The running man

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St. John's -

It didnt make the Telegrams website this Saturday trumped by the Olympic Torch Relay but I had a chance to catch up with ultra-runner and extreme sport enthusiast Gary Robbins of Mount Pearl recently. (Check out Gary's stories at the end of this blog.) Robbins, 33 and now based out of Vancouver where he manages a specialty running store, is a unique breed of running athlete. While some people are content conquering eight-kilometre events or a Tely 10, Robbins goes the extra distance and then some running multi-day stage races that cover distances up to 800km in some of the most challenging and unforgiving terrain the world has to offer. I definitely describe myself as someone who gets bored very easily and that leads to a lot of dreaming and scheming, contends Robbins. But having said that, there hasnt been a single one of these races that hasnt truly scared me at some point. Take the 2006 Primal Quest Expedition in Moab, Utah, the teams first formal expedition adventure race. Notwithstanding the 40-plus degree weather they suffered through for nine straight days across 700km of desert terrain, the event tested them in other ways. They had over eight-kilometres of rope work on the course, and at one point we had to repel 330 feet straight down off an overhanging cliff ... I dont do so good with heights. I had to close my eyes and walk with my teammate on an alternate rope to get through it. Robbins, who made it back to the island this past weekend for the first time in over two years, admits some of his lifelong friends here at home think hes lost a nut or two along the way somewhere. Robbins says hes always approached races with a degree of apprehension, but just enough not to take the fun out of it. Its exciting to get out there and do stuff that scares the hell of out you.

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ULTRA-MARATHONING Going the distance ... and then some Mount Pearl native is involved in competitions that see him run 160 kilometres, non-stop By Kenn Oliver The Telegram

If Gary Robbins has learned anything running hundreds of miles at elevations up to 22,000 feet in 40 degree weather for days at a time, it's that the human body, is an absolutely phenomenal machine.

It's the mind that's weak, says Robbins, an ultra-marathoner and endurance athlete from Mount Pearl who is now based in North Vancouver, where he manages a running specialty store.

You can condition your body to accomplish absolutely incredible feats of endurance, but the mind is generally what stops the body from accomplishing it.

When you're running 160 kilometres non-stop, there are many times where your mind is telling you to stop, but your body is conditioned for it. So if you can just shut out your thoughts and keep your feet moving, you're going to get through it.

So says Robbins, who, since 2004, has conditioned his body and mind by competing in expedition adventure races and ultramarathons - defined anything longer than a standard 26-mile marathon - throughout North America and at a few world-renowned international events.

After moving to Banff in 1996, Robbins lived the lifestyle like the rest of his peers in the popular Alberta resort town.

I went back into the drinking and partying again and got up to 185 pounds, 30 pounds heavier than I am at race weight, says Robbins, who was slightly overweight through much of his childhood years before getting into shape on the ice with his high school hockey team.

His intended stay of six months in Banff turned into a year.

The more time I spent in the mountains, the more I fell in love with it.

After two years in Alberta, Robbins got the travel bug and took off for Australia and New Zealand for a year. Before leaving, he and some friends learned about Eco-Challenge, a multi-day adventure race in which teams of four race non-stop, 24 hours a day, over a rugged 300-mile course, participating in such disciplines as trekking, whitewater canoeing, horseback riding, sea kayaking, scuba diving, mountaineering and mountain biking.

The four of us made pact that we would do an Eco-Challenge one day, he recalls.

Then we sealed it by going out and getting drunk.

After his excursion down under, Robbins landed back in Banff, still partying, still drinking and still having a good time.

But the Eco-Challenge idea never left his mind.

I knew deep down inside it was something I was going to pursue at some point, and I did hold a bit of confidence that I would be good at it, even though I had no inkling as to how or why that would be.

A couple more years passed, as did his celebratory days, and Robbins found himself mountain biking through Central America, which proved to him that he was physically capable of something similar to Eco-Challenge, which had ended its run nine-year run in 2002.

