It was grey and rainy at the finish line of the grueling Barkley Marathons on Monday afternoon, and people were starting to lose hope that North Vancouver’s Gary Robbins would become the first Canadian ever to finish.
The event puts participants through a punishing 100-mile (160-kilometre) course that wends its way through woods and bush in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. All athletes must finish in under 60 hours.
They do five loops in total, with 12 hours to finish each one. They have to collect pages of a book at a series of checkpoints to show that they followed the course properly.
As of Monday morning, only 14 people had ever finished the Barkley Marathons since it began in 1986.
Robbins participated in the Barkley Marathons last year but he was forced to give up at the 50-hour mark. He was determined to finish this time.
His wife, young son and two friends were among about 50 to 60 people waiting for him at the finish line on Monday, with no sign of the runner.
Then, from behind, they heard a man say he was coming up the way.
About 50 to 60 people turned around to find Robbins powering to the finish line, walking poles in both hands.
People cheered and applauded as he leaned over a gate that marked the finish. Then joy turned to heartbreak as it emerged that Robbins missed the 60-hour mark by only six seconds. However, race director Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell later clarified on Facebook Robbins failed to complete the course by two miles, not six seconds.
As he collapsed to the ground, Robbins could be heard saying that he went up the wrong trail in the fog and ended up hitting the finish line from the opposite direction.
Robbins did, however, manage to collect all the pages he needed to finish.
Nevertheless, he didn’t arrive there within 60 hours. So he didn’t finish at all.
“You have to come in on the right trail anyway,” Cantrell told Canadian Running Magazine. Lake said had Robbins come in within the 60-hour limit, he still would have been disqualified because he came in the wrong way.
Washington, D.C.’s John Kelly became the 15th finisher of the Barkley Marathons with a time of 59 hours and 30 minutes — on his third time trying.
Michael Doyle, editor-in-chief of Canadian Running, said Robbins’ arrival at the finish line was the “craziest thing I’ve ever seen in running.”
“I think that initially there was sort of this moment of hope that he had just squeezed under the wire,” he told Global News.
“The bottom line was that he was six seconds over and that was that.”
Doyle is, however, fairly certain that Robbins hit one mark — the fastest person ever to come short of finishing one of the world’s most brutal courses.
“I’m pretty sure that no one’s come less than six seconds over a 60-hour race,” he said.
WATCH: Doyle speaks with Sonia Sunger on Global News Morning BC: