12.07.2012

on the moving of mountains: an interview with gary robbins

I first became aware of the name Gary Robbins in the Fall of 2010.  A shoe junkie, I'd caught wind of the soon to be released Montrail Rogue Racer, a stripped down offering from a brand that hadn't rolled out anything even remotely "minimalist" before.

I asked the internet to tell me more and YouTube introduced Gary's grinning face after a few moments of ridiculously demanding Northwestern uphilling.  Gary, then sponsored by Montrail, offered up his first impressions of the Rogue Racer before bombing back down the 3,000 vertical feet he'd just climbed.  The terrain revealed by the headcam that he was wearing was a preposterous tangle of roots, ruts and rocks that almost required a redefinition of the term "technical".


Forget the Rogue Racer.

I didn't know who this guy was, but I sure liked his style.

Six months later while visiting Escalante, Utah and nursing a minor Achilles issue, I discovered that Gary Robbins was in town too and just getting over an injury of his own.  He'd suffered a Jones fracture in late October and it had laid waste to the tail end of his very successful 2010 and all of 2011 up to that point.

It was April.

Basically, he hadn't run at all, much less tackled anything like the trail I'd seen on YouTube, since that Rogue Racer video had been filmed and posted.

I'd never heard of a Jones fracture.  As a textbook would report, it is an injury to the fifth metatarsal bone (located at the base of the small toe where it meets the foot) and occurs on the top of the bone in the midfoot.  More simply, it's more or less a runner's worst nightmare in that it is located in an area of the foot that is greatly impacted by any and every given footfall.  Worse yet, this type of break can show a stubborn unwillingness to knit.

But the fracture had, at last, healed and as I sat and talked with Gary he was beaming with the anticipation of his first post-break long run that very next day and the looking forward to training for and racing the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in the Alps that August alongside a field that was already stacking up to be the strongest assemblage of North American, European and other international runners to ever toe a 100-mile starting line.  His relief was evident and, even having just met the man, I was immediately excited for him and sure I'd be rooting for him later that summer.

In some small way Gary's enthusiasm and optimism on the immediate heels of the challenges he'd faced over the previous months of rehab made my injury seem insignificant and completely manageable.  I'd been feeling pretty low as I'd been unable to run during the couple of weeks leading up to the trip to Escalante and even my activities while there were limited by the very strong suggestion of my physical therapist.  My spirits were lifted after just a few minutes of getting-to-know-you with Gary.

In the days after I'd returned to the East Coast and Gary had made his way back home to North Vancouver, British Columbia, I decided to reach back out to him to see if he'd be willing to let me interview him regarding overcoming injury and remaining hopeful during rehabilitation and periods of not being able to run and, after the fact, coping with the lingering memories of having been let down by one's body.

He agreed, but completing that interview took a lot longer than either of us expected.

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.*

Gary Robbins does not possess an ultrarunning background.  He doesn't even have a running background.  None at all, in fact.  As he told me, "it was 2009 before I had even done a 100-mile running week ever in my entire life and, prior to 2004, I had run less than 100 miles in my then 26 years on the planet."  That last bit might have been an exaggeration, but, based on the sound of the voice on the other end of the telephone, I didn't think so.

Regardless, by 2007 he'd run a handful of ultras and won North Vancouver's Dirty Duo 50K that May.  In August of that following year, having switched gears to make ultrarunning his primary training focus, he won the first 100-miler that he entered, crossing the finish line of Squamish's Stormy Trail 100-Miler in a blazing 17:39:03.  Several 50K and 50 Mile podium finishes followed over the next year-and-a-half and the only performance that really fell short of his expectations came on a tough day at the 2009 Western States Endurance Run.  He'd become one of the top ultrarunners in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest but needed a breakthrough performance to bring him broader recognition.

You won't lag behind, because you'll have the speed.
You'll pass the whole gang and you'll soon take the lead.

The H.U.R.T. Trail 100-Mile Endurance Run, more commonly referred to simply as the H.U.R.T. 100, is a notoriously punishing race that takes place in the tropical, volcanic mountains above Honolulu, Hawaii.  Consisting of five 20-mile loops, the course touts its roots, rocks, puddles and "mud wallows" (yes, mud wallows) and 20 total stream crossings.  The trails are narrow, sometimes treacherous and teeter along exposed ridges and dizzying vertical drops.  The highest point on the course is only 1,800 feet above sea level but the total elevation gain is an intimidating 24,500 feet.

