Gary Robbins Wonderland Trail FKT Interview
On July 1st and 2nd, Gary Robbins reset the supported fastest known time for the 93-mile Wonderland Trail, which circumnavigates Mount Rainier in Mount Rainier National Park, at 18 hours and 52 minutes. The previous supported record was set by Kyle Skaggs at 20:53 in 2006. In this interview, Gary talks about how he’s had his eye on this FKT for a while, where he reached his high and low points physically and mentally, and the crew who supported him along the way.
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Gary Robbins Wonderland Trail FKT Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m here above Silverton, Colorado, with Gary Robbins. It’s a weird spot to do this interview, but I’m interviewing you because just a couple days ago you set a new fastest known time on the Wonderland Trail up in the state of Washington around Mt. Rainier. Congratulations!
Gary Robbins: Thank you very much. Yeah, it was a very special day.
iRunFar: You ran yourself around Mt. Rainier and now you’ve transposed yourself by some sort of magic wand trick or just driving all night and suddenly you’re in Silverton.
Robbins: Suddenly we’re in Silverton—just like that! It was 22 hours of driving and we slept for about four-and-a-half hours to get here. Since the actual run five days ago, I’ve averaged about five hours of sleep per night. So if I start botching names and information for this, that’s my excuse as to why.
iRunFar: Well, you’ve got your name…
Robbins: I’ve got my name, and I know it was the Wonderland Trail, and I think it was Mt. Rainier.
iRunFar: Congratulations again. Your time of 18:52 reset Kyle Skagg’s FKT which was 20:53. Do I have that right—by two hours and one minute?
Robbins: Yeah, that’s right.
iRunFar: Kyle Skagg’s Wonderland Trail FKT’s was one of those FKT’s that guys sort of shuddered at, I think.
Robbins: Yeah, and myself included. Right on the FKT website they say as much. There hasn’t been a lot of truly calculated attempts on his record. There have been attempts on the unsupported record, and that’s continued to come down. But guys haven’t lined up for it for that reason. Kyle is such an admired figure in the scene, and it’s coincidental that we’re here in Silverton where he’s most famous for what he did here. It took me awhile to come to terms with what I was even telling myself that I might be able to accomplish in planning to try this.
iRunFar: This has been something that’s on your radar for awhile. You went out and scoped the course last fall. You’ve been looking at splits for quite some time. What made you think this is something you want to do? Is it 95 or 93 miles?
Robbins: 93 miles.
iRunFar: This is 93 miles that I really want to take on.
Robbins: Yeah, I almost lined up for it 18 months ago when the U.S. government shut down and the parks were closed. So there was a bit of a soft plan happening at that point, but the park shut down and it fell apart. Then I had a chance to join some friends from Portland on a three day circumnavigation in October. It was my first time going around the mountain. I used that specifically to course scout to get a sense for exactly what I was getting myself into. My wife and I are having a child in less than six weeks, so I couldn’t commit to a race this summer is basically what happened. I applied to Hardrock and didn’t get in. I couldn’t commit to a race. So I decided that this was the time when I could make this happen. I’d have my summer fitness. I could have a floating date based around other circumstances. Initially I was planning the end of July, and it’s been the warmest year in the Pacific Northwest’s history. Typically the trail is not clear in late June or early July, but it is this year. I decided to capitalize on that. I went out on July 1, which is Canada Day, and I decided to see if we could have a Canadian celebration.
iRunFar: You certainly did. Talk about for a minute, because this was a supported FKT effort, talk about for a minute your support crew, where you got crewing, who was out there with you.
Robbins: I was very fortunate that I opened up an email chain to a few friends and it snowballed so rapidly that before I knew it, people were emailing me saying, “Can I come?” “Can I come?” “Can I come?” I said, “Yeah, it will be a party. Let’s do this!” I want to name them all and I hope I don’t miss anybody. If I do, I blame the sleep.
iRunFar: It’s the 22-hour drive.
Robbins: Ethan Newberry (Ginger Runner) and Kimberly Teshima Newberry (his wife)—Ethan is spearheading a film project. Jeff Pelletier came down from Vancouver to capture on-trail footage and help with the film project. The race director for Cascade Crest and one of my best friends, Rich White, came out. Some friends out of Portland—Yassine Diboun, Jeff Fisher, Jenn Love, and Willie McBride. Willie and Yassine are the two halves of Animal Athletics of Portland. There were a few other people who had to cancel at the last minute, so it was even going to be bigger initially. I had only really intended to tap into Yassine as a pacer for the last section, but friends were coming all this way and I wanted them to have an experience as well. They asked if they could pace and I said “Sure, hop on in,” with the caveat that if I drop them, they were on their own because… In fact that is what happened out there. I only ended up running with Yassine on the last section, but I had a full support crew, a full film crew, and the Wonderland Trail allows you three standard intersections—after 34 miles, then you go 26.5 and then you can split up the last section with a 19 and a 13 (miles). It’s six hours of driving for them to get around the mountain, so it’s a big effort for those guys as well. I couldn’t have done it without them, and they were fantastic.
iRunFar: So you were crewed at three different points along the way?
