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Going the distance

The rise of ultra marathons in the sea to sky corridor

Gary Robbins lies in the fetal position on the cold, hard pavement of a Tennessee state park. The North Vancouver ultra marathoner has just emerged from the wilderness after 60 straight hours of navigating his way around a nearly impossible race, dreamed up by an eccentric local named Lazarus Lake.

As he mumbles breathlessly, his wife (an accomplished ultrarunner in her own right) Linda Barton-Robbins, leans over him, their son Reed perched on her hip, and translates: "He has all his pages."

Sounding entirely depleted, Robbins chimes in: "I went the wrong way."

Just over a year later, the story is cemented in running lore: Robbins narrowly failed to become the first Canadian to finish the Barkley Marathons due to a navigational error on his fifth and final loop—and, as a result, missed the cutoff by six seconds.

If you haven't yet seen the documentary, The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young—which brought massive attention to the race after it was added to Netflix in 2016—here's a quick rundown: it consists of five loops totaling 160 kilometres, boasts a whopping 16,500 metres of vertical climb, begins at a different time each year—with a start indicated by the blowing of a conch shell—has an entirely unmarked course and requires its runners to have top-notch navigational skills—all on practically no sleep. Racers prove they travelled the entire route by collecting pages with numbers corresponding to their bib from several books hidden along the way.

Over the course of its 32-year history, only 15 people have ever finished.

For anyone who has ever toed the line at a race where failure is a very real possibility, it's tangibly painful to watch Robbins in physical and emotional distress at the finish line. But the wrenching scene also neatly captures the essence and appeal of ultra marathons: runners train so hard for a goal they desperately want to achieve, physically pushing themselves to the brink, just to discover the furthest reaches of their capabilities.

'The Barkley bump'

Robbins returned to the Barkley start line on March 24 of this year. Lake surprised competitors by holding it a week before its traditional April Fool's Day start date because he worried all the attention from the documentary would drive onlookers to the area seeking a glimpse of the now infamous race.

In much less dramatic fashion, Robbins failed to finish again this year—along with every other runner in the race. The weather conditions were so treacherous it was nearly impossible. "This year I knew everyone was watching and I did my best to pretend that wasn't the case," Robbins says, a month after returning home from his third attempt at the race. "It was a personal endeavour and I didn't want to put undue stress on myself. I was aware of that."

He continues: "I'm proud of what I was able to accomplish. I'm definitely unsettled and frustrated, still, with how it played out. But getting a bit more distance from it has made the emotional component a little more acceptable. I'm at peace with it."

But there have been benefits to the high-profile failure (covered in detail in a 2017 documentary, Where Dreams Go To Die, directed by fellow runner Ethan Newberry. The pair toured the film around Canada and the U.S.—with Lake in tow for some of those dates—last fall).

For one, runners stop him on the North Shore trails nearly every time he's out for a run just to tell him what an inspiration he is. But perhaps more surprisingly, the races he is involved in as a director have seen a huge spike in popularity.

That's due in large part to ongoing hard work, but also what he called "the Barkley bump."

"If you're getting media and press, it will tie back," he adds.

Take for example, the Squamish 50, which Robbins and co-race director Geoff Langford have put on for the last seven years. It features a 23-km distance, a 50-km and a 50-mile option, as well as a 50/50 (50 miles the first day, 50 km the second).

"The 50K sold out in under four hours," Robbins says. "All the distances sold out insanely quick. Each year has sold out a little faster ... We're at big numbers now with 1,000 entry spots. I was emotionally prepared for it to take longer to (sell out) this year than last year. I was in shock at how rapidly it unfolded. I didn't anticipate it."

The pair also oversees the popular Coast Mountain Trail Series—which includes six races over the summer that take place at various distances and elevations, from North Vancouver to Whistler. Many in the local running community have credited the series with helping grow the trail-running scene to its current robust state.

