Gentenaar Karel Sabbe (30) has put down a great performance during what you can describe as the craziest running race in the world: the Barkley Marathons in the American state of Tennessee. Participants must complete a 160-kilometer non-signposted trail through the wilderness in 60 hours, with only a map and a compass. Only 15 runners have managed to reach the end in the past 34 years. At his first participation, Sabbe immediately held the longest full of everyone, but eventually had to throw in the towel.
However, the dentist has experience. He ran his first marathon in 2014 and soon switched to ultra-running over longer distances. Last year, he set the world record sharper on the Appalachian Trail – a long-distance hiking trail in the eastern United States – where he ran the 3,525 kilometers in 41 days, 7 hours and 39 minutes.
The Barkley Marathons turned out to be one step too far. The running race – which is based on a notorious prison escape – has therefore been completely ripped off. The race was conceived by Gary Cantrall, who was inspired by the escape of the murderer of Martin Luther King Jr. from the nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977. James Earl Ray then covered barely 13 kilometers in 55 hours. Cantrall claimed that he could have done at least 160 kilometers in that time. He named the race after his running mate Barry Barkley.
The goal of Cantrall is to give the runners a ‘real challenge’. “You want everyone to finish the race, but you know that most will not succeed,” he says in a documentary about the ultra-run. “But it’s nice to give people the chance to meet themselves.”
Only 40 participants can participate each year. Among other things, candidates must write an essay about why they must be admitted and pay a $1.60 starting fee. Exactly how the admission procedure works is a well-kept secret.
Who can start will receive a letter with condolences. If it is the first time, participants must bring a number plate from their country or state. It is then hung in Frozen Head State Park, where the competition takes place. If not, the stake is a pack of Camel cigarettes.
Race number 1 is for the person who has the least chance of surviving the first round. That participant is called the “human sacrifice.”
The trail itself has no fixed distance or route. It is 32 kilometers long, has considerable height differences and has to be covered five times. The third and fourth time in the opposite direction, the fifth time depending on what the first runner wants. Loop two and four are run at night. There are no signposts and there are only two points where you can take water. If you are lucky because if it freezes and the water is frozen, you have nothing.
Each of the five loops must be completed within a certain time – on average 12 hours per loop – otherwise, you cannot start the next one. The start of the next loop is always somewhere between midnight and noon. An hour before departure is honked with a shell. And the race continues when the race director lights a cigarette.
On the way, participants must find a number of books, from which they must always tear out their competition number. That must prove that they have indeed completed the entire course. With every new loop, they get a new competition number.
Sabbe finally reached the fourth round. He was the last participant who was still running after a New Zealander had given up. But he didn’t make it either.