Talk to most ultrarunners and you find the lot reserved and quiet, unless spurred on by talk of the latest minimalism versus maximalism article. And, usually they’re a humble bunch. Linda Barton-Robbins is no different.
Stumbling upon the ultrarunning scene, Linda found her people. She found she fit nicely with the type who go to bed early for the next day’s 30 miler, and share an unexplainable call to the woods. But that quiet side–ultrarunning, her passion for reading, and her work as a children’s librarian–outweighs her social personality a bit more than most.
“I like running with people,” Linda said, reassuring any friends who may read this, “but I need my alone time as well.”
We began our interview talking about our love of books, something other than running that we have in common. Her last love was a book written with two storylines; one of a young boy in the World War II era, and the other of a young, blind girl. “It was beautifully written,” she said. “It bounces between each story then intertwines in the end.”
Linda’s life is similarly written. One story takes her to the quiet trails of her North Vancouver, British Columbia backyard. The other finds her nestled on the couch with a cat named Shazzar on her lap and her latest book propped in her hands. At 37 years old, Linda, born in America, recently moved to the Vancouver area to be with her husband, ultrarunner Gary Robbins.
During the day, Linda’s two stories weave together. When not scheduled to work, a long run among the trails outside her house is followed by a long concentration within a thick-paged novel. When first arriving in the hilly area of Canada, she said she was heartbroken after realizing her runs were closer to 10 miles than the 25 she’d been running before in the same amount of time. “I had to stop running by mileage and go by hours instead,” she said.
Now, the runner seeks technical and climbs, and races that challenge her. The joke she likes to make is that she is “more of a climber than a runner.”
“I like trails that make me feel like a kid. Jump, skip, try to get around a huge rock,” she said. “It’s slower going, but so much better.” Oddly though, she was not skipping over rocks as a kid. “I hated P.E,” she groaned. “I used to fake cramps. I think I got a C.” Instead, she spent her high-school time with gymnastics and dance, before turning into a “gym bunny” in college before finally finding the running bug.
She started her running career with a spur-of-the-moment, race-day sign up of the Portland Marathon while she was training for her first half marathon that would take place a week later. “I ate a Tootsie Roll at mile 18 and that was it for calories,” she said, now completely shocked she even finished the race. “It was delicious, though!” She finished in four hours and twenty minutes, then ran the half marathon one week later, and was again at the starting line of another marathon two months later.
“No one told me you don’t do that,” she exclaimed. “Most people just do one marathon a year, I learned.”
She became a member of the Marathon Maniacs where she laid the groundwork for her ultrarunning world with 34 marathons in one year. In 2006, she ran her first ultra, a low-key 39-mile run in Canada.
Her second world began to form during college when Linda received an undergraduate degree in psychology, and then a Masters degree in library and information science. She now works as a librarian for two local libraries. For one, she has a substitute position where she sits at the front desk and helps customers when needed. For the other, she manages the children’s section of the library where she crafts, conducts book clubs, and runs the daily story time.
“The kids are hilarious,” she said, laughing as she recalls odd stories they tell her about frogs. “They say things that are just so off the wall.”
Like the endurance runner engrained in her soul, Linda has the mindset of an endurance reader as well. When she has a day off from work, after her morning run and breakfast, Linda spends the rest of the time with her book, the genre ranging from historical fiction to fantasy to nonfiction. Similar to a typical race-training plan, her reading varies from month to month. In January, she plowed through a pile of books, but tapered down in the month of February to enjoy a Netflix binge.
Her last page-turner was, surprisingly, a 950-page Western, she told me. Recommended by another trail runner, it was a long, slow read but one that Linda never wanted to end. “I’d never thought I would read a Western and enjoy it,” she admitted. “I couldn’t stop reading it.”
She squeaks in pages like runners squeak in a few miles whenever they can. While her husband Gary watches hockey at night, she reads. She doesn’t go anywhere without a book. When traveling to Canada to visit Gary before they were married, she would read while waiting in standstill lines at the border, glancing up every so often to keep other cars in check. “Bonus time,” she called it. Others would call it hell.
Her voracious appetite for reading has provided her with miles of knowledge. She knows what genres will spark an interest or cause her to drop halfway through. She knows reading at night is prone to pain, since the act of trying to put down a good book is impossible and staying up too late has its own consequences. And, she knows what types of books push her against “the wall.”
“I shy away from series,” she said, referencing Game of Thrones as an attractive to-read, but will probably be a to-watch television endeavor instead. “It [watching the show] goes against everything I stand for, but they [the series] are just so long. There are so many other things…” A series is a little like 100 miles. They are long, painful at times to get through, and just keep going on and on. (If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you know the truth of this).
The 100 miler has too many pages of miles to get through in one day. But the 100k, according to Linda, is the perfect race distance.
“There are not enough of them,” she said. “You can finish the 100k in one day, get to bed in the same day, and recover faster.”
Her first 100 miler was the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic 100 Mile Run, where “every step was beautiful and painful. After each 100-mile finish, Linda says, “I don’t think I should do one again.” But, like a book series, good or bad, you’re in it to the end. One 100 that remains on her loved and despised list is Hawaii’s H.U.R.T. 100-Mile Endurance Run.
