Most people take 10-12 days to hike the unrelenting ups and downs of the Wonderland Trail.
Most people fill a backpack with 40 or more pounds of gear to sustain themselves for the 93-mile trip around Mount Rainier.
Most people who take on the trail can’t imagine a trip like the one Canadian ultrarunner Gary Robbins had earlier this summer.
At 5:56 a.m. on July 1, Robbins stepped on the trail at Longmire, waved goodbye to his seven-person support crew and started running clockwise around Mount Rainier. At 12:48 a.m. on July 2 he was back in Longmire, the first known person in the 100-year history of the trail to finish in less than 20 hours.
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Robbins, 38, finished the trail in 18 hours, 52 minutes, bettering the previous fastest known time by 2 hours, 1 minute.
“It was quite the emotional high,” Robbins said. “I was walking like a 95-year-old man for five days afterward, but it was very special.”
Robbins couldn’t have asked for much better conditions for his record attempt. An unseasonably dry and warm year meant the trail was almost entirely clear of snow in early July. Most years, snow can linger until September, when most Wonderland ultrarunning records are attempted.
A small film crew recorded the event for a documentary that’s scheduled to be posted online this fall.
A FAMILY LANDMARK
Mount Rainier had a special place in Robbins’ family history even before his record run.
The North Vancouver resident met his wife, Linda Barton-Robbins, at a 50-mile race on Orcas Island in 2009, and they started dating in 2011. She’s from Everett, but moved to Tacoma, where she worked in the Pierce County Library’s bookmobile.
For two years the couple lived apart, driving four hours on weekends and holidays to be together.
“Rainier was a landmark in our relationship,” Robbins said. “When I saw it, I knew I was almost there.”
And now the mountain has even more meaning. Less than seven weeks after the record run, on Aug. 18, Linda gave birth to the couple’s first son, Reed.
The sun was rising at 4:38 a.m. on July 1, but Robbins wasn’t. He was still sleeping at Cougar Rock Campground.
“A few people ask why I didn’t start earlier,” Robbins said. “I didn’t want to compromise my sleep.”
Robbins says his pace doesn’t slow when he runs at night by headlamp, so trading daylight for sleep wasn’t a concern. Plus, able to run in July instead of September meant he’d have more daylight than he originally hoped.
The terrain wasn’t a concern either. As challenging as the trail and its 24,000 vertical feet of climbing is, Robbins was well prepared.
The Newfoundland-born athlete cut his teeth in endurance racing by competing in adventure races on courses that could include 600 miles of running, kayaking and cycling. He narrowed his focus to running in 2004.
It took several years for him to condition his body to take the pounding. He finished 20th in his first race, several hours behind the leaders, and spent years solving the puzzle of how he could catch them.
In 2008, he ran his first 100-mile race. In 2011, he won his first 50-kilometer race.
He worked as a bellman in Whistler and at a shoe store in Squamish, British Columbia. He started his own trail running series and now lives North Vancouver, where he has easy access to the Coast Mountains.
Robbins says a typical training run includes at least one 3,500-foot climb. And it’s not uncommon for him to run 20 kilometers or more. According to his training log on Strava, an athletic activity tracking website, Robbins this year has run 1,637.5 miles and 445,066 vertical feet as of Sept. 7.
And almost every step has been on trails. “I don’t run on pavement,” Robbins said.
SUSHI TO GO
For his lap around Mount Rainier, Robbins wore a blue shirt and black shorts, yellow and blue trail running shoes, yellow sunglasses and an impressive red beard. (“My wife likes it,” he said.)
He carried a lightweight hydration vest loaded with a calorie-infused drink that, along with gel shots, cashews and other food, would fuel the trip. Robbins also ran with a GPS watch that recorded his time and route.
Most record attempts on the trail are done in the same direction as Robbins,’ starting with the 34-mile Longmire-to-Mowich Lake stretch that’s consider by many to be the most challenging.
Robbins support crew was waiting for him at Mowich Lake, White River and Box Canyon, where his stops lasted 7-15 minutes.
There he could reload his hydration vest, unload trash and eat like only an endurance athlete should.
Coke, chips, watermelon and avocado sushi rolls.
“I love them, they’re delicious, they’re easy to digest, they’re high in calories, they’re high fat, they’re high carbohydrates,” Robbins said of the three sushi rolls he consumed during the run. “It’s the perfect food.”
