In March 2019, a lean, soft-spoken dentist from Belgium made it farther than anyone else that year at the Barkley Marathons, the notoriously difficult 100-miler in Tennessee that only 15 people have completed since its inception in 1987. His name is Karel Sabbe, and he was not particularly well known in the ultratrail community (and still isn’t). His performance at the Barkley, like everybody else’s in 2019, was a DNF. But depending on how you look at it, Sabbe either displayed more tenacity, or had better luck, than any of the other 41 competitors that year. That includes three-time Barkley finisher Jared Campbell, 2017 finisher and 2020 Montane Spine Race winner John Kelly and multiple-Fun Runners Guillaume Calmettes and Jamil Coury. Sabbe has just released the documentary Out There about his experience at the Barkley and what got him there, and it’s a must-watch for any Barkley fan.
Sabbe was one of six competitors to score a Fun Run in 2019. (A Fun Run, while technically a DNF, refers to three out of five 20-mile loops of the Barkley course completed in under 40 hours.) When Sabbe started loop three, there were only six competitors left in the race. With two minutes on the clock before the cutoff for starting a fourth loop, Sabbe and another competitor, New Zealander Greig Hamilton, set off again.
Hamilton was the first to say “uncle” on loop four. Sabbe hung in for another few hours before returning to camp to be “tapped out” around 3:30 a.m. The sleep deprivation eventually caught up with him, causing him to make mistakes on the course that he knew he couldn’t recover from quickly enough. What’s significant is that he made it as far as he did, that being his first time attempting the infamous race.
In August 2018, Sabbe broke Joe McConaughy’s speed record on the Appalachian Trail, having previously set a (supported) speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail. He’s not saying exactly what he has planned for 2020.
Canadian Gary Robbins, whose latest attempt at the Barkley ended with the only Fun Run achieved in 2018 (crewed by Kelly), is planning a comeback in 2020. In 2017, Robbins and Kelly were the last ones standing, with Kelly finishing and Robbins narrowly missing. Robbins was injured in 2019 and did not go to Frozen Head.