Long story short, it's a beast of a course and has been won by some big names since its inception back in 2001.  In 2009 eventual Ultrarunner of the Year-winner Geoff Roes had shaved an astonishing 15 minutes off of the previous fastest finish, lowering it to a 20:28:00, a time that still very much confirmed how H.U.R.T. stacked up against other storied 100-milers with significantly faster course records.

As evidenced in the footage I'd seen, Gary liked technical courses and he loved attacking downhills.  There's just as much "down" as "up" at H.U.R.T., so Gary liked his chances.

He should have.

He found a way to peel another 16 minutes off of the course, blowing away Geoff's one-year old record with a 20:12:00.

"I flew to Hawaii and at that point I was a relative unknown.  I was known in my local community but I wasn’t even the favorite to win the race and I broke Geoff Roes’ course record.  Personally, that was my goal.  That’s what I went there for and I believed I could do that, but, I remember that people weren’t picking me."

That June Gary returned to Squaw Valley for another crack at Western States.  On the historic day now memorialized in J.B. Benna's film Unbreakable, Gary avenged his disappointing performance the year before with an impressive 6th place finish of which he remains extremely proud.

Photo courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama

"It’s funny, because I actually remember it more like a victory than I do a 6th place finish and part of that was because the year before I went to Western States all piss-and-vinegar having done one 100 miler and tried some things and blew up and walked the final 20 miles to the finish line to finish 49th.  A year later I went back with the desire to improve upon a mistake that I’d made and that 6th place...I remember speaking of it numerous times, and my brain going 'you didn’t win that race, it just feels like you did because you won something  in yourself'."
Shortly after Western States, he established the fastest known time (FKT) on Canada's West Coast Trail and followed that up with a corresponding FKT of the East Coast Trail in his childhood home of Newfoundland.  While doing so, he raised $5000 for Right to Play, an international organization that uses sports to educate and empower children facing adversity.


"I was really just on top of the world in terms of where I wanted to be and how I wanted to go about things and I was building continually on successes."

Those successes had garnered several sponsorships, most notably that of Mountain Hardwear/Montrail.  In October, Gary was flown to Oregon as part of a Mountain Hardwear running conference and learned that the company had decided to include him in more of their advertising and better promote him among their retailers.  It was the first real evidence of his increased exposure, the success of his running and the fact that he was being rewarded for it.

"I was in with Max King and Geoff Roes.  They’re buddies of mine but at the same token I have such a massive level of respect for them as runners.  Geoff was THE man…I mean he was undefeated in 100-mile races.  It was just a culmination of a lot for me and I felt like it couldn’t have gotten any better."

Wherever you fly, you'll be the best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don't.
Because, sometimes, you won't.

The very next day, October 26, 2010, Gary broke his foot.

"It was such a weird experience because I was running with Max and Geoff and didn’t want to be the weak link.  I slipped on a snow covered rock, folded my foot in half and was in excruciating pain but I didn’t even make a peep.  I ran another 2 miles with them before we stopped.  That was supposed to be our turn around and Max said 'I think we should go a bit further' and I said 'I think I broke my foot'.  And I remember Geoff just looked at me and was like 'what do you mean you THINK you broke your foot?  You haven’t even said anything?'"

At the hospital in Bend, x-rays were taken and a nurse confirmed that the foot was broken.  Her exact words were "and it's kinda bad."

Well respected orthopedic surgeon Dr. Dory Boyer made it clear that the healing and recovery period for a Jones fracture could be lengthy and strongly suggested surgery.  After initially leaning that direction but reading conflicting reports that raised concerns about issues with the screw and the flexion point of the foot, Gary chose to go the route of immobilization until the two break points united.

"As a teenager I always felt that surgery and war wounds were cool but now as I was getting a bit older I was like 'no, I have to think this through, this is my body and I need to prevent anything foreign from going in it if I can.'  It’s not cool to be able to say I have a pin in my foot if I don’t need it in there.  So, I was adamant about not getting surgery if I didn’t have to."

That decision would be questioned throughout the process.

"Even when I broke my foot, I thought  'oh, whatever, it’s October, it's November, I’ll take a couple of months off.  It sucks but I’ll get through this.'" 