After a move to Whistler, B.C. in 2004, Robbins decided to pursue the dream, and assembled a four-person co-ed team to compete in races in North America and abroad.

One such event was the 2006 Primal Quest Expedition Adventure Race in Moab, Utah, which went down as one of the most physically grueling events of its kind in the last decade. Moab, in the heart of the state's canyon strewn region southeast of Salt Lake City and west of Denver, was experiencing a heat wave at the time of the competition.

It was like being dropped in the middle of hell and then being told, 'the finish line is 700 kilometres ... good luck,' Robbins recounts. It was 45 degrees every day ... for nine straight days.

The next year, still hankering to tackle an Eco Challenge-style event, Robbins headed back to down under for the 800K XDP Australia, where his team finished their first race as a ranked team.

After spending much of 2008 focusing on 50 and 100-mile ultra-marathons - earning himself the distinction as Canadian Ultra-Runner of the Year by the national association - Robbins and his girlfriend, Tamsin Anstey, teamed up to tackle last summer's 180K Gore-Tex Trans-Rockies Run.

Six days staged, 22,000 feet of descent and 20,000 feet of climbing ... an elevation which is whole different ball game, explains Robbins.

Early on, Robbins experienced some difficulty breathing with occasional headaches, but Anstey fared far worse, experiencing severe gushing nose bleeds over the first few days, including one that lasted over half an hour.

She's tough as nails and was actually laughing through the whole process, Robbins reports of his girlfriend, a personal trainer.

The duo went on to win the open mixed division of the race in a total time of 18 hours and 25 minutes, nearly a full hour ahead of their nearest competition. But the duo didn't exactly stroll into the finish line, as race directors had saved plenty of climbing and distance for the last two days of the race.

By that time, we were fortunate enough to have a good lead over second, so we knew if we didn't mess up we would win.

But still, adding a 35K run on the last day, in heat, through the mountains with two big climbs? With about 10 kilometres to go, we both realized we were completely done and couldn't wait for the finish.

Coming across the finish line not long after Robbins and Anstey was another Newfoundlander, Deb Russell, who took part along with her brother, Steve Russell.

They finished much stronger in the race towards the end, and the last couple of days they were on the podium with us. So Days 5 and 6, half the podium was from Newfoundland.

As further proof you can go almost anywhere and meet someone from this province, Robbins met another Newfoundlander during the race - Blaine Penney - who was competing in the open men's division with Trevor Baine.

I didn't know until Day 3 that he was from back home and we were running around each other pretty regularly until then, but hadn't had a chance to trade stories.

Robbins will continue racing through the end of the year and into 2010, starting with his second shot at a 50-mile ultra in Virginia next month, where he finished second in 2008. A top two finish there automatically qualifies him for the Western States Endurance Run, the biggest event of its kind in North America which attracts over 2,500 applicants for 450 spots.

At last year's Western States, Robbins' father, Fred, flew out to support him and was there to walk across the finish line after his son's body gave out with 32-kilometres to go.

It's one of the proudest moments of my life because he had never seen me race before and it was amazing to have him there to support me.

Clearing the path ahead

Ultra-running and endurance races are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Gary Robbins' thrill seeking ways.

He regularly competes in mountain biking and snowshoeing races, kayaking, alpine skiing (once in the buff), bungee jumping, white water rafting, and pretty much anything else that can get the adrenaline pumping.

Robbins isn't so bold to contend he's been 100 per cent confident before any of these activities, but maintains his experiences travelling solo have taught him ignore human nature.

As soon as you come up with a dream or big idea, the first thing you go is try to talk yourself out of it and tell yourself why you can't do it. It's destructive behaviour, but it is generally what most people do and I'm no different.

But once I recognized that, I consciously started working past it. So any time I came up with one of those ideas and started worrying about how it would go, I looked at the flipside and said to myself, 'things are guaranteed to go wrong, but it's going to be a pretty cool experience and things just might go right in the end.' Follow Gary's experiences at garyrobbins.blogspot.com

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