list of jobs that would allow me to make money to go traveling. The jobs were working on a cruise ship, working at Disneyland—quite a few of my coworkers had worked there and said how great the money was. Then there was working on the crab boats in Alaska and working in the oil patch of northern British Columbia.
As I went through the list, going through which job would give me the most money in the shortest amount of time, it was the oil and gas industry that stood out the most. In November of 2001, I quit my job at Banff Springs Hotel, packed up my car, made a fake resume that said I had all this experience working in that industry, and drove to Fort St. John, British Columbia. It was a 12-hour drive from Banff. They didn’t hire unless you were there in person. The first week that I was there was probably the lowest point of my entire life—I had gone from this beautiful existence in a mountain town surrounded by like-minded people and having a great time. Then I got to Fort St. John which was a very hard blue-collar town. The only place I could live that week was the equivalent of a hostel that was made of shipping containers made into rooms.
I think on the second or third night, there was a lot of screaming but I just stuck to myself and asked someone the next morning what it was all about and found out that the person was yelling at anybody he could find because he’d lost his $2,000 paycheck, which is what he made for a week’s work. It was explained to me that he had actually basically smoked it all in crack cocaine. He didn’t even remember. On the fifth night I cried myself to sleep and thought that I could just head back to Banff and get my job back. I was right on the cusp of doing that but I thought that I’d come too far; I had this plan and I was going to see it out.
iRunFar: You got a job and earned the cash to go on your trip?
Robbins: After 12 days I got a job as a welder’s assistant. The reason to move there was because I knew I’d make six figures as an unskilled labourer and that I’d live in camp, eventually. Not only are you making big money, you have zero expenses. When I got the welder’s-assistant job, I worked with this guy for a week. He could see that I was dedicated and that I didn’t have any issues. I was there for the right reasons. He also saw that I was an idiot when it came to working with construction. [laughs] I think it was after three days, I was doing something, and he came up to me—a very stoic person who had probably been doing his job for 40 years—and said, “I’m going to tell you one thing. I want you to promise me you won’t forget it. Listen to these words. Righty tighty. Lefty loosey.” [laughs] I didn’t even know which way to turn the wrenches.
iRunFar: You obviously took those words to heart and hit the jackpot, right? How long did you stick it out up there?
Robbins: Eventually I got a job with one of the best guys in the industry, a pipe fitter. The year I worked for him, he made a quarter of a million dollars and I made very close to six figures. He mentored me and taught me and embraced that fact that I didn’t know what I was doing and was so green about everything. The work was seven days a week for three-month stints at a time; then we’d be granted 72 hours off before returning to camp again. We were working outside in temperatures down to the minus forties with metal wrenches. One day we even did a 36-hour shift. I did that for a calendar year, working something like 350 days in 2002.
iRunFar: Sounds like good 100-mile training. [laughs]
Robbins: Yeah, exactly. I was in the mindset in 2002, in Fort St. John, that I knew where I wanted to go with my life and that 36-hour shift I was telling myself that it was good training for expedition adventure racing. I had never even done any adventure racing period but I knew that’s where I wanted to go. I had seen EcoChallenge on TV in 1998. Me and some buddies were sitting around drinking beer and we made a pact that were going to do it someday because we were all so inspired by it. The seed stayed deep within. I wasn’t dreaming of running at that point but I was dreaming on being an expedition adventure racer.
iRunFar: You had the finances to travel. Where did your adventures take you?
Robbins: I’d been saving for a trip and that trip snowballed into being a year of cycle touring. In 2003 I flew into Guatemala City, Guatemala and spent 12 months cycling through Central America. I’d cycle to all my destinations and I didn’t want to do a straight, fast, point-to-point; I wanted to see and experience as much as possible. I took the most wind-y route you could imagine, just going to all these off-beat areas. I flew there on a one-way ticket with a long-term plan of working in the dive industry. Honduras is one of the cheapest places in the world to get certified. I’d never dove before but I decided I was going to do the cycle tour, go to Roatán, Honduras, and become a dive instructor. Then I was going to work as a dive instructor while I cycled between dive destinations for a couple of years, taking me through Central and South America. That was the plan.
iRunFar: Cool. Although something tells me that it didn’t go to plan?