This year, the pair added a 110-km distance to the scenic Whistler Alpine Meadows (WAM) race, which takes runners into the alpine, past cascading waterfalls and jutting glaciers. (That's pending final permit approval, with only 100 km guaranteed at press time.)

It was the first distance of the race to sell out.

"It's the most difficult (distance and) there was such a demand for it," Robbins says. "I'm over-the-moon excited. It's everything I dreamt it would be."

It's unfathomable to many that anyone would take on such enormous distances—coupled with massive elevation gain and technical terrain—but a growing number of runners in the Sea to Sky are up for the challenge.

As demand grows, so, too, do the number of ultra races. More runners from around Canada and abroad are flocking to tackle the stunning and unique terrain offered here. "The sport is growing, but it seems to me more people in the sport are really fuelling the additional uptake in races and travel," Robbins says. "What we might not have seen 10 years ago is people getting into trail running, wanting to progress to an ultra and continuing to do distances to see where their own limitations are."

Long-distance relationship

Fifteen years ago, when Munro "Munny" Duncan first started running ultra marathons—quickly earning a sponsorship from Salomon, which had recently started making trail-running shoes—the local scene looked much different.

Back then, there were a few beloved trail races, including the 25-km Rubble Creek Classic (which ended in 2016), the Whistler Valley Trail Race, a family-friendly 5K and 10K through the trails of Lost Lake (which marked its 26th installment in 2017), as well as the 25-km Comfortably Numb race, which has been running since the early 2000s.

The Tenderfoot Boogie, which started in 2010 with a course from Squamish to Whistler, is one of the longest-running ultra marathons still taking place in the area. Since then, several other races and running groups—such as We Run Whistler—have emerged.

"It really started around 2005," Duncan says. "I think it was just a change with people wanting to get off the road. It started growing and growing. For me, doing multiple ultras and multi-day races, I think people just want to get out there more."

Jen Segger, who began her ultra career shortly after Duncan, was also approached by Salomon and added to a team that included the now uber-famous (in ultra marathon terms) Spanish athlete Killian Jornet. Like many locals—including Robbins—she started out in adventure racing, which involves long-distance, multi-discipline team events. "I realized quickly I had an ability to suffer a high pain threshold, but more than anything I loved the long distances," says Segger, who lives in Squamish. "I got picked up by Salomon and from there my whole career exploded. I spent the next eight to 10 years racing around the globe."

Back then, she didn't have a lot of friends locally who could relate to what she was doing. "Races were much smaller then. Now, you see everything selling out in minutes or days. I think, like anything, people catch wind of it and see some cool challenge and they want to try... It's a natural progression from marathon to 50K to 50 mile to 100 mile. People get hooked."

As locals have taken to the trails, the races have multiplied and progressed, and the corridor has become a destination for runners looking to incorporate a must-do race into their vacation. "There are ultras going on absolutely everywhere," adds Segger, who along with working as a running coach, recently launched guided, long-distance running retreats, and directs the Loop the Lakes trail race in Squamish. "As opposed to a vacation, you go do an ultra and tie a vacation into that. But what we have is world-class terrain. The word is out there. Whistler has always had its reputation, but I think now what you're seeing is hiking trails being used by runners. We do it quicker and faster, but we can link up more terrain. It's pretty cool."

Robbins confirms that it's actually visitors who make up a large portion of the runners signing up for the Squamish 50. "We did an economic impact study two years ago—and we've grown since then. We generate $1 million for the province of B.C. from the Squamish 50 alone," he says. "This is their big adventure travel trip for the year."

The race scene in the corridor might have exploded in the last handful of years, but globally it's been growing since the release of the popular book, Born To Run by Christopher McDougall, in 2009, says Alex Hutchinson, a Toronto-based running and fitness journalist.

"I think you can trace a bit of it back (to that book)," he says. "Trail running, ultra marathons and the more general concept of 'natural running'—running being something you do in a more natural setting than down a flat road. Trail running was already on an upswing at that point, but Born to Run played a role."

