Gary Robbins WS100: A Tale of Fate and Toughness

I wasn’t supposed to be on the starting line of Western States 2010, yet I knew months in advance that I’d somehow find myself there.

I am a stern believer in fate, destiny, and serendipitous moments, almost to a flaw really. I could tell you stories of how I ended in in New Zealand for New Years Millennium based upon a case of strawberries, or how I traveled Central America for a year based upon a banana’s country of origin, or the confidence I found prior to HURT in January due to a bumper sticker. A rather innocuous string of events one morning led me to belief with absolute confidence that I would indeed be attending ‘The Big Dance’ in June one way or another. I did myself no favors however, finishing third at Mountain Masochist in November, and DNF’ing Miwok in May. At the very last minute though, Montrail ended up with a few unfulfilled sponsored slots in their lap and hence I discovered that my belief in such seemingly random occurrences was once again confirmed to be truth.

If you don’t know the back story to my lead in to Western States it goes something like this…I ran 98 miles in the entire month of May because my vitals were low and I was borderline anemic. Thirty of those miles were during my actual race in San Francisco on May 1st. After my DNF at Miwok I took three full weeks off, then eased back into a few weeks of running before ‘tapering’ back down for the race. Once you factor in a taper leading into the Miwok 100k you could basically say I tapered for two full months into Western States. However, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had done everything in my own power to ensure a successful race down in Squaw Valley. Though my body may not have been hardened through mass mileage in the final eight weeks before the race, I had energy the likes of which I had not possessed in months and my legs had spring in them for the first time all year. I headed to California with a plan and a silent confidence in my absolute ability to pull it off.

“Oh you know, I just want to have a positive race experience. I just want to run smart and see what happens. I’m in the race, I might as well give it a go. I won’t do anything stupid. I know I’m not primed to do much down there. I’ve got nothing to loose though and I’ll call it a day if I feel like it’s the wrong thing to be doing.”

These were my standard answers to people whenever I was confronted with the usual ‘why on earth would you even attempt a 100 mile race after such little mileage and so much down time.’ Inside though I knew I was feeling good. I knew my body was rested and ready to explode. I knew I’d been smart, recovered well, and was genuinely feeling like a runner with a purpose again. I knew I’d have a great race weeks before I even made the journey to the starting line.

In 2009 I raced like the inexperienced idiot I was. I thought I’d finish top three in my second ever 100 miler and first ever WS. I went for it, paid a price, and limped, literally, to the finish line. I hit the river crossing in 8th place and finished the race in 49th. I had learned some harsh lessons, but most of all I felt like I’d ‘paid my dues’ to the course. I walked the final twenty miles to the finish and if nothing else, at least I knew every single root, rock, and turn that I’d have to conquer to have a successful second shot at the thing. I had the entire 100 miles in my head, and I knew exactly how I had to run it to be successful.

5am…the gun explodes and excitement is palpable!

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I got caught up in the hype last year and blasted over the first climb up The Escarpment. This year I simply stared in awe as a string of silhouettes sprinted silently on ahead. I was back around 35th over the first climb and took solace in the fact that I was positioned around such WS veterans as AJW and Erik Skaden. Once we crested the climb I was taken aback by how incredibly cold it was. I suffer from raynauds circulation issues and the stiff breeze removed all dexterity from my hands for the next few hours.

We knew in advance that this was a ‘snow year’ and sure enough we had miles of the white stuff to slip and slide over. It did nothing but favor me though, being a Canadian and all. I was slowly making my way through the field when I turned a corner and saw a pack of ten runners streaming along. All were people I recognized as being very talented and efficient, yet there was little evident snow experience amongst the grouping. I was very easily able to pass the entire pack in a short span, and as I turned an additional corner I was almost brought to laughing out loud. Three runners were very literally sliding backwards while trying to ascend a snow slope. I took one look, saw a clear route just off to the side of the snow, scurried on up, across the top and left them behind. All the lead slider said to me was,

“Huh, so that’s how it’s done!”

