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Training for the Barkley Marathons: A Grouse Mountain trail adventure

The Barkley Marathons is one of the toughest endurance events there is. This secretive race takes place in forested hilly Tennessee terrain ever year. No Canadian has ever finished which is why one Canadian trail runner, Gary Robbins has taken to running the grueling paths on North Vancouver's Grouse Mountain this winter. Photos courtesy of Gary Robbins.


Gary Robbins runs alone on well-treed and snowy Grouse Mountain trails geared up for hours of running in wet or chilly conditions. On the weekends, this is a popular spot for runners and hikers who will often hit the trails on the mountain. Training here, one can expect to be challenged by the terrain. One of the things that makes this location famous in the running community is the fact that it’s host to the Grouse Grind- a three kilometre timed ascent up the steep mountain side. For many, completing the Grouse Grind wins bragging rights on its own. To be training here on the regular like Robbins does is a whole other endeavor.

Since Robbins trains to be able to push through the mental obstacle that comes with hours of solo running in trail races, he opts for less popular paths. “There’s multiple ways to get up and down,” he says referring to the number of trails on Grouse Mountain. “On the weekends I choose an obscure route.” That means he’s out there alone with extra gear, food, hydration and his phone– just in case.



He’s training for The Barkley Marathons, infamous in the running community for being the toughest trail event to complete– and probably the weirdest. The entry process and navigating the course are equally as confusing, mostly because so much of this race is kept a secret. If you do enter, you have to bring your $1.60 entry fee and an item which director Lazarus Lake will specifically ask for. If it’s your first time, you must also bring a license plate.

Though it’s called a “marathon” that’s not the case at all. It’s not 42.2K but 160 (approximately) broken down into five laps. Only 40 runners from around the world are allowed to compete each year but those who do better not expect to be crossing the finish line. This is a race that has a nearly 100 per cent fail rate. If you manage to sign up through its clandestine process, and then manage to be chosen to race as well, you’re not likely to manage to finish the whole thing.

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In fact, in its history which dates back to 1986, only 14 people have ever completed it, none of them from Canada. When someone does, the course in the hills of Tennessee is altered. “My goal is to become the first Canadian finisher,” Robbins says with confidence. No one finished last year.

Running on Skyline Trail, Robbins pushes forward on a trail of run-able gravel underfoot just under two kilometres away from the parking lot. It that stretches underneath the power line, climbs 150 metres and is linked to the B.C.M.C. Trail. That’s a trail he loves running on– its 860-metre ascent plus its tougher terrain makes it an ideal place for trail runners to test their abilities. Think single track, steep, tree routes, switchbacks and a mixture of
different types of rocks to navigate. Robbins runs here climbing father up the mountain until he reaches the snowy parts of the trail. If conditions are bad enough, he’ll switch into his micro-spikes to get better traction.


On a good training day, he’ ll make his way over to Dam Mountain, located just behind Grouse Mountain. To get there, runners or hikers have to dip into back country trails– actually this area is popularly associated with snowshoeing and is nicknamed the Snowshoe Grind. It’s also accessible by gondola. There are always those moments where making it through tough and testing running conditions becomes worth it. As Robbins explains, getting to be at the top of the exposed and snowy summit on clear day is the biggest reward he can get. When he’s that high up, he can take a breather and look out at the view. It’s hard to beat mountaintop scenery– ask any mountain runner, hiker or skier. It’s rarely clear, but when it is Robbins says he can look over to the U.S. and down on the rest of Vancouver. Then he begins his climb to the bottom.


It wasn’t long ago when Robbins received his “letter of condolence” from The Barkley Marathons organizers. Instead of a congratulatory letter, they send participants the following message:

“It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that your name has been selected for the 2016 Barkley Marathons.

It is anticipated that this enterprise will amount to nothing more than an extended period of unspeakable suffering, at the end of which you will ultimately find only failure and humiliation. At best, you might escape without incurring permanent physical damage and psychological scarring, which will torment you for the remainder of your life.

You may, if you so desire, spend the intervening months between now, and April in a futile attempt to perform sufficient training to enable yourself to cover a greater distance before your ultimate demise. however, it would probably be better to spend this time putting your affairs in order… update your will, visit with friends and relatives, and otherwise tie up any and all loose ends.”

To get one is a thrill. That’s because finding out how to enter is nearly impossible. “It’s through a secret email address,” says Robbins. “You can only find it if you find a person who knows the email address.” Once you do, it’s up
to you to figure out when the application window is– apparently that’s late in the year on a specific time and day. The race date itself is also hushed. The event doesn’t even have a website.

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Robbins is one of the few who managed to get it all right– likely because he knows one of the 14 finishers. Even still, he was placed on the wait list. He waited in anticipation until he finally got his letter. “It was a fun day,” says Robbins. “It was fun to just receive that.” Now, he’s just staying on top of training until the big day.

On the trail run, Robbins eventually reaches the resort. There, he hooks to the east and accesses Paper Trail. The snow levels vary quite a bit here but halfway down to the bottom, Robbins can usually expect it to have subsided. This section is steep and follows along a washed out river bed meaning it can be rocky as well. From the river bed, he comes to an old logging road where has to choose steps wisely with loose rock and tree matter in his path. “I don’t have much fear for the physical challenge,” says Robbins. It’s runs like this one that has him prepared. “It’s more the mental and emotional challenge of sleep deprivation and weather.”



That mental challenge will be heightened when running a course so few have ever completed. Somewhere in the Tennesse hills on this ridiculously treacherous course, runners will gather for the 2016 Barkley Marathons. They will have jumped through way more loopholes than any other running event would even think of posing to its participants and yet, that’s only a fraction of what they are to do.

It’s self-supported with no aid stations and barely marked. When it is, it’s marked with a book with an appropriate message. Oh No You’re Gonna Die would be one such example. So few have been successful in this race and when asked whether or not he is daunted by this fact, Robbins answer is a firm no. “I feel no discouragement at all. I have confidence in the fact that I can accomplish this.”

When Robbins makes it to the bottom of Grouse Mountain, climbing and descending those trails would have just taken him anywhere from an hour to an hour and 20 minutes. He refers to that as lap one. At the bottom of the mountain, he takes a deep breath. No Canadian is going to finish the Barkley Marathons doing this work alone. It’s a long training day and he has time to do that six more times over. Maybe it’ll be worth it. He feels confident anyway, he has not once brought up the state of his current will.