Hutchinson, who recently released his own book titled Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, also points to the popularity of obstacle races like Tough Mudder, "which is not the same as trail races, but is in the same family tree of looking for challenges in a way that's non-traditional," he says. "Some of the mystery has gone from conquering the marathon. Oprah has run a marathon. It's not that everyone has done it—I've only run one—but it's no longer this undiscovered territory. People are looking for something new."

Blazing trails

Part of what's allowed trail running to maintain its grassroots feel despite a steady increase in popularity is the fact it's simple, accessible and therefore there's not a massive industry behind it the way there is for sports like mountain biking, skiing and snowboarding.

To run an ultra you need limited gear: a backpack or running vest, solid trail running shoes and the appropriate clothing. Sometimes, runners will get creative, explains Duncan (who also advocates for runners heading into the backcountry to carry necessary emergency gear).

"A friend of mine had some chafing issues once and had to use lip balm on her thighs so she wouldn't bleed," he says. "It's so simple. We bring real food, not gels. We do dates and figs and chocolate-covered bacon. Trust me on that one. It's really good."

To that end, the businesses that have popped up locally to serve trail- and ultrarunners are uniquely positioned to embed themselves in the running community. Most races donate some or all of their proceeds to local charities, host free or low-cost group training runs, and seem genuinely invested in cheering participants across the finish line.

One business that exemplifies that authentic feel is Run Like a Girl (RLAG). Co-founded by a nurse, Hailey Van Dyk, and an artist, Courtney Burt, it started out as a blog in 2013 for friends and family to follow along as the pair trained for a trail marathon in the Yukon.

"Then we entered a photo contest with Arc'teryx and we ended up winning," Van Dyk says. "(The blog) went international overnight. All of a sudden it was like our first sponsor."

From there, as they progressed in their own running endeavours, it grew from T-shirt sales to bootcamps to races—culminating in their first trail marathon last year in Squamish, called Be Fearless, which donated all proceeds to mental health awareness.

Full disclosure: I ran this race and was delighted to arrive at the finish line, sweaty, sore and depleted, only to be greeted by Van Dyk and Burt doling out hugs, high fives and medals. "That's why I could never go back to road (running). It's so different. You can be last—I've been last—and you still get the same hugs and high fives as the first person," says Burt.

A 42-km course might not seem all that different from a 50-km, but the Be Fearless race serves as a starting point for runners who are too intimidated to make the leap to an ultra. "I've heard a lot of people doing it as a stepping stone," Van Dyk says. "We designed it to be very runnable."

The largest business component of RLAG is their retreats, which take people on trips to places like Costa Rica, Iceland, Chile and Peru—as well as one that brings people to Squamish—to take part in organized outdoor adventures. (Segger's new running retreats stick closer to home, taking on the West Coast Trail, Chilcotins and Purcell mountain range.)

"Where Run Like A Girl can grow from here (is by doing) things that we're already surpassing the market in—that's our unique travel experience and just staying true to our roots with the charities," Van Dyk says.

As Robbins explains, it's challenging to turn a profit putting on races. He and Langford paid out of pocket to get the Coast Mountain Trail Series to a sustainable point. "It's a really good time for the sport right now," he says. "There's been an uptick (in races). With that comes a lot of additional choices for events, which is very good, but I'm also seeing a lot of subpar events that pop up and they're expecting to make money from the start and they're not prepared to put in the years you need to... Honestly, myself and my business partner had other revenue streams. We knew we wouldn't make a living off this to begin with. It was in doubt for an extended period of time, which in the end, makes it that much sweeter."

A more traditional brick-and-mortar business that opened in response to the growing trail-running scene is Capra, a running store in Squamish. Three Vancouver runners—Mike Murphy, Solana Green and Tyler Mcgown—banded together to open the shop two years ago. "We had been spending a fair bit of time in Squamish. This is the place to be for outdoors—mountain biking, running, stand-up paddleboarding, skiing," Murphy says. "There's another niche more specific than (trail running) and that's mountain and alpine running. Myself, and a lot of people I knew, were really craving that. No one was doing it. (Squamish) was a really great location for that style of running. You have access to everything here."

