B.C. ultramarathoner Gary Robbins has given up his quest to finish a race that has beguiled him since 2016, saying that spending time with his family is more important than trying to complete the 160-kilometre Barkley Marathons in Tennessee.
"Thank you Barkley for all that you've given me. I did something special out there in 2017, and I'll always cherish that experience and those memories," said the 45-year-old in a post on Instagram.
The Barkley Marathons is run in Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee in March or April of each year. The race field of 40 participants must run 160 kilometres in no more than 60 hours.
Interest in the race has grown steadily since 2014, when a documentary called The Race that Eats its Young was released.
It illustrated the near-impossible demands of the race, which features around 18,000 metres of climbing and bizarre customs of race creator and director Gary Cantrell, also known as Lazarus Lake, who keeps most details of the race secret, requires a $1.60 US entry fee, starts the race by lighting a cigarette and has the "Taps" melody played on a bugle when a runner drops out or doesn't finish.
Since 1986, the course has only been completed 18 times by 15 runners, making it a race that many ultramarathoners deem the ultimate accomplishment in their athletic careers.
"The Barkley is like a vortex that takes over your entire life," said journalist and runner Michael Doyle, who covered the race each time Robbins went to try and become the first Canadian to finish.
Robbins, who lives in Chilliwack with his wife Linda and young son Reed, had become one of the most prominent Barkley protagonists.
After a failed first attempt in 2016, where he said he hallucinated from sleep deprivation, he returned more determined in 2017 to finish. And he nearly made it, but went the wrong way on the last lap and came in six seconds beyond the cutoff time.
The dramatic finish, caught on camera, left him lying and dazed at the starting gate and made him the most famous non-finisher in the history of the race.
According to Doyle, the experience left Robbins unwilling to move on from the race without besting it.
"It's very clear he became obsessed with it and it makes a lot of sense because it's such a daunting task," said Doyle. "It just became this all-encompassing, this all enveloping-absurdist quest for him."
Since 2017, Robbins has had poor luck with the race. Bad weather foiled him in 2018. In 2019, he was injured and did not participate. In 2020 — at peak fitness from running up and down mountains in the Lower Mainland — the race was cancelled due to COVID-19. He declined to participate in 2021 because of border restrictions around the pandemic.
In 2018, another documentary about Robbins' attempts at the race, called Where Dreams Go to Die, was released.
Robbins declined an interview to talk more about his decision to abandon his dream to conquer the race, but wrote in his post that the pandemic has changed his priorities in life.
"It's allowed me to step back and to recognize what brings me happiness and joy, and within that, what is sustainable and what is not," he said in the post.
"I've long since come to terms with the fact that the race does nothing to define me, and a finish will bring nothing more than exactly that, a race finish."
He wrote about the importance of being with his family, especially his son Reed, who is now six, and not wanting to be pulled away from his life to accomplish the arduous and time-consuming training required to attempt something like a 160-kilometre race.
"My son is growing up far too fast, and I don't want to be staring at a 10-year-old wondering where the time went, realizing I'd taken it all for granted," he wrote.
People online are commending Robbins for his honesty around the decision.
Doyle says Robbins' saga shows how important it is to develop perspective in life, even when it means giving up on a goal you thought was central to your identity.
"It must be really difficult ... a realization for somebody that is so competitive, so talented and so accomplished in something that he's had a great deal of mastery over for a number of years," he said.
"It's a really mature thing to do."
Doyle says he is sad not to be able to witness Robbins take another shot at the race and that the event will miss his participation. It's a race Robbins has come the closest to finishing, since John Kelly finished it in 2017.