After 60 hours of brutal racing at the 2023 Barkley Marathons, Aurélien Sanchez of France finished in 58 hours, 23 minutes, and 12 seconds in his first finish of the infamous event. A short time later, John Kelly arrived at the finish in 58:42:23, becoming a two-time finisher and one of only three people to have finished the event more than once.
A bit over an hour later and with only 6.5 minutes to spare on the event’s 60-hour cutoff, Belgium’s Karel Sabbe became the third finisher in this year’s event after crossing the line in 59:53:33.
Earlier in the event, the U.K.’s Jasmin Paris became the second woman ever to start the fourth lap of the five-lap event in the event’s 36-year history.
The event got underway on Tuesday, March 14, in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. The notoriously brutal and mostly off-trail route covers roughly 130 miles and takes in about 63,000 feet of elevation gain. Runners are allotted 60 hours to complete all five 26-ish-mile loops, and up until this year’s event, only 15 runners had successfully done so in the race’s 36-year history.
This year marked better weather than the event has seen in years, with the main environmental challenges being long hours of darkness and cold nights in the late winter setting. Rain and fog, which have been omnipresent in some years, were absent in 2023.
In one of the sport’s greatest quirks, due to the course’s remote location and an imperative to protect the ecosystem in which the event takes place, which precludes observation of the event by most anyone besides a select few members of the media, nearly the entirety of the event coverage came via the Twitter feed of ultrarunner and longtime Barkley reporter Keith Dunn.
Read on for more details on how the event played out on the men’s and women’s sides.
2023 Barkley Marathons Men’s Race
The men’s race had a promising field, including three-time Barkley Marathons finisher Jared Campbell, Nickademus de la Rosa, who finished in 2013, and the most recent finisher — from 2017 — John Kelly.
As ever, the attrition rate was high for the first couple of loops. Campbell completed three loops within the 36-hour time limit to proceed onto loop 4 but opted not to continue and settled for a Fun Run finish.
However, some of the others had not yet had enough, and the race that is normally more about survival was evolving into a neck-and-neck battle. Just over 32 hours in, within seconds of each other, Albert Herrero of Spain, Kelly, and the U.K.’s Damian Hall all finished loop 3. Kelly was out on loop 4 first, after 23 minutes, with Hall hot on his heels. Herrero took a little longer and embarked on loop 4 with 33:03 on the clock. Three more men made it within the 36-hour time limit and opted to head out on loop 4, including Aurélien Sanchez of France.
With just two more drops from the men’s field on loop 4, for the first time in Barkley Marathons history, four runners headed out on loop 5. These were, in order: John Kelly, Aurélien Sanchez, Karel Sabbe of Belgium, and Damian Hall.
Kelly was first out with 46:02 on the clock, allowing him almost 14 hours to complete his final loop. In one of the many intricacies inherent to Barkley, where the runner is allowed to choose direction as the first runner, Kelly opted to run the final loop clockwise, with all subsequent runners alternating direction. One hour and 47 minutes separated the four remaining runners as they set out on loop 5, but Sanchez was hot on Kelly’s heels, heading out just five minutes after the leader, though in the opposite direction on the course.
It was game over for Hall early on loop 5. Having reportedly gotten lost on Chimney Top, he returned to base with no book pages that serve as intra-lap progress markers.
After starting loop 5 in second place by only a few minutes, Aurélien Sanchez ultimately crossed the line to become a finisher in 58:23:12. A scant 19 or so minutes in arrears, it was John Kelly across the line in 58:42:23. This was Kelly’s second finish of the notorious event. Read his report from his 2017 finish.
Belgium’s Karel Sabbe became the third finisher in this year’s event. He crossed the line in 59:53:33, as runners and crews watched his headlamp approach in the night, tension building on if he’d make it before time was up. He did, crossing the line just 6.5 minutes before the event’s 60-hour cutoff.
2023 Barkley Marathons Women’s Race
This year looked like it could be the year for a female Barkley Marathons finisher, which would have been a first in the event’s 36-year history. Among what we believe were eight women on the start line was Andrea Larson, who twice finished fourth at the Bandera 100k and earned her spot at the Barkley Marathons with a win at the 2022 Barkley Fall Classic — or the “Baby Barkley.”
Also on the women’s roster, we learned as the race progressed, was Katie Wright (U.K., lives in New Zealand), who, among her notable finishes, was one of the last four people standing at the 2019 Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra.
In the women’s ranks were the U.K.’s Nicky Spinks and Jasmin Paris. Spinks and Paris each seemed ideal candidates to be the first woman to complete the Barkley. In 2022, Paris was the first woman in a decade to complete three of the five loops inside of 40 hours — to be awarded a Fun Run finish. In 2019, Spinks, alongside Stephanie Case of Canada, completed one loop and retired midway through the second loop amid deteriorating weather conditions.
This year, as always, there were casualties in the field from the get-go, with Keith Dunn Tweeting: “Andrea Kooiman and EB did not complete loop one after getting off course and ending up at Gobey Church (a runner made the same mistake last year). Gutted for both of them.”
Paris put in a supreme effort, bettering her 2022 performance by finishing three loops in 35:40, down from her previous best of 39:49. She had a strong start, finishing loop 1 in a time of 8:36. She was back at the finish of loop 2 with 21:13 on the clock, and following a tight turnaround, was out on loop 3 by 21:27 elapsed. She completed the loop just 20 minutes inside the cut-off to continue — also bagging another Fun Run finish — but was ultimately timed out on loop 4, returning with nine pages gathered within the allotted time.
Spinks completed the first loop in 11:35 but was ultimately timed out on loop 2. She arrived in good spirits at the finish of the loop.
Once again, there was no women’s finisher at the 2023 Barkley Marathons, but Jasmin Paris continued to push the women’s race a little closer to the mark. Paris is only the second woman ever to set out on loop 4, with Sue Johnston having been the first in 2001.
[Editor’s Note: Thanks so much to both John Fegyveresi, 2012 Barkley Marathons finisher, for the photo support and the research help of Maggie Guterl, a three-time starter of the Barkley Marathons. We appreciate you!]