Robbins: Well, I was working on Roatán and I’d acquired my Divemaster certificate, which is the step below Dive Instructor but it allows you to work for a dive company. I was on a dive with some co-workers and some clients and I had an ear issue. I was trying to get them to equalise and it wasn’t happening. I was the sweeper on the dive, the last person on that dive, and my ear suddenly popped. When it popped, I had tunnel vision and mucus come through my regulator. I nearly blacked out. I had to alert the other instructors and do a safety stop and get out of the water. When I went to the dive doctor, who was also a U.S. real-estate developer who was offering his services as the dive doctor, there were real diagnostic tools. When I talked to my co-workers, they had said that I probably have a head cold, pretty standard stuff, a week out of the water. When I met with the dive doctor, however, his verbal diagnosis was that I had suffered an inner-ear fistula, meaning I’d punctured my eardrum and that if I got back in the water and dove it would cause me to go deaf in my left ear at some point in time.
My diving days were done—it was the erosion of a dream. I had invested almost all my money into the dive industry to acquire the knowledge to then work in the dive industry. The equation was going to balance out; I was going to start making money. I had just got to that point when this happened. I ended up bartending at a place on Roatán to save up enough money to get a flight home to Canada. After that there was some soul searching about what I was going to do and where I was going to go with my life and I eventually settled on, It’s time. It’s time to pursue the adventure racing. Now, I’m going to do this.
iRunFar: Was there a big adventure-racing scene in Canada at that time?
Robbins: There were a couple of big races across Canada. There was a race called Raid the North Extreme, which was one of the bigger international races. So, yeah, there was a scene for adventure racing back then. When I got back to Canada I also went to see an audiologist who after testing me told me that if I wanted to go and dive the day after I could. My ear was totally fine. That was the moment that I felt like there was hand of fate that pushed me. I could have gone back down and started diving again but I decided I was going to dedicate myself to adventure racing because something told me that was what I needed to do with my life. I moved to Whistler with my buddy Mark and we started adventure racing.
iRunFar: I guess it was around that time that you were exposed to trail running for the first time, too?
Robbins: Yeah, there was a local adventure-race series called MOMAR which was an acronym for “mind over mountain adventure racing.” We started with those; they were four-hour sprint adventure races and they had the mountain biking, trail running, navigation, and kayaking.
As we were competing in the adventure racing, we did some Google searches for running so we could do some cross training. We came across a website called clubfatass.com. So we showed up at a club fat ass run, which was to be run up and down a local North Vancouver mountain called Mountain Highway. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know what trail running was; I had never really run on trails before. I had hiked through the Banff mountains but didn’t know that trail running was a thing. I thought trail running would be done in the lightest pair of hiking boots you could find. Coincidentally enough, I bought a pair if Salomon hiking boots and they were the first pair of shoes that I went trail running in.
We showed up; I thought it was for a 15k run. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I met some of the most accomplished mountain runners in Canada that day. Of the group of about 10 people I met that day, half had run 100 milers. It was just fate again that the first people I met in the BC running scene were some of the most experienced there was. That day we ended up being tricked into running 30k up and down a mountain with about a 1,500 meters of elevation gain.
Driving back to Whistler that day after running 30k was again one of those empowering moments where I thought, Wow, that was really special! Those guys then convinced me to sign up for my first ultramarathon, which was almost exactly 10 years ago, August 2004. It was the STORMY 67k Trail Race in Squamish, BC. My goals going into the race were to finish, to try and finish under seven hours, and to try and finish in the top 20. I finished 20th in 6:53. [laughs] It was very successful ultramarathon debut for me.
iRunFar: Sweet. From then on in was it a case of mixing both adventure races and trail and ultra races or were you already just focussing on the running?
Robbins: Adventure racing was still my focus. After the Stormy we raced a bunch of sprint adventure races and then the year after, 2005, we got into 36-hour adventure races and I raced some 50k races. Then in 2006 we lined up for our first expedition race called Primal Quest in Utah. It was the toughest expedition race in the world that year and we lined up as the most inexperienced, youngest, and smallest bottom line, income-wise. Most people around us were sponsored teams or professionals within the industry. We were basically bums.
It turns out we were the very last team that was short coursed. In adventure racing you stay on the full course for as long as you can. Then when you miss a cutoff, you’re short coursed. You’re still allowed to finish but you miss a section of the race. We finished the race but not the official full race. The following year I had this bullish attitude that I was going to finish an expedition race, I don’t care where I have to go. It’s going to happen.
We lined up for an expedition race in Baja, Mexico and on the first stage we got caught in a 22-foot swell while at sea. We lost our kayak and had to swim for safety. Me and my teammate nearly died and we were disqualified on a technicality. Despite that we continued to race and were the second team to cross the finish line, as unofficial finishers. Then we had bad luck at Raid The North Extreme and finished unofficially again. We were proving that we had the chops but just weren’t getting the breaks.