Gary prepared to be on crutches for 6 weeks, but repeated x-rays showed no healing and crutches remained a necessity.  Six weeks crept to eight weeks, two months became three.

He'd embraced running late in life and had never had any intention of it being his sole identity.  The severity of the Jones fracture and its refusal to improve made it that much more imperative that he not lose himself to the disappointment of not being able to run at all much less competitively in the short term. To stay positive and reconnect with a life not defined solely by sport, Gary reached back out to friends and family that knew him as far more than just a runner.

"Basically when I first was sidelined, I made a list of all my very good friends that I hadn’t seen, had not taken the time out of my training, out of my day, out of my life to spend time with.  I made a list of all the people that I truly have great friendships with and I went 'I’m gonna see every single one of these guys in this process.'"

He revisited Banff, where he'd lived for several years, and caught up with a number of old friends.  He flew home to Newfoundland and spent Christmas with his family.  The human interaction pulled him through and helped keep him from focusing solely on his injury, his not being able to run and his loss of fitness.

But he still longed to get back at it.

Though it took far longer than predicted, the non-union finally did begin to take and on February 1, 2011, Gary was off of crutches and back on his own two feet.  He was still registered for both Western States (June) and UTMB (August).

Having gone from a non-runner to a successful, competitive runner in such a short period of time to begin with and possessing a mentality that allowed him to go far and fast, he jumped right back into training and training hard.

"I didn’t contemplate getting injured again.  I was told that pain should be my only indicating factor of if I’m doing too much and, realistically, I didn’t have a lot of pain in my foot."

Immediately, he was consistently doing more sooner than the timetables provided by his doctor would have suggested or advised.  He ran a 10K four weeks earlier than the doctor said he should.  He logged a 20+ mile run the day after we first met in Escalante and finished 3rd at the Capitol Peak 50-Miler in Olympia, Washington the following week.  And did it all pain-free. 

He was back.

You can get so confused
that you'll start to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

"And people around me who were outspoken were saying the same thing:  'I don’t think this is smart.'  And then I think a lot of people were biting their tongues because they didn’t have the place to say that.  But the people that had the right to say that to me said it.  More than once."

But he didn't have pain in his foot and he shelved all of the other advice and input and clung to that one easy-to-measure guide given by the doctor, "if you have pain in your foot, slow down and don’t run."  He didn't, so he didn't.

Two weeks after Capital Peak, Gary and his girlfriend and fellow ultrarunner Linda Barton flew to Hawaii for a mix of vacation and training.  The plan was simple;  get up early every morning, log 10-20 daily miles of technical, mountainous running with a goal of 100 miles for the week and then retire to the beach after training each day for relaxation and recovery.  They stuck to the plan and it was everything they'd hoped it would be.

On day 6 of their 7 day stay, Gary and Linda were running separate sections of the H.U.R.T. course that Gary knew so well.  In the midst of his 85th mile of the week, Gary rolled his foot and quite literally heard the bone snap.

And this time the diagnosis wouldn't be a surprise.

"I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt, I KNEW it was the exact same fracture line."

But getting to that diagnosis would require some significant work.  He didn't have his phone and he didn't know when or even if Linda would pass through that section of the course.  He wasn’t even certain that there was anyone else in the vicinity so all he could do was begin inching his way toward the nearest trailhead.

Crawling and hobbling, Gary needed 45 minutes to navigate a single mile.  Reaching a main intersection, he was finally able to call out to some volunteers who were busy with trail maintenance.   The volunteers called search-and-rescue and Linda was contacted.  There'd be no ambulance waiting to whisk Gary away from this remote section of the island.  He was shuttled instead by a basket dangling beneath a helicopter that evacuated him to a point at which an ambulance could then transport him to the hospital.

Gary had been wearing his GoPro when the injury occurred and he'd kept right on filming.


"I went through a period of almost shock and I actually had to delete a lot of the video footage because I could only watch it once and I didn’t want anybody to see some of the things that I went through because what happened at that moment wasn’t just the pain of breaking my foot.  It was the overwhelming, flooding knowledge of what I was gonna be going through again and I was watching all my running dreams just dissipate and disappear before my eyes and the biggest and hardest thing to take in in those nano-seconds of processing what’s happening was having to ask 'how can I ever trust my own body? I don’t know if I’m ever going to get past this.'”