HURT pulls the ultrarunning couple to its mountainous trails every January. Extending beyond the blood and tears left on root-y track, HURT is the memorial of the first “I love you” and first kiss between her and Gary.
During Linda’s 2011 HURT race, Gary was forced to cheer and crew for friends due to a broken foot instead of defending his 2010 course-record time. The two had met in 2009 and were friends in the flirty-email, saw-each-other-at-various-races, she-stalked-his-Western-States-race kind of way. When she received an email saying that Gary would be attending HURT as a spectator and needed a place to crash, she had a feeling.
“I told my pacer, ‘Don’t let me flirt with Gary’,” she said. Miles into the race, and basking in the heat and flirtatious crewing by Gary, Linda arrived at an aid station not asking for water or food. Instead, she walked in and declared, “I’m going to marry Gary Robbins.”
“Yeah, my pacer obviously failed,” she laughed.
The couple married in September of 2013. Gary Robbins, a professional ultrarunner, spends a lot of time traveling the world for races. On some of these trips she attends as crew member and cheerleader, but for most, due to time and money restraints, Linda stays at home. “I can’t go to everything or we would be poor,” she said. “It is hard though, especially if he has to drop.” When things aren’t going well, Linda’s only form of communication is live coverage until Gary can reach a phone or Internet access. “I watch online but I don’t know anything more than anyone else,” she said. “There is no extra link that wives get. I wish I did.”
The opposite is just as bad. “When he has a great race and I can’t celebrate,” she said. “I can’t give him a hug or even go out and buy him a beer.”
She says it is not so hard living with an elite athlete. They’re each others’ biggest fans, during his races and her own. The two run together only once a week, mostly because of their speed gap.
“If we run the trails together, then I make him go ahead,” she said. “I always joke that if I had to pace him in a race then he should probably drop, maybe go to the hospital.”
When not out on her own, Linda is accompanied by her “#LindaSquared” partner, Linda Wong. A Vancouver ultrarunner, Linda W. ran into Gary out on the trails and was told that she should meet his wife. The two met, and have run together since. The Lindas spend hours on the trails, talking about everything from running, to girl-only gossip, to creating their own language with the “LindaSquared” hashtag.
“She is a badass spirit that would win a Miss Congeniality award, if there’s such a thing,” Linda W. said, who attributes her first 100k success to Linda B. “We are a very balanced pair,” she explained. “I apparently made her train, whereas, she made me relax my training and gave me a lot of confidence.”
Both girls started the Miwok 100k together, but Linda B. pulled away. They spent the rest of the race hassling aid-station workers about where the other one was. Thinking Linda B. had dropped, Linda W. crossed the finish line in tears of joy and sadness. But, the two found each other. “We both walked towards each other and gave each other a huge hug and we both had tears in our eyes,” she said. “She did actually finish and was maybe about 10 minutes behind me. So what was sad ended up being really amazing.”
Linda W. deems it is Linda B.’s free spirit towards training that makes her such a great runner. However loose her training regimen seems, Linda B. usually has one goal race in the back of her mind that involves no one but herself. “One event a year is all mine,” she stated. “We [Gary and her] are very independent people. We know what we want, and we are not attached to the hip.”
In these times, Linda makes sure she is the only one running the race. This includes the Grindstone 100 Mile where Gary paced, and The Bear 100 Mile Endurance Run where he didn’t even come. “It is my show,” she said for her yearly race. “It is fun to be in the spotlight and have people know I am Gary Robbins’s wife, but I don’t always need that.”
The couple does share one race each year, the Squamish 50 Mile north of Vancouver, where Linda usually runs and Gary race directs.
“I love Squamish,” she said. “We both love the trails. We actually got married there!”
However, this year Linda has to skip running the race, along with the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run, which was going to be her spotlight show. Instead, her August will provide a different type of pain. A positive pregnancy test took her out of any late-summer running and into the running of new-found motherhood.
“It’s the first time I have to miss it [Squamish]” she said. “A part of me is okay because it takes a lot of you, but I’m also sad. Crossing that 50-mile finish line is great.”
According to Linda, it is a finish line where runners finish, run to Gary [one of the RDs], and hug him while giving him a nice “fu*k you!”
“You drink a beer with tears of joy,” she added. “It is going to be hard to miss and not be a part of.”
However, she will be there in spirit, and looser clothes. Currently, Linda is training for the Yakima Skyline Rim 25k in mid-April, and will continue to run through the pregnancy as much as is comfortable for her. Running the morning of our interview, she said that so far everything is going well except minor things. “My boobs are getting in the way now,” she said exasperatingly. “I used to have runner-girl boobs, so basically nothing. Now, I have to get new sports bras!”
It is a good balance Linda maintains in her life: among morning long runs and page-turning novels and children’s read-a-longs, between being the wife of a professional athlete versus her running goals, and between being an independent, quiet homebody versus a soon-to-be-mother.