In August 2007, I flew to Australia and we took part in the XPD Australia, which was 800k long and had something like 75 teams lined up but 45 teams that hit the start line. It was big. We had some issues but we finally finished the entire course and were ranked 15th. That was my one and only expedition adventure race finish but I had got what I set out to do. [laughs]
iRunFar: During these races, you were looked upon as the strongest runner? Is that correct? That was your strength?
Robbins: Exactly. Running was always the easiest discipline for me. What happens is that you work on your weaknesses so my training was always on a mountain bike or in a kayak. I would spend very little time on my feet; it just came very natural. I was the workhorse. I’d carry two backpacks. I’d work the tow rope on the mountain bike. My job was to be the engine and as the engine I’d attempt to take more than my own share to drive us forward. I spent so little time running that it felt I was depriving myself from doing what I loved, so I agreed that if I got through just one finish then I was going to focus on running for a while. After Australia I sold my mountain bike, kayak, and anything else that wasn’t running shoes and just focused on the running for the very first time.
iRunFar: Okay, so that was when the running era began for you. Tell me more.
Robbins: Well, in February 2008, I ran my first ever 100-mile training week of training. It felt incredible. It was difficult. I remember I didn’t have the musculature needed to do it at that time. I didn’t have major injuries—you’re always flirting with biomechanics issues though. My calves, I remember, were always lit up, just because I wasn’t used to it. I kept on training and then at the end of that summer I lined up for Stormy again, which had grown to a 50- and 100-mile race. That was to be my first 100 miler, which I won in a course record. I must say, though, that it wasn’t a super-deep race. That was the moment I knew that I had found what I was looking for all those years.
iRunFar: What was the attraction? I mean, what made it so appealing?
Robbins: One of the big elements that has always attracted me the most was the adventure. I never ran a road marathon and I got my fill on half marathons very quickly. It was the adventure, just that engagement of mountain terrain that inspired me the most—conditioning my body to get to a point where I could move through massive pieces of landscape in a continual manner under my own steam. It was on the bike trip that it first occurred to me that that’s what I loved: to challenge myself on a near-daily basis to move under my own steam as much as possible.
iRunFar: That’s cool. After that first 100-mile success, things just went swimmingly for you. You got hooked up with sponsorship from Montrail, and were having plenty of success. That must have been just an amazing time.
Robbins: That was just it—it was a dream. I was doing what I had always dreamed of; I had accomplished it. I had gotten sponsorship, too. This desire that I always had but never had any real means to pursue through other realms was to be sponsored, for a brand to actually invest in me because I was good at something. It was magical. Also to be doing something that gave so much back to me with health and fitness, and the engagement with the terrain, and the community that you become a part of. It almost seemed too good to be true. I knew I had an opportunity ahead of me because I was more aware than anybody about how little I’d actually done within this sport. I know how long it takes to develop skill sets and even the musculature to be able to do this. I knew that if I dedicated myself and stuck with it, smaller elements would be conditioned to help me get faster over time.
iRunFar: Was the HURT 100 the pinnacle of that time for you?
Robbins: Yeah HURT in 2010 was my big breakthrough. Geoff Roes had the course record and I had admitted to only three people before I went that my only goal was to beat Geoff’s record and that I believed I could do it. I knew the HURT terrain was very technical, and the kind of terrain that I trained on, and that suited me. I had all of Geoff’s splits taped to the inside of my bags and I knew the entire day where I was in comparison to his times. I ran within a very tight window of his splits the entire day long before setting the then course record of 20:12.
That was my first breakout race when more than just my friends and immediate community took stock of who I was and what I was doing. After that I went to Western States, where I had finished but blown up the year before, and was very proud to finish sixth. On top of that I ran two trail FKTs in Canada: the East Coast Trail, 215k long, and the West Coast Trail, 80k long. I ran those FKTs 14 days apart. For me it was bringing everything together—the West Coast Trail was where I lived and the East Coast Trail was where I grew up. It was a special year for me.
iRunFar: After being on such a high it must have been a big, big blow to then suffer your foot break. How did that affect you?