His first thought was UTMB.  The race that he'd been dreaming of for a couple of years, the race that was being billed as playing host to perhaps the most competitive 100-mile field ever, a race that he'd intended to train for specifically and single-mindedly in the hope of having another one of those magical days that met his expectations and far exceeded the expectations of others, was gone.

And that was only the most immediate of the dreams that had slipped away.  For all Gary knew, he'd never race competitively again.

After flying home to B.C., Gary paid an all too familiar visit to Dr. Boyer.  Surgery was again prescribed and even scheduled before Gary decided to forego it for a second time.

"I was going to give it one more shot and I was really going to rehab it properly once it finally healed."

Once healing occurred, it could be determined if competitive running would be possible.  The doctor had planted the seed that Gary might eventually need to revisit what he'd been doing, consider lower-impact options like cycling and possibly even avoid mountain running entirely.  The reality was that the type of technical downhill running that he loved the most delivered a tremendous amount of stress on joints, tendons and ligaments and his foot had obviously given beneath the strain of that punishment.

The second x-ray, taken a few weeks later, was worse than the first.  Deja vu.

Getting a non-union Jones fracture to "take" is not a guarantee.  Gary knew this, perhaps better than anyone.  He still wanted to avoid surgery but he was going to need help.

Dr. Boyer suggested that Gary try Orthofix, a bone stimulation healing device that introduces an electro-magnetic current to trigger both "sides" of a fractured bone to begin to fuse.  It basically serves as a mediator between two non-communicating parts of the body and gets the healing process back on track.  It wouldn't necessarily be quick but it was progress and non-invasive.  Another x-ray, taken a few weeks later, showed improvement.

The physical process was underway, but there was psychological healing required too.

This second go-round really made Gary question his running mortality.  Had he given too much to a sport where success can be fleeting even without injury?

"As much as I’m passionate about it and I love it, I didn’t even have this in my life in 2003.  In 2004 I got into it and now, in 2011, I’m struggling to remember who I actually am without being a runner .  I decided that I was going to have something positive, long term, that came away from being sidelined. I was going to focus my energy toward something else and accomplish something else and utilize the time so that I could eventually, hopefully, look back on it and say 'this positive came from this negative.'” 

He still very much loved running, loved trail running, loved mountain running and knew that he wanted to be a runner, in some fashion, for the rest of his life.  But even if he could get back to performing at a high level, he understood that at best he likely had a 3-5 year window of  strong, competitive running ahead of him.  He intended to stay connected to running far longer than that.

He accepted a course management role with Five Peaks, a regional trail running series.  He soon began doing the same for MOMAR, an adventure racing series.  That led to the decision to start a 50-mile race of his own (along with co-Race Director Geoff Langford), the Squamish 50.


He turned to a mentor, John Salmonson, the RD at H.U.R.T., for race directing advice and received far more than that.

John had run a staggering 95,000 miles over many, many years of ultrarunning and had done so at an extremely high level.  After a major knee injury, he had been told by doctors that surgery was required and could not wait.  John figured he could sneak in one more 100-miler, did so and was then told by doctors that there wasn't anything left of the knee to salvage.  He never ran again.


“His advice to me was simple, ‘Don’t fight this…let yourself heal and take the time you need.’"

A much needed fork in the road had been reached.

Gary was still working toward a return to elite racing but was gaining perspective and fostering and nurturing a long-term connection to the running community.

I asked if that would have been possible or, at the very least, infinitely more difficult if his prognosis had been as final as John's had been.

"It’s almost impossible to answer because I wasn’t actually confronted with that reality. I never entirely lost faith in the idea that I would get back to where I was.  Ever.  It was never a question in my mind no matter what I was hearing from doctors or anybody else that I would get back to where I wanted to be.  I was just realizing that the process was incredibly longer than I ever gave it credit for initially."

This time around he had spent 4 months on crutches and a couple of additional weeks in a walking boot.  All told, his ankle had been immobile for 8 months of 2011.

Stepping out of the boot and setting aside crutches in October, Gary emerged far more wary.

"I was on edge all of the time, I didn’t trust my own body.  I was hyper-sensitive, hyper-aware.  I didn’t want to chance anything.  It really was the polar opposite of the first time around."

His confidence was shaken and his body was going to struggle to heal the rest of the way without it.  Enter Luke Nelson.

