‘#17 – To Finish the Barkley Marathons:’ A Film Exploring Karel Sabbe’s Gritty Mind

Following Karel Sabbe’s run at the 2023 Barkley Marathons, this film gives viewers an up-close look at what it takes to endure this event.

By on March 19, 2024 | Comments

The number 17 in this film’s title refers to Belgian ultrarunner Karel Sabbe becoming the 17th finisher of the infamous Barkley Marathons during the race’s 2023 edition.

But though he’s now a race finisher, Sabbe describes the Barkley Marathons as being much more than just a race. Through the film “#17 – To Finish the Barkley Marathons,” he encourages outsiders to view it as a social experiment that tests the capabilities of the human mind and body.

With captivating views and impressive demonstrations of ambition, the film provides viewers with a look into the mind of Sabbe as he sets out to tackle the event that saw him lost, disoriented, and in the back of a police car to drop out of the prior year’s race. Sabbe gives the audience insight into the mental fortitude and physical resilience needed to take on this unique event.

The Barkley Marathons requires racers to complete five loops of a course that together covers roughly 130 miles and takes in about 63,000 feet of elevation gain on mostly off-trail terrain in Tennessee. Participants can’t use a GPS device, there are no course markers, and the event has a 60-hour time limit. Athletes prove they cover the course by collecting pages from books in hidden locations. The weather in the spring in Tennessee is fickle, and often, runners are exposed to bitter cold, precipitation, and burning sun throughout the race.

All told it’s a unique event that has gained significant notoriety over the years.

One of the well-known facts about the Barkley Marathons is that only a very small number of people have been able to complete the challenge over its many years of existence, 15 as of the start of the 2023 event. Most people in the ultrarunning community thus know this race as a nearly impossible feat.

In this film, Sabbe, who has the men’s supported fastest known time on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which he re-took in August of 2023, as well as several other top performances in long-distance thru-hiking and running, takes us along as he once again attempts making the seemingly impossible, possible.

Karel Sabbe - 2023 Barkley Marathons - film screenshot

A screenshot from the film “#17 – To Finish the Barkley Marathons” of Karel Sabbe getting his book pages counted by Gary Cantrell aka Lazaraus Lake, the Barkley Marathons race director. All images are screenshots from the film.

Throughout the film, Sabbe’s ups and downs are in full view, including dealing with difficult clothing choices, full-body cramps, and an accidental dip in a river. There are also unique insights into what happens with crews during pit stops and interesting shots of the course.

Also apparent is the event’s camaraderie as competitors team up to encourage each other through the long hours of the race, and later encourage one another to do what’s best for each individual. In one case, this entails leaving someone behind, marking a crucial point where the true racing begins.

As each loop ends and a new loop begins, the number of racers still in the hunt for the elusive finish dwindles. Mistakes are made, fatigue piles up, and we’re left to wonder if Sabbe and the couple of other remaining racers can overcome them and make it to the yellow gate, the event’s start and finish line, to finish their fifth loop in time.

Karel Sabbe - 2023 Barkley Marathons - screen shot

Viewers are given a detailed view of Karel Sabbe’s 2023 Barkley Marathon journey, lap by lap.

This film provides a perfect view of a place where determination and athletic prowess meet during the journey of a strong-willed man who sets out on a mission. Did he complete the Barkley Marathons? Of course, he did, but as we see in this film, he takes things down to the wire, creating tense moments at the event for his finish and a compelling completion to this film that you’ll want to see.

Call for Comments

  • Are you planning on following along during this year’s Barkley Marathons?
  • Do you ever have the desire to undertake the Barkley Marathons? Or is it better just to watch?
Amber Nelson

Amber Nelson is a writer, trail and obstacle course runner, and lover of travel and new experiences. She’s been writing about all things health and fitness for about three years and especially loves writing about about anything running related. Running changed Amber’s life when she stumbled into it after a 100 pound weight loss. In her free time you can find her planning upcoming travel, listening to an audio book while running in the foothills of Boise, Idaho, or slowly chipping away at her PhD in social psychology.