Robbins: Yes, actually I’d say three-and-a-half. With five miles to go, they have to drive right through where you cross over. I said, “Meet me there just so I can grab 300ml of water and a Mr. Freezey.” Oh, you call them Otterpops apparently. Yeah, I wanted an Otterpop and some water.
iRunFar: Talk about your effort a little bit. You started at Longmire which is the traditional starting point for most of the FKT efforts, and a lot of backpacking trips people take out on the Wonderland Trail start and finish there, too. Then you traveled in the clockwise direction. Talk about your day a little bit.
Robbins: Yes. I was wondering why people always started at Longmire and went clockwise. The first 34 miles has 11,000 feet of climbing, so it’s a very difficult start to the whole thing. You want to get that out of the way early.
iRunFar: Tough 55k, isn’t it?
Robbins: Yeah, 55k and 11,000 feet is a good way to start your day. Willie McBride was going to run with me for that. I was feeling good and within a few miles, Willie and I had our own independent experiences out on the trails for the day.
iRunFar: Sorry, Willie.
Robbins: Yeah, I was confident in my fitness and confident that the terrain mimics what I consider to be my specialty enough which is steep climbs which I have to hike and long descents that beat the heck out of people. I knew that my quads and legs were in really good shape. I effectively was running a GPS watch but switched it to a screen with no information and didn’t pay attention to distance or time or splits or anything and just went about… the words I was using were “stay true to you.” Stay true to your fitness, enjoy the experience. If I did what I knew I could do and didn’t get carried away chasing splits, then I felt like it would play out well. In the first 34 miles, it was a dream start to the whole thing. There was nobody out on the trail. I saw one hiker. I had no wildlife issues with the cougars like some people have had in the past or bears. I saw a tiny garter snake. I got into a beautiful headspace on the run where it was almost meditative at times to be running this incredible terrain. It’s some of the most beautiful step-for-step trails in the world, truly. I was able to just lose myself in that experience. It goes Longmire to Mowich Lake where I would meet my crew. I made one mistake. You have a large descent and then a large climb to finish off that section. On the descent, I ran out of water and decided I’d grab some at the bottom. But when I got to the bottom, it was all glacial flow full of silt, so I couldn’t pull water. It was the hottest July 1 on record. So I ran out of water for 35 minutes which isn’t too crazy, but it was enough to tell me to slow it down and really pay attention and not to make any early mistakes. I knew what I wanted my split to be to Mowich Lake which was about seven hours. I pulled in in 6:39. That was the moment where I looked at my watch for the first time and went, This is a very good day so far.
iRunFar: This could happen.
Robbins: Yeah, this could really, really happen today, and I just need to stick with the plan and continue to not get carried away with anything. I had an eight minute transition there. They had a full aid station set up with a tent… it was amazing. It was actually Cascade Crest race supplies. Then Jenn Love and Jeff Fisher came with me to pace the next section. You run around the lake and then drop down the 3,000 foot pass. It was really overgrown at the top because it’s been so hot. It was almost dangerous to just take a chance on your footing. So Jenn fell off pretty quickly and then Jeff managed to get to the bottom with me and then start the ascent on the other side before he fell off. Going into this, I knew the opposite side was going to be the crux of the route for me. Timing, it was the middle of the day. It’s hot and it’s exposed. It’s the largest total climbing of the day; it’s about 4,800 feet. You go from your lowest point to your second highest point. So, a big climb, really exposed, really hot—I really started suffering through there and made the mistake of doing math and felt like my whole day was falling apart. I truly thought I was over an hour behind my splits on that section. You go through this place called Sunrise which is just another one of these classic vantage points of Rainier—really exposed, mountain right behind you. You take a turn to drop to White River. I saw the sign for White River that said it was less than three miles to the campground. I glanced at my watch and thought, I think I’ve done my math entirely wrong. When I got to the bottom, I was actually 15 minutes up on my splits for that stage as well. I was really feeling the heat at that point. I got to the aid station again at the bottom at White River. There was someone that was camping there who ran the Squamish 50 last year that had the shirt on. I came around the corner and was like, “What? When? Where?” There were some high-fives. Some friends I had met previously that didn’t even realize we were out there just happened to come through and see these guys. “What’s this aid station set up?” It was actually quite a good energy when I came through there. But I said I needed to take about 15 minutes to gather myself there because of the heat and everything. So I sat down and had people counting off the minutes. At 15 I popped up and Yassine was there to pace me. Yassine—anyone who knows him knows what an amazing guy he is. I could not believe how rapidly my body and mind rallied through simply getting calories, sitting for a few minutes, and then getting this really positive influence happening. I told Yassine I wasn’t going to talk to him much, but I was going to set him up for long stories. I started with, “How did you get into running?” And “How did you end up living in Portland?”
iRunFar: “Tell me about the day you were born.”