As we departed Poppyhead we started down a flatish forest service road, which would filter us onto a mile of pavement and eventually a singletrack undulating trail around a lake. I was in a talented grouping of runners but a few hundred meters up was Canadian Glen Redpath. I had picked Glen in advance of the race for the Master’s win/top ten. Considering he ran a 14h23m 100 miler earlier in the year, and has a wealth of experience, I trusted that he ‘knew what he was doing’ and I made the decision to put in a surge and bridge up to him. As I closed the gap he shoulder checked and I simply said,

“Hey Glen, just me, mind if I tag along?”

The trail around the lake was my kinda running. Constant undulation to keep the leg muscles entertained, and beautiful scenery to keep the mind distracted. Outside of Glen slipping on a rock and ending up fully submerged in a small river crossing we blew through this section without issue.
During my last real mileage weeks in early April I was starting to find a double lower abdomen pain that was becoming increasingly harder to ignore. My mind of course started to play with this,

“Oh well. That’s about right I guess, 3hr would be one of your longest runs in the last six weeks. I’m not surprised really. Everyone knew you’d fall apart out here today. I think even you knew deep down that you couldn’t pull this off. Might as well slow down and call it a day G. You can probably cheer people on from Foresthill…”

And HERE is where I KNEW definitively that I was back to my old self and pretty much recovered from my energy issues…

“Ya know what Gary…**@! YOU! Quit yer **@!ing bitchin and focus on the task at hand. OF COURSE IT HURTS, you’re approaching a marathon distance for running already. It’s supposed to hurt, GET OVER IT!”

And with that, the pain very honestly ceased within minutes…and I went back to enjoying the beautiful terrain we were flying over.

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I crested out of Devil’s Thumb and then began the arduous descent back down towards El Dorado Creek. Up until that point I knew I’d been fueling properly. I knew I’d been pacing properly, and if anything I really felt like I was taking it a bit too slow on the descents. More than anything I just wanted to finish strong and since I was currently in 9th place I really felt no need to unleash and risk consequence. The low I hit coming out of Devil’s Thumb really did scare me, but thankfully it lasted only ten to fifteen minutes and as I popped out of El Dorado and into Michigan Bluff my spirits were significantly bolstered…I’d survived the canyons! At least the main canyons that really beat me down one year earlier.


For the second time in the race I got to see my awesome crew and after hitting up another mandatory weigh in (I stayed fully consistent within 1/2 pound all day long) I did a full clothing change. I was sopping wet and to put on dry clothes felt like a rebirth of sorts. I bounded outta there like a newborn deer and exactly one hour later I picked up my pacer, teammate Matt Hart, at Foresthill, seeing my crew for the third time.

Only 60km-38miles / 7hr left to go…

Hal Koerner was standing in the river as I exited the boat and I now found myself sitting in sixth place overall! I knew what the climb up to Green Gate consisted of, and though I very well could have run it, I just wanted to power hike it so that I was fully ready to close out the final 20 miles the way I knew I could. Since I had no idea what was going on behind me I was fully surprised with Glen Redpath came flying past on the climb. I hadn’t seen him in hours and though I was confident I’d catch him again, it left me wondering what else may be going on back there? I kept telling myself that in a field like this you are never safe. You have to stay the wolf the entire time, for the sheep get eaten alive, and at this point in last year’s race the vultures were already pecking my eyeballs out!

Again at Green Gate I saw my crew, again they were great!

I thought I saw Glen in a chair as I departed Green Gate but I was mistaken for five miles later I caught a runner and was surprised to see that it was Glen himself. Here I thought I’d been chasing for 5th and I was simply pulling back into 6th.

It was great having Glen along this late in the run and though we ran directly with each other less than earlier in the race we most certainly helped push each other along. Glen kept asking about AJW, since they were in the master’s fight against one another, but I hadn’t seen AJW since before Devil’s Thumb and I couldn’t understand his genuine concern. Upon referencing the splits I was truly shocked to see how many runners were right behind me as I hit the river crossing. I can’t help but wonder what mental battles would have ensued had I been just two minutes slower hitting the boat and hence been swallowed up by a small chase pack…ignorance turned out to be complete bliss as I was still only running my race and hadn’t been influenced one ounce all day long!

