Gary Robbins- Story of Barkley Marathon 2017

Barkley Marathon, the 100 mile, legendary race which runs through the thick woods and difficult terrain of Frozen Head State Park, is considered to be one of the most challenging races in the world. Its annual entry limit of 40 runners, secretive registration process and the requirement of collecting pages of books on course to prove that one followed the race map; all this sets Barkley Marathon a class apart.

This time it’s Washington D.C.’s John Kelly who has won this epic marathon with Gary Robbins only 6 seconds away. No doubt he is a great finisher but had he come before Kelly, he still wouldn’t have been counted a winner as he failed to follow the required route near the end. How heartbreaking it must have been for Gary Robbins and his fans. Isn’t it? Well, our heart goes out for him too.

Now, what actually went on this great race? What actually went wrong with Gary Robbins? Let’s find out,

Gary Robbins had an avocado, sushi roll, bacon, coconut milk and rice milk. He also bought a honey and butter sandwich with gluten free bread onto the course to keep him energised and become the first Canadian to finish the race. Conditions in the Tennessee wilderness were extremely cruel that day with the fog setting in every now and then.

Having known each other from earlier races, John and Gary were a great team and got to spend four laps together during the race, before finally launching themselves into the fifth and the final one.

After collecting the 13th and the final book page, having not stopped moving for even a second in the final lap, the fog had once again set in. However, Gary thought that he was going to make it. After sometime something didn’t feel right to Gray Robbins and so he checked the direction which seemed to be right to him in his deprived state. It was only after a while he assessed that he should have rapidly been heading east instead of the south where he had been moving.  In his words, Gary further explains it as,

“I pushed harder now, wondering why the ‘pillars of death’ just would not appear. Did I step over them in the fog and not realise it? Then pushing harder, I came to a staircase and I realised that there are no staircases on the Barkley course.”

Gary ripped open his map and the fatal error hit him hard. He had made a navigational error and moved clockwise instead of anti-clockwise. He did not have enough time left to correct his mistake by going up and over the mountain again. Anyhow, if he did this, he would not be an official Barkley Marathon finisher as he would have gone past the cutoff time.


In that raw moment, he saw two options, turn back up the mountain and finish over time or shoot a bearing and find yet another reserve of energy to get to the yellow gate(finish line) in under 60 hours. He chose the latter. He regretted this decision later, though.

Gary Robbins bushwhacked down the mountain at breakneck speed and in the end, had less than three minutes left till the 60-hour cut-off. He thrashed his way to the road, put his head down and gutted down the hardest three minutes of his life but only to collapse at the gate, over time and from the wrong direction, unfortunately. He says,

“I did not technically finish the Barkley Marathon and that is no one’s fault but my own. That one fatal error with just over two miles to go haunts me.”

In Barkley Marathon you don’t get to select the route that best favours you, instead, the runners need to navigate between books, off the trail, but in a very specific direction of travel. On his finishing the race 6 seconds over, Gary Robbins says,

“I put Laz and the race in a precarious situation and in hindsight I’m glad I was six seconds late so that we didn’t have to discuss the validity of my finish.”

With this, the Canadian trail runner who was hoping to make history by becoming the first Canadian to finish the Barkley Marathons went home heartbroken. However, the race director, Lazarus Lake rightfully puts Gary Robbins’ effort as,

“A story for the ages”