Robbins: I broke my foot out running with Geoff Roes and Max King at a Montrail running conference. I held those two guys in such high regard that I didn’t want to make a big deal of it even though I knew that I had seriously injured my foot. Up until that point I hadn’t really faced any crazy adversity. I’d felt adversity in the races I was doing but on a physical level I was responding really well to what I was doing. Now I was facing real adversity with a Jones fracture, completely non-weight bearing, on crutches for three and a half months. But because it was October, I didn’t really stress about it too much. I was thinking, I’ll be back running in February and I’ll be able to race. I was still signed up to UTMB and was even thinking I could do that and Western States. It was shitty but it wasn’t freaking me out. Then I started getting follow-up x-rays and nothing was happening. The bone wasn’t even talking to itself; it hadn’t even started to heal. That’s when I started freaking out. Eventually, though, with the help of a bone-stimulating device, the bone healed and I got off crutches the following January and began running again in February.
iRunFar: If there was a sense of naiveté with the first break, the reality certainly must have hit home when you re-broke the same foot later that year. I’ve seen the YouTube video from your GoPro that you were wearing when your foot snapped and, as a runner, it’s excruciating to watch. Just knowing what’s coming when your cruising the trails and then the aftermath. Your despair was palpable. What were you feeling right then?
Robbins: The crazy thing about that footage is that there is 30 minutes of footage that I deleted instantly because I never wanted to see it again. The stuff that’s posted is the stuff that I can accept as part of the story. What was deleted were the horrifying low moments. They were with me and they didn’t need to be shared with everybody else. Those moments I wanted to forget that they ever occurred. There was an element of pain but where the real pain came from was the emotional pain of the realisation of my season and, possibly, my entire running season, coming to an end. I flew back, got the x-rays, and the doctor recommended surgery for a second time. I almost had surgery but I researched and found out that surgery can end up being worse for people with a Jones fracture. Runner Luke Nelson, who’s a physician assistant, reached out to me at that point and basically said, “Gary, I want to help and want to create a program that is going to insure success but you have to promise me that you’ll follow it.” He’s one of the main reasons that I got back to running healthy again.
iRunFar: That’s so cool. It says a lot about the trail running community.
Robbins: Yeah right, the community. It’s crazy. I knew Luke. I’d met him a couple of times and had spent time with him at Outdoor Retailer the summer before when I was on crutches. But truly, we knew each other in a very secondary sense of having met a couple of times. We had never even gone out for a run together. The fact that he did that was very, very kind. The program was like, “On your first week you can run a kilometre. On your second week you can run two kilometres. And so on.” It was crazy slow. I looked at it and thought, Oh my God, this is going to take a year to recover from. That’s after being on crutches for over eight months in total with the two breaks.
iRunFar: How were you holding up mentally at that point?
Robbins: It was terrible. I was fortunate that my now wife was around that time. We started dating in January 2011, so in between the breaks. We got to know each other on a much deeper level than just being runners because there is a lot of emotion you’re working through when you’re injured like this. We got to lay down a very solid foundation for a relationship that we mayn’t have done if there wasn’t the injury involved. She was a huge factor in me getting through that.
On top of not being able to work and run, what happened was that the sport really kicked it up a notch. In 2011 there was definitely a shift in the sport. Then in 2012, January 1st, I was allowed to run 10k. I knew I still had a long way to go to get my fitness back but the sport had gotten a lot faster, more people were coming into the sport, sponsorship had changed, there was more money. Not only did I myself question my place in the sport but other people also questioned my place in the sport. I could see that the thought was that the sport had changed, it was faster and if you couldn’t keep up you would fall by the wayside.
On top of that, at the end of 2012, Mountain Hardwear dropped me. It’s weird because I didn’t understand their decision, they had floated me through basically two years of injury. In December 2012, when they dropped me, I was back at 100%. I had even raced Mountain Masochist the month before and was poised for third place when I got lost. They’re still all good friends of mine at Mountain Hardwear but I was like, “Are you blind?” Even friends who were runners on the team were emailing me and saying they couldn’t understand why they dropped me—that was special for me.
iRunFar: With the sport changing, maybe people doubting you, your sponsor dropping you, it sounds like you had a big point to prove, Gary?
Robbins: I got dropped on a Wednesday. That night when my wife was at work, I went for a run…. very emotional, very upset. Two days later, on Friday, I called James Varner from Rainshadow Running who holds some Washington-based races. He had a race called Deception Pass. I asked if there was an extra bib for the race and he said, of course. I got about four hours of sleep and drove down the next day. There was a good field of runners for that race. I was angry, angry because people were not recognising how hard I had been working and I wanted to throw something back in their face. That race was it. I won by 20 minutes, broke the course record by 15. I wore the brightest pieces of gear that I had that were not Montrail/Mountain Hardwear. [laughs] As far as sponsorship went, I had gotten a lot of contacts in the sport over the years but the only other brands that I felt like I would like to run for were Salomon or Hoka. I reached out to both brands and Salomon was the one that expressed an interest. So after only four weeks of being dropped by Mountain Hardwear, Salomon signed me up.
iRunFar: With Salomon taking you on board and HURT in January 2013, you were well and truly back. That must have tasted sweet?
