Karel Sabbe, Aurélien Sanchez, John Kelly Become First To Finish Barkley Marathons Since 2017

Karel Sabbe, the Belgian dentist who set the unsupported Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Appalachian Trail in 2018, finished the Barkley Marathons last night in 59 hours, 53 minutes, and 33 seconds. He joined two other top ultrarunners in finishing the 2023 course: John Kelly, a two-time finisher who holds the supported FKT on the Pennine Way (2d 10h 4m 53s), and Aurélien Sanchez, who holds the unsupported south-to-north FKT on the John Muir Trail (3d 3h 55m 10s).

The Barkley Marathons is a 100-mile off-trail race held annually in Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park. The race, sometimes described as “the race that eats its young,” is notorious for its extreme difficulty.

Competitors must complete five 20-mile loops of an unmarked course through rough terrain within 60 hours. To prove completion of the full course, competitors must locate between 9 and 14 books scattered across the course and remove the page corresponding to their race number from each. The course changes every year, and there are no aid stations except water at two points along the route.

A Record-Setting Year

Including this year’s three finishers, only 17 people have completed the full 100-mile race in its 36-year history. Over a thousand people have attempted the Marathons in that time. Until this year’s triple completion, no one had finished since 2017.

The 2023 Marathons also saw record numbers of competitors make it to the late stages of the race. A record seven competitors made it to the fourth of five loops, including ultrarunner Jasmin Paris, who became only the second female to start the fourth loop and the fourth to complete the first three loops twice (she also completed the first three last year). A record four competitors reached the final loop, with Damian Hall dropping out after taking a wrong turn.

Aurélien Sanchez of France was first to complete the race this year in 58h 23m 12s , followed by John Kelly (58h 42m 23s), who also finished in 2017. Karel Sabbe finished the race within seven minutes of the 60-hour time limit (59h 53m 33s).

A Triumphant Return for Karel Sabbe

Sabbe first rose to prominence in the ultrarunning world when he set the supported FKT of the PCT in 2016. He held that record until 2021. In 2018, he also set the supported south-to-north record on the Appalachian Trail, which he still holds.

Sabbe had attempted the Barkley Marathons on two previous occasions but never finished until this year. His attempt last year ended when he got lost on the fourth loop, had major hallucinations, mistook a trash can for a person, and ended up getting picked up by the local sherriff in a nearby town.

The USA 24 Hour Running Team contrasted last year’s devastating ending for Sabbe with his triumphant completion in 2023. “Fast forward to this year. He still had some is (sic) hallucinations but finished the race in 59:53:33,” the organization wrote on Instagram.

“This year the humans won big.”

Featured image: (Left to right) Aurélien Sanchez, Karel Sabbe, and John Kelly. Photo: @runningnl2

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Comments 1

  • Steven : Mar 22nd

    Sabbe will do another PCT attempt this summer.


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