While Murphy doesn't readily tout his running achievements, they're impressive, making him a resource to other local runners during the store's group runs, which take place three times a week. He ran his first ultra just six years ago—the 80-km Meet Your Maker up Blackcomb Mountain—and won it. "It was so hard and I went through so many highs and lows," he says. "I ended up winning the race by pure stubbornness. I was hooked and the struggle and process was exactly what I was looking for."

Last year, he won the Squamish 50's 50-mile distance—despite rolling his ankle in the parking lot before the race—and a month later took first place in the 55-km distance of the WAM.

"I'm pretty excited to try the 110K (at WAM)," he says. "It will be, hands down, the most challenging race most people in this area have ever attempted. I think a lot of people maybe don't understand how challenging it's going to be."

'The effort paradox'

There's no denying 110-km race will be a challenge, as Murphy predicts, but by next year, Robbins hopes it pales in comparison to his latest pièce de résistance: a 175-km distance added to the WAM that will take runners up Whistler's four main mountains. "What I hope and want and am dreaming of... is no contrived sections, no out-and-backs, nothing to create distance," Robbins says. "It's a pure running experience. When we get that off the ground, we'll see that become the preeminent 100-km-plus race in Canada right away. I believe in a few years we'll see runners flocking from around the globe."

With coaching, his own running goals and directing several races, Robbins says he's already at capacity and this race will serve as his "crowning achievement."

"We have seven years as race directors," he says. "We've needed every one of those seven years to get to a point to manage a race that big."

But how does a runner get to the point—physically and mentally—of tackling a race that long and grueling? For perspective, imagine running from Whistler to Langley in a single day, then add in well over 6,000 m of thigh-burning elevation gain.

While researching his book, Hutchinson, the running and fitness writer, came up with a few explanations. One can be found in a paper published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences written by Michael Inzlicht, a University of Toronto psychologist. It explores the idea of "the effort paradox."

"Normally, if something costs more effort we value it less," Hutchinson says. "We would pay less for something that requires a lot of work. But there are situations where we value things because they require effort—one example is running. There's something in us—it's not really clear what, but psychologists are trying to understand why it is we're drawn to things that are hard particularly because they're hard."

What is a little more established is just how much mental stamina plays a role in endurance sports. "There's a bunch of research about how replacing negative self-talk with positive self-talk can change your endurance," he says. "A hallmark of great endurance athletes—whether deliberately or by luck—is they've learned to have this mental outlook."

While you could take 100 people off the street, put them in a lab and test their fitness to determine who would do best in a marathon, when you take a group of elite athletes, they generally have the same set of physical tools, Hutchinson points out. "From one day to the next, or month to the next, my physical attributes change very little, so the difference is mental."

For many ultra marathoners, there seems to be another key ingredient: a deep and earnest love for the simple act of running in the mountains. "There's roots, rocks, different pitches; you must be constantly scanning the trails and finding the best line," says Duncan. "If you think back to when we were kids, we actually did all this. Some people just stop for some reason. (The appeal is) the serenity of nature, running with my friends and being at peace. I go out on these mega missions with my trail-running partner and we sit there on ridges and have a snack and watch the world go by—then start running again."

For all of his mindboggling race pursuits, Robbins agrees. "I rapidly fell in love with the lifestyle around trail running," he says. "Myself and my wife are people who thrive and love to be outside on the trails and in the mountains. If there were no such thing as trail racing, it wouldn't alter how we live our lives. It makes us who we are and brings balance to us physically and emotionally."

Still, that doesn't mean Robbins is ruling out his fourth attempt at the Barkley Marathons just yet. "When I get to that finish line, I will cherish every single step and the way it unfolded," he says. "It will be one of my proudest achievements because of the challenges I faced. Once this journey concludes, I will cherish it."