Robbins: HURT 2013 was my full circle. That was one of the greatest days of my entire life. I had gone from course record to breaking my foot on the course and having a helicopter rescue. Salomon had picked me up for sponsorship but hadn’t actually gotten me any gear. They basically said, “Go and have a good race in Hawaii. It’ll be a good introduction to having you on the Salomon team and we’ll get you sorted with all the product afterward.” HURT was just an amazing moment for me because it was full circle and so much had happened. There were people that doubted that I would ever get back there, not least myself who thought that for a very long time. So to get there and to be running against Jason Loutitt, the person who had won the two years in my absence, was also great to validate things and run head to head.
I don’t think I’ll ever have a 100-mile race that goes that flawlessly again. There were too many positive vibes coursing through my body all day just being back in that race and that environment and that I could do it again. That’s the greatest thing I’ll take away from that injury. I’ll always have a recognition and appreciation of the ability that ultrarunners, in general, possess and how lucky we are to do this. The injury just made that appreciation much deeper. HURT 2013 was just a celebration.
iRunFar: The good vibes must have hung around for this year, too. You won the HURT 100 again in January. I guess Hawaii holds a big place in your heart?
Robbins: Yeah, it sure does. It’s a very special place and we go back every year. The two years I was injured I volunteered for the race for the full 36 hours. That was great, too. I now know everybody in the HURT community on a much better level than I would have if I had just been a runner. For my wife and I, it’s like a second home.
iRunFar: This is like the second coming of Gary Robbins. You’ve well and truly answered your detractors and doubters. In fact, I reckon you’re approaching ultra-statesman level. You’ve been around a while and seen the changes. You were also at the Salomon Advanced Week earlier in the year in Italy where you mixed it up with the international team. What’s your view of the sport these days?
Robbins: Yeah, it’s a very unique time in the sport now, as your eluding to. The crossover is greater than it’s ever been and we’re getting more exciting races where top American runners are competing in Europe on a regular basis and vice versa. It’s just made the family that much bigger. That’s one of the things where I feel I’m so fortunate. Getting picked up by a brand like Salomon has worked out to my benefit. I don’t leave brands that invest in me—I’ve been with the same headlamp sponsor for eight years now because they were the first brand that invested in me. I’m very loyal like that. Now I realise that was one of the best things that ever happened to me, one brand moving on so I got the opportunity to become involved with someone else.
Being with Salomon, for me, was like a validation. That’s the brand right now in ultrarunning. To be with that team at the Advanced Week in Limone, spending the entire week with Kilian, and Emelie, and Jonathan Wyatt, Cam Clayton, and all these other people who are great runners and great people is a special feeling. The one thing that Greg Vollet hammers home is that it’s a family and it is. The ultra/trail running family is deeper now and more diverse than ever before. The fact that I can fly to almost any country in the world and basically open up to a community of runners is a very special thing.
iRunFar: That brings us nicely to the Squamish 50 Mile, which is coming up this weekend and you’re the race director. That’s part of the Skyrunning Canada series now. Again the crossover, Euro influence coming in there. How do you see the changes since you came on board?
Robbins: The Squamish 50 is the culmination of many things. The Stormy 67k that I ran almost exactly 10 years ago happened for 10 years. Then it changed race directors and didn’t happen. I knew the people involved at that point in time and I was offered Stormy to make it happen again in 2012. It was always a small, local race but one that people loved. It was also my first ever 100 miler and I was being offered it to make it into something bigger and better than ever before. I had always known the race directors and always said the same thing, that it needed some changes.
First and foremost it needed new branding—10 years of having a small race, it became known as a small race. I said, “I’ll take this and I’ll put everything into it but I need an agreement right now that you guys are okay with me changing the name and are okay with me changing the course. We’ll keep the weekend, we’ll keep the heart, and we’ll keep the people.” So, in 2012 we came out with the Squamish 50 and, at that point in time, it was about 40% the original route and 60% new, and we changed the name and we changed the branding. That first year we had 375 runners which was a 300% increase over what Stormy had ever seen. The biggest thing that I experienced that year was people just coming to Canada, people that had never run in Canada before. Even Seattle runners, Washington state runners that never had a reason to cross the border to come for a run. That first year it started happening and I thought we were on to something. Then last year we had 550 runners and this year, the third year for Squamish, we have almost 1,000 runners signed up and people flying in from 17 countries. For me to take a small, local race that got me into ultrarunning and to be able to put a little personal spin on it and get people to accept it so openly and enthusiastically, there are few things that I’ve done in my running career that have felt more rewarding than that.