MIND OVER MATTER
Robbins says he’s never done a 100-mile run without at some point feeling like quitting.
If the Wonderland Trail were 7 miles longer, Robbins said, it would compare to some of the toughest 100-mile courses.
So as perfect as the conditions were, as a quickly as he was moving, as stunning and distracting as the scenery was, the trip was still a mental grind.
“Doubt always creeps in,” Robbins said. But Robbins knows well how to handle doubt.
“It comes down to self coaching and knowing in advance that you can do it,” Robbins said. “It is a huge mental challenge.”
As he ran, Robbins turned off the display on his GPS watch, running by feel and “losing myself in the beauty of Rainier.” He saw just one other hiker before noon. They startled each other, laughed, said hello and continued on.
Robbins sometimes distracts himself by thinking of an upcoming landmark along the trail or thinking of other things. And on the Wonderland trip he ran with pacers for part of the trip.
He ran with Willie McBride of Portland for the first 10 minutes but they separated because they ran at different paces. Two more friends from Portland, Jennifer Love and Jeff Fisher, ran with him for about an hour when he left Mowich Lake. And Yassine Diboun of Portland ran with him from White River to Longmire.
The strategy clearly worked. He rarely needed more than 15 minutes to cover a mile, and he finished strong, covering the final 1.4 miles in 10 minutes, 40 seconds.
HOW FAST IS TOO FAST?
Sometimes it seems Wonderland hikers speak in coded language when they hear of people finishing the trail faster than they did.
“That’s too fast to really enjoy the trail,” is the common refrain.
“I’ve heard this before, and it’s definitely an interesting topic to discuss,” Robbins said. “But I’d go as far as to say when you are traveling at speed and stretching your body that much, it puts you in a much different head space. And I find that I actually see and appreciate and experience more of the trail when my body is being stressed physically.
“I have never felt for a second that I’m missing or losing out on experiences. If anything, I feel like I get a greater experience because you get unique interactions based on how you are moving through.”
The only thing Robbins misses out on is taking pictures. “But they get committed pretty deep to memory just from how intense those moments really are,” Robbins said.
Plus, he’s already taken a more leisurely hike on the Wonderland. In 2014, he did it in three days.
MADE TO BE BROKEN?
Ten years before Robbins broke the 20-hour mark on the Wonderland Trail, a former record holder predicted it would happen.
In a 2005 interview with The News Tribune, Skye Thompson said not only did he think a trail runner could finish the Wonderland in less than 24 hours, but he was certain an elite runner would one day break the 20-hour barrier.
On Sept. 11, 2003, Thompson posted a fastest known time of 25 hours, 45 minutes as a documentary crew recorded the run.
The next day, mountain biker John Stamstad ran the trail in 24:01.
Stamstad’s record stood for three years until ultrarunning star and The Evergreen State College graduate Kyle Skaggs ran it in 20:53.
Skaggs’ time was so revered, Robbins and others believe it may have discouraged others from trying to lower the record.
In fact, Robbins wasn’t sure he should bother trying. He dreamed about it, but didn’t fully commit to the idea until he ran the trail with friends last summer. It was during the three-day trip that he started to believe he could break the record.
The record may have changed again, but the question remains: Can somebody go even faster?
As Robbins prepared for his record attempt, he consulted three Northwest ultrarunners: Andrew Miller of Corvallis, Oregon, Maxwell Ferguson of Renton and Justin Houck of Seattle.
He says all three are fast enough to threaten his record if conditions are right. Miller is 19 and the most likely candidate, Robbins said.
With the perfect combination of trail conditions, weather and fitness, Robbins could see somebody shaving 30 minutes or maybe even an hour off his time.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, somebody will lower this,” he said. “Records are made to be broken.”
Follow professional ultrarunner Gary Robbins’ running exploits online:
His website: garyrobbins.ca.
His race series: Robbins founded the Coast Mountain Trail Series, trailseries.ca.
The Squamish 50: Robbins is race director for the Squamish 50, squamish50.com.
Wondlerland documentary: YouTube’s TheGingerRunner is producing a documentary on Robbins’ Wondlerland record.
His next race: Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji, a 100-mile run around Japan’s Mount Fuji on Sept. 25. Robbins was fourth in 2013. ultratrailmtfuji.com.