Nobody Had Completed The Barkley Marathons In Five Years – This Year, Three Athletes Did
Image credit: David Miller
— Updated on 22 March 2023

Nobody Had Completed The Barkley Marathons In Five Years – This Year, Three Athletes Did

— Updated on 22 March 2023
Nick Kenyon
Nick Kenyon

There are many in the ultra-marathon running community that consider it the hardest race in the world, and yet the Barkley Marathons returned in 2023 with its highest success rate to date.

With a notoriously convoluted entry process, an unmarked course through the Tennessee wilderness, as well as a unique way of confirming athletes had actually completed a lap of the course, after half a decade of approximately zero runners making it to the finish line before the cut-off time, this year saw a record three men complete the hallucination-inducing challenge.

Since the Barkley Marathons first took place back in 1986, just 15 competitors have ever completed the gruelling course through the Frozen Head State Park. Organised by the unendingly eccentric Laz (Gary Cantrell), the conch shell was blown on March 14th to signal an hour before the race was to begin – the race starts at a random time each year – before he lit the ceremonial cigarette to mark the race start.

In total, 40 athletes participated the 2023 edition of the Barkley Marathons, which involved a five-lap circuit through an unmarked forest course where they’re required to make their way through a number of checkpoints and tear a page out of a book – each athlete tears the page of their race number – to prove they passed each checkpoint. The exact course length isn’t known but it’s understood to be around 160 kilometres (though many believe it to be up to 210 kilometres) with an incredible 19,200 metres of vertical climbing. Competitors have to complete the first lap in 13 hours and 20 minutes with all five laps to be accomplished in under 60 hours.

The three successful athletes to complete the Barkley Marathons 2023. Image credit: Howie Stern

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Laz deliberately made the race as hard as possible to complete, starting with an application process that demands an essay on a topic competitors only learn just before the submission date; plus an entire series of questions such as “What will be the 119th element on the periodic table” this year.

As if it wasn’t already hard enough to get to the start line with the prospect of 60 hours worth of exertion on the cards, athletes also need to change direction as they complete each lap, often resulting in competitors getting lost among the thickly vegetated woods all the while fatigue sets in.

The last time a runner completed all five laps under the 60-hour limit was John Kelly circa 2017. This year, an incredible trio of competitors made it to the end; one of them being the very same John Kelly, alongside Frenchman Aurelien Sanchez and a Belgian dentist by the name of Karel Sabbe who finished less than seven minutes before the cut-off.

Second place Sanchez almost didn’t complete the course requirements after a hiker accidentally swiped the book runners use to prove their course navigation, while Sabbe almost came unstuck after being overcome with hallucinations and veered off-course. It’s an incredible feat just to finish one lap of the Barkley Marathons course (completing three laps is known as a “Fun Run”), but for these runners to make the finish is a testament to the growing cult following of this remarkable race.

If you’re keen on a deeper dive into the event, there’s a great documentary called The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young that I cannot recommend highly enough.

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Nick Kenyon
Nick Kenyon is the Editor of Boss Hunting, joining the team after working as the Deputy Editor of luxury watch magazine Time+Tide. He has a passion for watches, with other interests across style, sports and more. Get in touch at nick (at)


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