Gary Robbins will probably not be thrilled that he’s winning this distinction, particularly because it’s so clearly due to his incredible and dramatic performance at the 2017 Barkley Marathons. He would be the first person to point out that being “runner of the year” should require a great achievement: an Olympic medal, a world-class win, or at least a finish.
But Gary Robbins’ performance at the 2017 Barkley was the single most compelling and impressive feat by a Canadian runner all year, finish or no finish. The story of the North Vancouver ultrarunner’s desperate quest to complete the hardest footrace in the world gripped the Canadian running community, and captured the attention of non-runners around the world. Why? Because Gary Robbins is both extremely relatable and also superhuman. His training for the Barkley consisted of running up and down Grouse Mountain multiple times (a single hike up, via the Grouse Grind instead of the BCMC Trail, is considered a massive achievement for most), through the middle of the night, just so he could hit the equivalent of summiting and descending Everest a few times (yes, the Barkley is that hard). But when he talks of both his successes and his failures, Robbins usually leads with a self-effacing anecdote. While on tour helping filmmaker Ethan Newberry promote a film about Robbins’ failed attempts at the Barkley, Robbins was able to find levity in that tragic wrong turn on the fifth and final lap in the Tennessee mountains. It takes a special type of person to make light of the biggest professional failure of their career. And an even more impressive one to turn it into something positive, which he’s now shared with the entire running community.
Elite runners are often reserved, but Robbins is straightforward, charming and exudes confidence. He’s not afraid of making a bold claim, as he did before attempting the Barkley for the first time in 2016, saying he would certainly become a finisher. Shortly after his heartbreaking defeats of this nearly impossible race, the Newfoundland and Labrador-native said he’d get the Barkley done, even if he had to keep returning, like some twisted version of the plot from a Sartre play. Robbins is sticking to his word, putting his other ambitions on hold for a third year in a row in order to invest months into extreme training, just to finish the Barkley.
In the months following his recovery (which included an inability to fully feel his own feet for weeks), Robbins also popped off a little jaunt in the Colorado Rockies called the Nolan’s 14. The race is comparable to the Barkley in its brutality – Robbins and three-time Barkley finisher Jared Campbell teamed up to climb and descend the 14 summits over 14,000 feet in the mountain range over the course of 100 miles. They became just the 22nd and 23rd people to ever complete that task. Robbins’ Nolan’s 14 completion itself is worthy of story of the year, but there’s something about the magic of the Barkley Marathons, and Robbins has now become an intrinsic part of that captivating narrative, until he frees himself of it, and finishes.
And what if Robbins becomes just the 16th person (and first Canadian) ever to finish the Barkley Marathons? We’re OK with repeat runner of the year honours.
Oh, and did we mention that just one week after running the 2017 Barkley Marathons, Robbins directed one of his four trail races in B.C.? Now that’s dedication to the running community, and that’s why Gary Robbins is our 2017 Runner of the Year.
The Golden Shoe Awards are CR‘s annual year-end recap and the 2017 edition originally appeared in the January-February 2018 print issue.