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For most of 2010, North Vancouver ultra runner Gary Robbins was on a roll.
In June of that year, he placed sixth in a 160-kilometre race in California, finishing in 17 hours and six minutes. In August, he broke the 13-year speed record on the West Coast Trail, running 75 kilometres in 10 hours and eight minutes. And just two weeks after that, he set the speed record on the East Coast Trail, conquering 215 kilometres in 35 hours in 17 minutes.
Then he broke his foot.
“It was at a running conference [in October]. We were in Oregon and I slipped on a rock. All my body weight came down on my foot. I was in shock,” says Robbins, with a wise half-smile, the kind only possible post-recovery.
“I ran another three kilometres on the foot. I knew I was hurt but I tried telling myself it didn’t happen.”
If Robbins didn’t want to believe the pain, the crutches he was resigned to for the next three and a half months surely got the point across. There was no more racing, no more training, no more record setting. Robbins was laid up, forced to count down the days until he could run again.
There are different ways to get back into shape. Some choose the staggered approach, building their stamina slowly until their prior form returns. Others go head first, picking up their workouts right where they left off. Robbins is of the latter breed.
In January, he finished a 50-kilometre race on crutches with Club Fat Ass. By March he was free of his crutches and training heavily, running 160 kilometres per week. In April, he ran an 80-kilometre race in Olympia, Wash., and placed third. Things were getting back to normal.
Or so it seemed.
In May, Robbins and his girlfriend went on a running vacation in Hawaii and on the second to last day of their trip, he broke his foot a second time.
“It was bad, I heard it. The first time, I didn’t hear the break,” says the 35-year-old Newfoundland native.
“I knew I was sidelined. I was going to be on crutches all summer long and my race season was a wash. But I was almost two kilometres from a trail intersection where I knew I would see people.”
Robbins crawled the two kilometres, over roots and rocks. Eventually, he came across some other trail users who notified search and rescue. Robbins — secured in a basket at the end of a longline — was airlifted to hospital.
He spent the next four-and-a-half months on crutches. It was the most difficult time in his life. He couldn’t put any weight on the injury. Waiting, sadly, was all that was left.
But worries of his future quickly set in. The doctors said his 160-kilometre runs might not be the best regimen for him anymore. If they were right, then what? Would he ever be the runner he was?
“I finally got out of my walking boot in October and I said ‘I never wanted to go back.’ I talked to numerous doctors to find out what went wrong and the studies I was seeing all said that athletes who go back too quickly get hurt again,” says Robbins, instructively.
“So, I took a gradual approach.”
This time, Robbins didn’t go on a 10-kilometre run until January. Over the course of the entire month, he clocked 115 kilometres, about the same distance he was doing per week after his first injury. In February, he was up to 250 kilometres. In March, 370.
Robbins hasn’t yet got the green light to attempt his previous training levels, but he figures he’s close. So close, in fact, that he’s already planning to compete in a few upcoming races. This month, he’s off to Oregon for a breezy 32-kilometre jaunt. Then, he’ll travel to Washington State and Europe for races before tackling the North Shore's infamous Knee Knacker in July.
All that preparation is leading to two firsts this summer for Robbins: running the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc in France, a 166-kilometre race around the mountain that bears its name, and the inaugural Squamish 50 in mid-August, an event Robbins created. It’s an 80-kilometre (50-mile) race or relay, with a 21-kilometre option for those interested in running a shorter distance.
It’s new territory, admits Robbins, but he says race directing is an avenue he will continue to pursue. Being laid up for so long, he explains, forced him to look at racing in a different way. He volunteered at a handful of events and got a glimpse at the mechanics of staging a race.
And never one to back down from a challenge, Robbins decided to try it himself.
“Race directing and race creating is exactly where I want to go,” he says.
“Being injured forced me to realize that I’m not going to run forever. But I loved going to races and helping out. Going to the community of runners to help got me through it.”
For more information or to register for the Squamish 50, visit squamish50.com.