VANCOUVER — A last-minute mistake that put Gary Robbins six seconds short of becoming the 16th person to ever finish a torturous 160-kilometre ultramarathon is haunting the North Vancouver man.
In a blog post chronicling his second attempt at the infamous Barkley Marathons, Robbins says he took a wrong turn in thick fog about three kilometres before the finish line, which sent him down a mountainside, through some brush and across an “absolutely raging” river.
“I continued bushwhacking and quickly spotted the road into camp,” Robbins wrote about emerging from the water minutes before the 60-hour cutoff.
“I thrashed my way to the road and put my head down and gutted out the hardest three minutes of my life to collapse at the gate, overtime, and from the wrong direction,” he added.
“I did not finish the Barkley Marathons, and that is no one’s fault but my own. That one fatal error with just over two miles to go haunts me.”
The race ended Monday. Robbins couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
The Barkley Marathons consist of five, 32-kilometre loops through Frozen Head State Park in central Tennessee and are described as one of the most difficult foot races in the world.
Between 35 and 40 runners are allowed to participate each year. More than 1,000 have attempted to complete the event since its inception in 1986.
The cost to apply is US$1.60, and those who are accepted are required to pay an unconventional entry fee. First-time racers have to supply a licence plate from their home state or country, while failed veterans are asked to provide a pair of gold-toed dress socks. Any of the 15 successful race alumni who want to run again must contribute a pack of regular, filtered Camel cigarettes.
Race director Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, who co-founded the race, commended Robbins in a social media post but said the Canadian runner’s finish would not have counted because Robbins diverted from the race course.
“The Barkley is a footrace. It is not an orienteering contest, nor a scavenger hunt,” Cantrell wrote in a statement published online by Canadian Running Magazine.
“The class with which Gary handled this terrible disappointment at the end of a truly magnificent performance … was exceptional and is, in and of itself, a remarkable achievement. But he did not miss the time limit by six seconds. He failed to complete the Barkley by two miles.”
Robbins works in B.C. as a fitness coach, and a biography on his company’s website says the 39-year-old native of Newfoundland and Labrador began running in 2004.
Video posted online shows Robbins running up to a yellow gate that marks the race’s end before collapsing to the ground in the fetal position, mumbling, “I’ve got all my pages but I went around the wrong side of the mountain in the fog.”
Runners must take a page from each of the 13 books placed as checkpoints at various points throughout the race.
“One mistake,” Cantrell said as he slowly counted Robbins’ wet pages. “Still, it’s a story for the ages.”
The event takes place yearly in late March or early April and was the subject of a 2014 documentary titled “The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats its Young,” as well as a 2010 book describing it as “the world’s toughest trail race.”