You may not see yourself competing in a 160-kilometre trail race, but everyone knows that sinking feeling after an ill-fated decision.
Runner Gary Robbins, who is based in North Vancouver, is doing some soul-searching after a wrong turn near the end of a gruelling U.S. ultra-marathon on Monday led to a non-finish.
He had hoped to be the first Canadian to ever complete the Barkley Marathons, held nearly every year since 1986 and considered one of the toughest races in the world. Only 15 other competitors, including this year’s winner, have ever finished under the 60-hour deadline.
Athletes run five 32-kilometre loops through the wilderness of Tennessee's Frozen Head State Park, with only two aid stations for water, according to the closest thing there is to an official race website.
This was Robbins’ second year attempting Barkley — he timed out on the fifth loop last year.
Only 40 athletes are accepted each year, paying an entry fee of $1.60. Runners have to collect a series of book pages to prove they followed the course, according to Canadian Running Magazine.
Most of the course is on unmarked trails and it would be easy to cheat.
Robbins had collected all 13 required pages and was near the end of his final lap when fog and energy deprivation caused him to make a wrong turn, he wrote on his website.
“As I went over the final bump on the course I knew I would hit a trail, go left, and run down into camp with maybe five minutes to spare, but the math added up, I was going to make it,” he said.
But the fog knocked him a few degrees off course, and he ended up going further south instead of east. Instead of hitting a landmark he expected, he found himself at the top of a staircase, of which there were none on the course.
Once he opened his map, he realized his mistake, but didn’t have enough time to go back up and over the mountain to fix it.
Instead of correcting his path, Robbins used his compass to try to make it to the finish line under the required 60 hours.
Robbins was only a few minutes away from finishing the race when he made a wrong turn. (Photo: Gary Robbins/Facebook)
This involved crossing a five-metre-wide river that was chest-deep and exiting on the other side about nine metres downstream — a decision he said he never would have made had he not been so sleep deprived and stressed out.
But his last-minute strategy still didn’t work. Not only did he reach the yellow gate six seconds short of the cutoff, but he also went the wrong way — meaning his finish wouldn't have counted even if he made it in time.
“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 wrote.
A video from Canadian Running Magazine shows Robbins’ grief and exhaustion after the finish.
“I have all my pages,” he squeaks out as his wife Linda comforts him.
Race director Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell said in a statement that he failed to complete the course by about three kilometres.
Only one runner, Tennessee’s John Kelly, finished under 60 hours, clocking in at 59:30.
Robbins congratulated his competitor in the recap on his website, calling Kelly’s finish “phenomenal.”
Still, Robbins won't let himself off the hook.
“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,” he wrote.