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#17 finisher Karel Sabbe: From talking to a trash can to making Barkley Marathons history

Jonathan Turner
News Director
Updated on
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There have been many iconic Barkley Marathons moments despite the fact the race is shrouded in secrecy – and Belgian dentist Karel Sabbe has been responsible for two of them.

In 2022 he looked on course to becoming the first finisher since 2017 when he completed the third loop with not much more than 32 hours on the clock.

Then in typical Barkley fashion the wheels came off on loop four as hallucinations meant he thought he was talking to a woman when it was actually a trash can. The police were called and drove him back to camp, absolutely not the way he wanted to return to the famed yellow gate.

But not to be defeated by the brutal race, he returned 12 months later and etched his name into the record books with an incredible performance as he became the 17th person to ever complete the five 20-mile loops.

All of which is documented in a brilliant new documentary which is embedded below and well worth a watch ahead of the start of this year’s race.

‘Bring it on, I’m ready’

It provides many fascinating insights from the heart of the event, starting with Keith Dunn – whose Twitter feed takes the race to the wider world – chatting to Karel about what happened in 2022.

While Keith smiles as he sympathetically recalls Karel’s trip back in the police car, Sabbe himself says: “It’ll be even greater if I actually finish, then I can fully laugh at it!”

And talking of his mindset on returning to Frozen Head State Park 12 months later, the Belgian explains: “My approach was one with confidence this time. I knew what I had put into it.

“But also having participated in it twice and failed twice I had this sweet spot between respect for the race and how hard it is – but also just with the idea of ‘bring it on, I’m ready’.

What drew me back to Barkley was that it’s a race that’s going to force you to reach and possibly surpass your limits.

“You’re going to hit a wall at certain moments and then it’s up to you – do you quit or do you push on through the wall, not knowing what your mind will do when you dig that deep?

“It’s at the outer reach of the capabilities of the human mind and body.”

Runner vs the race

And while we all know what Sabbe went on to achieve, the film underlines other aspects such as the camaraderie between the runners. That’s echoed by race creator Laz Lake himself who at the start cautions the 40 brave souls: “Every story needs to end up with you all coming back to camp alive so be smart out there – stories we’ll talk about for years.”

And Sabbe explains: “It’s definitely not a competition between runners. It’s a competition between the race and the runner.”

What also becomes obvious is the crucial role of the support crews, especially as the runners start to head through the different degrees of tiredness and sleep deprivation.

The end of the film reveals previously-unseen footage of Sabbe’s desperate bid to make the finish before the 60 hours cut-off, which he does with less than seven minutes remaining to be greeted by Laz saying: “You are now the slowest Barker ever!”

Barkley Marathons 2023 finishers Aurelien Sanchez, John Kelly and Karel Sabbe photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram
Karel Sabbe (centre) and his two fellow 2023 finishers [Photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram]

Later in 2023, Sabbe went on to reclaim the FKT (fastest known time) record for the 2,650 miles (4,265km) Pacific Crest Trail – 46 days, 12 hours and 50 minutes.

And after those two epic challenges he announced he was not doing any races this year but will instead build up to a crack at running the entire length of New Zealand – over 2,000 miles – early in 2025.

Jonathan Turner
Written by
Jonathan Turner
Jonathan Turner is News Director for both TRI247 and RUN247, and is accustomed to big-name interviews, breaking news stories and providing unrivalled coverage for endurance sports.  

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