Nfld. & Labrador

Newfoundlander returning to race that left him hallucinating in the Tennessee woods

Gary Robbins says the Barkley Marathons left him exhausted, completely sleep deprived and turned all his toenails black ... and he's planning to do it again.

The Barkley Marathons is believed to be the hardest foot race in the world

Gary Robbins follows Barkley Marathons legend, Jared Campbell, up one of the toughest climbs on the course, known as 'Rat Jaw.' (Keith Knipling )

A man from Mount Pearl says the Barkley Marathons left him completely exhausted in the wilderness and turned all of his toenails black … but still he's looking forward to doing it again.

"Absolutely. One hundred per cent. At the latest, I will return in two years," said Gary Robbins, who took part in the race this April.

The Barkley Marathons is an ultra-distance event held in Tennessee every spring. The almost 30-year-old event is believed by many runners to be the hardest footrace in the world, and covers 130 miles (more than 210 kilometres) and includes more than 60,000 feet of climbing and descending.

To make it more difficult, participants have less than three days — 60 hours — to complete the course. There is no trail or trail markers, and participants are given only a map and some co-ordinates before starting.

"It is the antithesis of what most people know of or understand as running," said Robbins, who now lives in North Vancouver.

Gary Robbins listening to race instructions before the start of the event. (Keith Knipling)

No one has died during the race but many people do get hurt on the course.

"I would say from what I experienced, I'm actually surprised there haven't been more severe injuries," said Robbins.

Despite that, the limited number of entry positions are highly sought after. Only 40 applicants are accepted annually but hundreds apply from around the world. Like everything about the race, even the application process is odd.

"There is no website. You really need to do some homework and you need to find a magic email address and you need to know what time precisely on which day to submit an essay stating why you think you should be included in the marathons. Then you wait to receive what is known as a 'letter of condolences' welcoming you into the event," said Robbins.

This year, the entry fee was $1.60 U.S. and a licence plate from your home province.

Gary Robbins hands over part of the entrance fee for the Barkley Maratons — a license plate from your home. (Ethan Newberry)

"I was very proud to give them their first and only Newfoundland and Labrador licence plate," said Robbins.

The race starts when its organizer lights a cigarette and it just keeps getting weirder from there. Part of the course is on established dirt trails but most of it requires bushwhacking through steep terrain in the Tennessee woods.

"The big challenge is that you go day and night and as you get through the night, it gets much harder to navigate. It really takes a toll on you," said Robbins.

Needless to say, it was brutally difficult.

Just keep moving. Just keep moving. Just keep moving.- Gary Robbins, ultra-marathon runner.

"Three fifths of the way though I was on my feet for over 31 hours. I did the entire East Coast Trail in less time. I was in a world of hurt and was really struggling at that moment to understand exactly how it was possible to continue for another two full marathons," said Robbins.

"I just kept repeating to myself. Just keep moving. Just keep moving. Just keep moving."

Barkley 1 - Gary 0

And it almost worked. In the history of the event there have only been 14 finishers. Robbins pushed well into the last fifth of the race but was forced to drop out before finishing.

"Because of my sleep-deprived state of mind, I was hallucinating and up against a lot of different things and I unfortunately turned right when I should have turned left and I lost two and a half hours searching for the route in the forest before realizing I was going to run out of time — up against that 60-hour time limit."

He was just the fourth person in the history of the race to get that far on their first attempt.

It seems like I'm forced to do it again, doesn't it?- Gary Robbins

"Well, unfortunately it seems like I'm forced to do it again, doesn't it?" said Robbins laughing.

"It was so close to being a success, it would be foolhardy to not return and try to join that exclusive group of people who have completed it. I can't stop thinking about how close it was and there is and outside chance that we will head back next year."

There is no financial reward or finishers medal. So, why do it?

Gary Robbins says he's determined to return to Tennessee and finish the Barkley Marathons. (Craig Kolesky)

"I've been doing long-distance, ultra-marathon events for more than 10 years now and what it really boils down to is attempting the impossible and stepping up to something tha truly scares you. A lot of people might see it as pointless but to me I would see it as one of the crowning achievements of my athletic life to eventually complete this race." 

now