A Breakout Year at the 2023 Barkley Marathons
Three runners finish what is typically a nearly impossible race in Tennessee
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This week on the rough and rugged terrain of Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park, legends were born.
Amid cold, wet weather and little sleep, John Kelly, Aurelian Sanchez, Karel Sabbe, and Damian Hall put on quite a show this week at the dastardly and often cruel ultra-distance quagmire known as the Barkley Marathons in Wartburg, Tennessee. So did Jasmine Paris, even though she didn’t last quite as long as her male counterparts in what was one the best and most exciting editions of this small, quirky, and extremely grueling race yet.
This year’s race was the first time that four runners began the rarely-experienced fifth loop and only the second time three runners completed the course, which is roughly 130 miles in length and includes about 63,000 feet of elevation gain, within the 60-hour time cutoff.
Aurelian Sanchez was the first to finish the race, but not without encountering a bit of a challenge near the end after a day hiker removed one of the books, believing the race was over. The 32-year-old Frenchman thought he was doomed and returned to the yellow gate with the pages he had, only to find the book waiting for him at the finish. He tore out his page and got credit for completing the course in 58 hours, 23 minutes, and 12 seconds.
Next was John Kelly, the 38-year-old local runner from nearby Boone, North Carolina, who became a two-time finisher and only the third person to record more than one successful finish. He wound up back at the infamous yellow gate of the start/finish area about 19 minutes after Sanchez, in 58:42:23. He had been the most recent Barkley finisher back in 2017, which seems like a lifetime ago, given how COVID-19 seemed to change the scope of time.
“Call me the Benjamin button of Barkley,” Kelly tweeted at one point on the last day of the race. “I’m reverse aging on course.”
Call me the Benjamin button of Barkley. I’m reverse aging on course.
📸 @howiesternphoto cc: @keithdunn
— John Kelly (@RndmForestRunnr) March 16, 2023
After that, a suspenseful hour went by in anticipation of Karl Sabbe. Finally, with less than seven minutes to spare, the 32-year-old Belgian dentist, who holds the Fastest Known Time on the Appalachian Trail, finally appeared with all the necessary pages to become the third and final finisher of the 2023 event in 59:53:33.
Hall, a Barkley “virgin” (as race director Gary Cantrell refers to participants) from the UK, started the fifth loop with 10 minutes to spare—marking the first time in the race’s 36-year history that four runners were out on the final lap—but returned after 53 hours of sleep-deprived running with no pages, tapping out and calling it quits after getting lost for a long period of time.
Earlier in the event, the UK fell running champion Jasmin Paris became the second woman ever to start the fourth lap of the five-lap event in the event’s history. She gave it a good go at becoming the first woman finisher, but ultimately timed out on the fourth loop when she returned with nine pages collected. She didn’t finish, but she did set a new women’s record after becoming only the second woman to start the fourth loop along with Sue Johnston’s strong effort in 2001.
The event began on Tuesday, March 14, when about 40 intrepid runners headed out on the course to see if they could join the very exclusive finisher’s club. Since the race’s inception in 1986, only 18 of the roughly 1,000 runners who have attempted the Barkley Marathons have completed it.
Although Utah’s Jared Campbell has finished it three times (2012, 2014, 2016), the only other runner with more than one finish, aside from Kelly, is Colorado’s Brett Maune (2011, 2012).