A competitive runner, a ski mountaineering racer and a physician's assistant well-versed in Jones fractures, Luke offered to review Gary's x-rays, give his second opinion and help develop a rehabilitation program.  The plan he mapped out was slow and conservative, but Gary knew that it came from a fellow endurance athlete and a kindred spirit who fully understood what Gary aspired to at the end of the process.

He was allowed to run a single kilometer in the first week of physical therapy.  The second week he was allowed to run a single kilometer twice.  For an ultrarunning champ, it was a maddeningly slow build, but Gary stuck to the plan.

Finally, on January 1st, he ran a full 10 kilometers.

"I customized the distance in a local 50K race that happens on New Year's Day that I had done 5 times and had won once before.  That for me was one of those celebrations…even though I ran 10 while everyone else ran 50, I ran 10K and I felt like I had finally gotten something back at that point."

With Luke's continuing guidance, Gary slowly tacked on mileage and received regular follow-up x-rays.  Those films, thankfully, repeatedly confirmed healing and his body sent nothing but positive reports to support those assessments.

Surely Gary would have liked a do-over for 2011, but he'd gained an immeasurable amount of perspective over the full course of sustaining and fully rehabbing his injuries.

Both he and Luke made it to the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc this past August.  Linda came along too and high up in the Alps the week before the race, she answered "yes" to a certain popped question and made the trip, race or no race, one to remember.


Photo courtesy of Gary Robbins
As has happened on several occasions during its short history, the race was modified just before the start due to nasty weather predictions, especially at the highest elevations, and subsequent concerns for the safety of its participants.  A hundred miles was reduced to 104 kilometers and a couple of top registered runners, frustrated by the decision, even pulled out of the race.

But Gary had overcome too much and traveled too far to NOT run.  Nearly 14 hours after starting from the French village of Chamonix, he crossed a finish line that he'd dreamed of for so long.  He wasn't standing on the podium, but sometimes dreams-come-true are sweet even if different than first imagined.

And, after all that had transpired, "there's always next year" probably has a pretty nice ring to it.

"There was an appreciation through being sidelined that I never would have possessed otherwise.  I always would have slightly taken it for granted without ever realizing it.  I always appreciated it, it was never lost on me, but you really don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone and when it was gone I just realized that this was a true love of my life, running, and it came to me late in life and I don’t ever want to be without it and it’s not lost on me now that I am incredibly fortunate to be able to run.  Period."

Welcome all the way back, Gary.

Kid, you'll move mountains!

------------------------------------------------------

*During the weeks that I was transcribing my phone interview with Gary and doing my best to properly tell his story, my girls pulled Oh, the Places You'll Go from their bookshelf and added it to our nightly before-bed reading rotation.  It's a book that I can't remember NOT remembering, but the words took on new meaning in light of Gary's journey and begged to be included (or maybe I begged them).  My thanks and pleas for forgiveness to the timeless Dr. Seuss for letting me repurpose his words here. 

9 comments:

  1. wow! this is amazing Leon - excellent piece of writing and an amazing athelete. Thanks for sharing this - great story and welcome back Gary to be sure - true spirit. An inspiration

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  2. Thanks of course to Leon and thank you for that compliment:)

    GR

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  3. Thanks for a great read - and thank you Gary for baring your soul by showing the video. the trail running community is lucky to have you - as a runner and as a race director (you put on a mean race!)

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  4. Thank you Nicole! And I know you say mean with at least a hint of a smile in there:)

    GR

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  5. Louise and Nicole, thanks much for reading along. I know how inspiring I've found Gary's story from where I picked up on it (halfway through) and through every challenging, sometimes discouraging step thereafter. His recovery is well earned and I can't think of anyone more deserving. Glad you were able to be inspired too!

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  6. Good story and nice writing. Thanks!

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  7. Thank you, Clair! Appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. It's been a joy to share Gary's story.

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  8. Leon, fantastic write up! Gary, congratulations on your recovery and recent success! Your story is an amazing one. As someone also discovering ultrarunning at a not so young age, your injury is my worst fear realized. Stress fractures haunt me on the trail with every step that is not completely pain free. I wish you good health and safe running for the new year!

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  9. Hello, Emil and thanks for reading! Your comments mirrored my own thoughts upon first meeting Gary and learning what he'd been through...and that was before the second break! Here's hoping we all, every one of us, enjoys a healthy, injury-free 2013!

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