France’s Aurelien Sanchez has become the first finisher of the notorious Barkley Marathons since 2017 – and the 16th in the race’s history – after a closely-fought battle.
And the man he pipped to first place was none other than John Kelly, the last person to make it through five 20-mile loops inside 60 hours six years ago at Frozen Head State Park in Morgan County, Tennessee.
There was a record-equalling third finisher too as Belgium’s Karel Sabbe just made it back in the nick of time.
No one had been able to emulate Kelly until now, though Sanchez had one final challenge near the end as a day hiker, who believed the race was over, had removed one of the books the competitors have to tear pages from.
Remarkably it was Sanchez’s first appearance in the event and he had over an hour and a half to spare at the end, stopping the clock in 58:23:12.
He’d started the final loop just a few minutes behind Kelly and was forced to go counter-clockwise as the first to set off chooses their direction and it alternates after that.
Until now the Frenchman had been best known as the holder of the record for the self-supported fastest-known time for the south-to-north route on the John Muir Trail – a 213-mile route through the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California.
Epic final day
He was closely followed, just under 20 minutes behind, by American ultra running legend Kelly, who turned back the clock with a calm display which saw him ahead of the time schedule throughout.
Kelly becomes the third runner to complete the course more than once, following in the footsteps of Jared Campbell (2012, 2014 and 2016) and Brett Maune (2011 and 2012).
A record four runners – all men – started the fifth and final loop but Kelly’s great friend and rival Damian Hall of Great Britain made an early exit.
But history was then equalled when Sabbe beat the cut-off with just six minutes to spare, making it three finishers for only the second time, matching the 2012 edition.
How it unfolded
Hall, the winner of the Spine Race a couple of months ago, exited early on the last loop after an incredible display on his first appearance at the event.
He’d run for large parts of the first four laps with Kelly but only just made the cut-off for the fifth loop and his bid ended after getting “lost on chimney top” according to Keith Dunn on the race’s ‘official’ Twitter feed.
And for Belgian dentist Sabbe there was redemption after his dramatic exit 12 months ago.
He had looked set then to become only the 16th person to complete the race when he set out on the fourth loop with a near four-hour cushion but the effects of the race, a major navigational error and a series of hallucinations put paid to his challenge.
“Third time’s a charm,” he’d said of this year’s return and that proved to be the case as he became the 17th to finish, all men.
But the wait for the first female finisher goes on, though Brit Jasmin Paris went a step closer as she became only the second woman to start a fourth loop following last year’s ‘Fun Run’ accolade.
Here’s how a dramatic race unfolded, from start to finish:
Start | Loop 1 report | Loop 2 report | Loop 3 report | Loop 4 report | Loop 5 report