Wednesday April 12, 2017

Sleep-deprived Canadian ultra-marathoner recalls 'critical error' in fog at Barkley Marathons

Canadian ultra-marathoner Gary Robbins says he will run the 100-mile Barkley Marathons race for a third time.

Canadian ultra-marathoner Gary Robbins says he will run the 100-mile Barkley Marathons race for a third time. (Craig Kolesky/Michael Doyle/Canadian Running Magazine)

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There are ultra-marathons, and then there are the Barkley Marathons.

The longest course is more than 160 kilometres through a state park in Tennessee. There's a 60-hour cut-off to finish. You're lucky if you get a nap. In fact, the annual competition is so gruelling that only 15 people have successfully finished it since it began in the mid-1980s.

This year, the Newfoundland-born Gary Robbins, who lives in Vancouver, came close, but wasn't able to complete the race.

On Wednesday, just over a week since his attempt, Robbins is finally starting to feel human again. He spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about how he is recovering from the physical and mental demands of the race. Here is part of their conversation.

Carol Off: Gary, how is your body recovering?

Gary Robbins: [Laughs] One day at a time right now. I'm trying to get as much sleep as possible. I would say feeling about as good as could be expected. 

CO: Someone else said it was just heartbreaking to see the finish line and see you there. When did you learn about what had happened in the race?

GR: Well, I'm very familiar with how the race is structured. Unfortunately, I knew before a lot of people at the finish line knew that I wasn't going to be an actual finisher of the event. Unfortunately, at hour 59:40 I made a critical error in judgment. Through the complexity of the fog that had set in, I couldn't see more than five feet in front of me, and the complete sleep deprivation I was under, I chose the wrong trail.

When I recognized my error I knew that I didn't have time to correct that error, turn around, and still make the gate on the proper route in under the prescribed 60 hours. I made a choice on a muddy brain that I kind of regret. I took a bearing and shot down the mountain, just trying to get to the gate in under 60 hours. In the end, I collapsed at the gate in 60 hours and six seconds and knew immediately that I would not be a finisher of the race — not only was I over time but I came to the finish from the wrong direction.

CO: Before we get to discuss the race more generally, describe for people those last five minutes though. You were doing insane things in this sleep-deprived state of yours?

GR: I really was. I was bushwhacking down the side of mountain. I had taken a bearing from my compass. I had recognized where I was on course and where the finish was. I knew I didn't have time to retrace my steps so I took a straight shot for the finish. As I bushwhacked down the mountain, I found myself at a river crossing. We had had torrential rains for the last half of the last lap, the better part of six or seven hours, and the rivers were quite swollen. I was staring at a river that was three times the size of what it was the day before.

I made a judgment, a very ill-conceived judgment at that moment and time, based on my complete sleep deprivation, to swim that river. The river was chest deep and flowing rapidly. I probably washed down 30 feet of river before I came out on the other side. My biggest regret is that I somehow managed to make that decision in that state of mind. As a father, and an experienced backcountry enthusiast, that is something I would never condone.

CO: You're doing this without sleep, we should point out. Last year when we spoke to you, when you attempted this race, you said you were hallucinating at some point. Did the same thing happen again?

GR: So yes, as you mention, there's no time for sleep. It's a 60-hour cut-off and if you have any chance of finishing you are going to be moving for all but a few minutes of those 60 hours. This year I managed to get about 25 minutes of sleep. Then on the fifth lap, last year we talked about hallucinations, this year I used music which helps to focus my mind a little bit more, but I did still manage a couple of them on that last lap. About an hour into the day I started seeing bright flashes of light in my peripheral. The first one I thought was a car. The second one I thought was a head lamp. Then I realized this was going to be my blessing of a hallucination this year — was blinking and seeing bright lights around me.

CO: It was clearly angels who were watching over you.

GR: [Laughs] That's right, exactly. The second hallucination that occurred was while I was listening to my music. I was listening to more beat-based music than lyrical. The operator voice you get when you call in to get your phone messages, she decided to make an appearance and was actually talking over the beat based music I was listening to. Of course, it is all in my head.

CO: Why does this race matter so much for you?

GR: When I got into the sport I was 27 years old. I got into expedition adventure racing. My goal was truly to find what my outer markers were and my outer limit. I actually said at the time that I wanted to be confronted with being on my knees and questioning how I could possibly go a step further. Through the years of doing the expedition racing it evolved into the ultra-running. I learned about the Barkley many years ago. It sounded like the ultimate human test.

How do you possibly solve this Rubic's cube of the physical, mental and navigation and up against a clock that doesn't stop ticking? From the first day I heard of it, I knew I always wanted to do it. Now that I've come so close twice it's just so bittersweet to be having this conversation about having a second time not finished and know that at some point I will need to return a third time.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Gary Robbins.