I was using music in a race for the very first time…and it honestly made a HUGE difference! My blisters were acting up, the body was shutting down, and there was under fifteen miles to go. I was in an all out battle with Glen and though he openly said he wasn’t competing against me, rather trying to outrun AJW, we both knew that 6th was better than 7th and which ever one of us hit the tape first could claim to be the first Canadian runner on the day. In my own head,

“Ain’t no damn way I’m running for 17hr out here to be the SECOND Canadian across that finish line!”

Me to Matt,

I knew where I was going to make my move. I knew where I was going to take sixth place for good and hold it until the line. Having hiked the course last year was one of the best things I could have done.

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We departed Highway 49 in unison, donning headlamps for the very first time. There was but 6.5 miles to go in our 100 mile odyssey. I was a step in front this time, and I had taken enough supplies to carry me through to the finish. I wasn’t about to stop at either of the two remaining aid stations and allow my blisters the better of me once again.
I knew my quads were fine, in fact by that point in the race I knew I’d played my descents a bit too conservative all day long. It didn’t matter though, I was about to finish Western States exactly how I had dreamed of doing…while actually running!

I laid into that descent like I was running a five km time trial on completely fresh legs. I simply let loose because I knew that I could. There was one switchback half way down where you could look back along the route. I could see Glen’s headlamp already 300 meters back. My blisters were now screaming for mercy and that went through my head was,

“Don’t tell me this hurts! This feels too damn good to hurt dammit! This is what you came for, this is what it’s all about, this feels f@#king amazing! You’re about to snag sixth place at Western States!!”

I blew through NHB aid station, simply yelling my number as I pulled out one ear bud and confirmed they heard me. Across the bridge, shoulder check for lights, nothing, hammering up the final climb, my body full of adrenaline now. I felt no pain, I ran like a man possessed. I think I’d struggle to run that final climb as fast as I did at any point in time. I simply wanted this thing over with…and I wanted one more thing…

Some might think this completely trivial, and to that I say you are mostly right. The fastest ever Canadian time at Western States was way back in 1991 by local Knee Knacker legend Peter Findlay. He ran a 17h02m59s. I’ve known this ‘Canadian Record’ for quite sometime, and though I obviously have my goals set higher than just a frivalous Canadian Record it was still something that I was shooting for. I had a lengthy talk with Peter after my run last year and he told me a similar story from his first experience, followed up by the above time in his second running of the race. It made last years debacle a little easier to swallow. I knew from the time I hit Green Gate that I was on pace to challenge this time. I was honestly shooting for sub 17hr and I was going to leave everything I had left in me out on that course to try to snag it!

Through the final aid station at Robie Point, 98.9 miles down…one mile to go now. A tedious paved, uphill mile that I won’t underestimate next year. I took out the music and tried to ‘enjoy’ the run in. Numerous locals were sitting on their decks cheering people on. I thought I could soak it all up but in all honesty I shut it down just a little too early and that final mile was a wee bit torturous!

PLEASE MAKE LET THIS END!

Onto the track now, three hundred meters to go. Just twelve months from the time that I couldn’t even muster enough body strength to run around that track and now I was sprinting it in! I couldn’t believe what I was about to finish…

17h06m20s – SIXTH OVERALL

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Photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama

I had accomplished my goals, all of them.

-Finish the race
-Run intelligently
-Sub 17h30m
-Top eight
-HAVE FUN with it
-Give myself something positive to build upon leading into the 2011 version of the race

Finishing sixth overall means I automatically get to return again next year, and my goals for that race will be significantly different than they were this year. For now it’s time to enjoy a break before the real work begins…

~GR

read Gary’s full story at his blog: http://garyrobbins.blogspot.com/

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