Robbins: Exactly. It was just these big questions, “And don’t leave out annnnnny details, Yassine.” So that sets you on the last 26 mile section. The total climbing and descent around the route, I got almost 25,000 feet on my GPS. They list it at about 24,000. After that, you go up Panhandle Gap which is the highest point on the route and known to be the most beautiful point on the route as well, but it’s just a slog up the exposed, alpine, rocky, scrambly style terrain. I lost my footing as I was going up and I was using trekking poles for the back two sections. I caught myself on one of my trekking poles, but it snapped right as I did so. So it prevented me from doing a face plant, but then I had a single trekking pole. Then it’s like… I was actually using two hands on a single pole sometimes, just leaning on this.
iRunFar: Like an old-school backpacker.
Robbins: Totally. There was snow on the pass, so I was gathering snow to try and cool myself off again. Then on the opposite side of the pass, I knew there was one really large descent, one small climb, one medium climb, and a second really large descent. At the bottom of that is Box Canyon. I had to put my headlamp on about half way down to Box Canyon. In my splits initially, I figured I’d have to put my headlamp on back by Panhandle Gap. That was the moment internally where I went, I think I’m well ahead of my best case scenario right now. As we were dropping down, all of the sudden out of the forest, someone yelled my name. Maxwell Ferguson who works in the general vicinity had seen the splits after work and decided to pack it up after work, drive straight out, run up onto the course, and join Yassine and I to run down into Box Canyon together. I was still doing math incorrectly in my head for splits.
iRunFar: You should never do math in ultras greater than 50k, really.
Robbins: Everyone I coach I tell that and like I’m out there doing this. I said, “Max, you know I started at 6 a.m. and not 7 a.m., right?” Max said, “Trust me, I’m right on this.” That was the moment where I realized I was flirting with sub-19. I really went into this wanting to be the first person sub-20. That was my goal. Then I had a chance at sub-19. When I arrived at Box Canyon, my crew was there and they were going nuts and basically saying, “You can’t stop. You need to get out of here. You need to do this. You need to push as hard as you can. You can get in under 10 hours.” I said, “I’m just going to sit for five. I need some calories. I’m going to push. I’m going to make this happen.” I stayed composed, and then Yassine and I left. The energy that I had for that final 13 miles, I think I did that final 13 miles 15-20 minutes faster than I thought my best split could be.
iRunFar: You were rolling.
Robbins: I was absolutely just smelling the barn, leaving it all out there. It ends with about a 3,000 foot descent over four miles. I was absolutely thumping down that like I was out for a four mile run. Yassine was running with me and joking that it was far too dangerous what I was doing at that point in time. We rolled through the Longmire sign for the full loop after 18:52, and I was completely in shock at what had just occurred.
iRunFar: So now it’s been a couple days. Looking back, what sort of reflections… now that you’re hindsight, full vision, full spectrum, what’s starting to come into your head?
Robbins: It took awhile to set in. I finished at 2am, slept for all of four hours, packed up and drove back to Vancouver, half night’s rest, packed up, and started coming down this way. It took a few days to hit me full bore that I considered it a very lofty goal to even attempt Kyle’s splits and then to come that far under. For me as an athlete, you try to have at least one event per year that you can really celebrate, one event per year that you can really take with you to the bank and say, “I’ve validated to myself that I’m still working hard and getting results that I desire.” The hardest thing this year is I also got shut out at the Wasatch lottery, so I didn’t have the big race goal that I was targeting at that point. This was it. For me, this was the equivalent of setting out and actually winning a race at this time of year. Anytime you set forth a dream that kind of scares you a little bit and the not only accomplish it but knock it out of the park, it puts this real sense of calm and confidence over you that you can’t replicate with any other means.
iRunFar: Now you get to sort of sit on your laurels, sit back and absorb the fact that you’ve had your big event, you’ve had your big success.
Robbins: Yeah, and then it’s really fun to jump in the truck and drive to Silverton and get to hang out with all the great people that are here for this.
iRunFar: “I’ve already had my pain, and now it’s time for yours.”
Robbins: Have fun, guys!
iRunFar: Congratulations to you, and I hope you continue to recover well.
Robbins: Thank you very much.