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Four runners start loop 5 at 2023 Barkley Marathons

John Kelly, Karel Sabbe, Aurélien Sanchez and Damian Hall have 12 hours to go until the 60-hour finishing cutoff time

Barkley Marathons Photo by: Howie Stern

It has been a long six years since Frozen Head State Park and race director Laz Lake have seen a Barkley Marathons finisher, but for the first time in Barkley Marathons history, four runners have completed four loops and begun a fifth, and final, loop. The last man to finish the Barkley in 2017, John Kelly, leads the group of four, finishing four loops in 45 hours, 50 minutes and 23 seconds. Kelly is followed by Barkley virgin Aurélien Sanchez (45:57:09), Karel Sabbe (46:36:57) and Damian Hall (47:49:03).

Super Mini Itsy Bitsy Barkley
Barkley Marathons race director Laz Lake. Photo: jamesgeeee/Flickr

There is a 48-hour cutoff time for runners wanting to begin a fifth loop. At the time of publication, British runner Jasmin Paris was still out on her fourth loop beyond the 48-hour cutoff time, she will be eliminated from the race when she arrives back at camp.

The final loop

This is Kelly’s sixth appearance at the race, though he has only finished once. He is an experienced ultrarunner and 2:20 marathoner, leading the charge for the majority of the race, and was the first runner to complete the first four loops this year. 

From what we have gathered, Sanchez, 32, is from France but now lives in the U.S.; he has raced a few U.S. ultras, as well as last year’s Diagonale des Fous 100-miler on Reunion Island. On his Instagram page he has a story about visiting Frozen Head for the first time in May 2018 and finding a walnut shell on a pillar by the yellow gate, which he has carried with him in every race since as a talisman. (It seems to be working, considering he has made it to loop five, and completed each previous loop in under 13 hours.)

Sabbe is on his third attempt at the Barkley. The highly decorated Belgian ultrarunner, who is a dentist in his other life, completed three loops in 2019, but dropped out during his fourth loop. In 2022, Sabbe again attempted a fourth loop, but became disoriented from lack of sleep and wandered off the course, only to be returned to Frozen Head by local police. He needs a fast final loop of around 13:30 in order to finish within the 60-hour cutoff.

In August 2018, Sabbe set an FKT on the Appalachian Trail, having previously set a (supported) speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail. 

Barkley Marathons
John Kelly at the Fire Tower at the Barkley Marathons

Hall, a veteran U.K. ultrarunner, is racing Barkley for the first time. He is the author of the recently published We Can’t Run Away from This: Racing to Improve Running’s Footprint in our Climate Emergency (reviewed in the Trail Special Issue 2023 of Canadian Running magazine, on newsstands now). Hall holds numerous FKT’s in the U.K., won this year’s Montane Spine Race and finished fifth at UTMB in 2018. Hall and Kelly ran together for first three loops; Hall took around 14 hours to complete the fourth loop, during the night, and needs a very fast 12:10 final loop to finish the race.

With four runners attempting the fifth loop, they are not allowed to travel together; depending on the position of their loop four finishes, they get to choose which direction to go. As the first runner to complete loop four, Kelly had the choice of going clockwise or counterclockwise on the final loop; he chose clockwise, which is considered easier because loop one is run clockwise and therefore runners become familiar with this direction first. Sanchez is going counterclockwise, Sabbe clockwise and Hall counterclockwise.

Skies are clear at Frozen Head on Thursday, with temperatures ranging from 10 C to 16 C. If any of the runners are successful, they will be the first finishers since 2017.

The race has approximately 40 starters every year. Runners have 60 hours to finish the race. The course changes every year, and GPS watches are not allowed; each runner is issued a cheap watch with very little functionality beyond telling them how much time has passed. Runners must also collect pages corresponding to their bib number from books hidden on the course (they receive a new bib for each loop); missing pages mean automatic disqualification. There is water available on the course, but no aid stations per se; runners only receive aid between loops, in camp.

Who’s who at the Barkley Marathons 2023

Runners who finish three loops in under 40 hours (approximately 60 miles, or 97 km) get to claim a “fun run,” if they drop out at that point. (They can’t claim a fun run if they attempt a fourth loop. And a fun run is still technically a DNF. They may only attempt a fourth loop if they finish the first three in under 36 hours.) Runners must change direction with each loop. If multiple runners begin a fifth loop, they are sent off in alternating directions.

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