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The 2023 Barkley Marathons

"Out There" is a lonely, dark place.

Howie Stern

March 21st, 2023

6 min read

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After a five year drought, this year’s running of the secretive race in the Tennessee woods was captivating. Would anyone finish? Professional adventure photographer, Howie Stern, was there to capture the essence of the grueling event through Frozen Head State Park.

The conch. Many things at Barkley are shrouded in secrecy… the start time of the race is no different. It is said that Laz knows when he will start the race the following year at the conclusion of the prior year’s race. On race day, beginning any time after the stroke of midnight, at a time only known to Laz, he will blow the conch, upon which the race will commence exactly one hour later. So, in essence, your final sleep will be an anxious one, always listening for when the conch will sound.

The start line is an ominous place full of hope, yet ripe with despair. The unknown that lies ahead can be frightening and anxiety inducing, but the mystery and challenge to see what you are made of when stripped raw to your core, is what pulls us in.

With the lighting of the cigarette, and the sparking of the flame in his eye, the runners head off “Out There.” What they will find will teach them lessons they never knew they needed to learn. For Laz, helping people to become their best version of themselves is the carrot at the end of the stick.

“Out There” is a lonely, dark place. Albert Herrero working his way down the infamous Rat Jaw, a steep, briar filled hell, which on bad years, slices your skin raw.

John Kelly, crewed by past Barkley finisher John Fegyveresi. While the weather was quite benign this year, the temperatures the first two days were downright frigid. In the campground there’s a bathroom that is heated and it made for a perfect crew location. At the time, all three leaders, John, Damian, and Albert Herrero were all posted up in there, warming up, and preparing to go back into the cold night on loop three.

Karel Sabbe, returning to the gate as if presenting his homework to a teacher. There are a specific number of books placed throughout the course that you must find and tear pages from to prove you completed the loop. Here, Karel hands his pages to Laz, who counts them to make sure they are all there. Upon returning to the gate for your next loop, you are handed a new number and that number corresponds to the page number you tear out from each book.

Damian Hall had run with the lead runners for four loops and left on his own for loop five. It was the first time in the race’s history four runners made it to a fifth loop. For Damian, however, navigating alone would prove catastrophic. He failed to find the first book of the loop, thus ending his Barkley attempt. He turned in a tremendous effort his first time at Frozen Head, and confirmed he will be back.

Jared Campbell, the only three-time finisher of the Barkley Marathons. As he returned to the gate after loop three, his face revealed more than any words could about how his race had transpired. After going off with his wife Mindy to see if he could regroup, he returned to the gate where he was tapped out.

Jasmin Paris. She became only the second woman in the race’s history to reach the rarefied air of a fourth loop, the other being Sue Johnston in 2001. Jasmin ran a brilliant race and managed to find 9 of the books on loop four before time ran out on her.

Staring into the hallucinogenic void that is loop five. John came in ahead of Aurélien Sanchez at the end of the fourth loop, and despite needing sleep, chose a quick turnaround in order to be the first on loop five, which gave him the opportunity to choose the preferred clockwise direction for the final loop. Aurélien, thus had to go the more challenging counterclockwise direction. The question then became, who would come back to the gate first?

Upon arriving back to camp after photographing John and Karel at Rat Jaw on loop five, I was told a hiker had come back to camp with the second to last book. A book that Sanchez was going to need to find as he made his way to the finish in the counter-clockwise direction. The hiker thought the race had ended and brought it back. Worry spread through camp as we all wondered what was going to happen when Aurélien got to the location but there was be no book. If you don’t have all the book pages, you don’t get credit for the loop. It was a potentially heart breaking situation for us not knowing, worrying he might spend too much time looking and run out of time for something that was no fault of his own. As Laz said, “Bad things happen at the Barkley.” A short while later, a headlight appeared from the dark and Aurélien appeared at the gate. Before Laz could say anything, he said he looked around for five minutes where he knew the book to be and could not find it, so he made the decision to continue on. Laz then held up the book in its zip lock bag and smiled. Aurélien became the winner and 16th finisher ever at Barkley. Here he is tearing out that final page at the yellow gate.

Karel Sabbe, embraced by his brother in law, Joren Biebuyck, after finishing with less than six and a half minutes to spare. This was Karel’s third attempt, with last years attempt ending with a ride to the yellow gate on loop four courtesy of the sheriff. At the end, he had nothing left, sprinting out of the darkness to make it to the gate, thus completing the dream of becoming finisher number 17.

Aurélien Sanchez, Karel Sabbe and John Kelly. There has only been one other year with three finishers. After five years with no finishers, this year proved to be magic all around. Will they come back for more? Will John want three? Stay tuned till next year.

18 responses to “The 2023 Barkley Marathons”

  1. thanks so much for this great snapshot into the worlds most crazy race!

  2. Marc Embler says:

    I’ve long thought about giving Barclays a go. After reading the commentary and viewing the photos, I don’t know if I’m more encouraged or discouraged! What a great race!!

  3. Allan Holtz says:

    Great recap of a fantastic year of Barkley. Having attempted this race 5 times with 2 loops overtime as my best effort, I am always amazed and impressed with any finish of this race. My favorite place to DNF.

  4. Frozen Ed Furtaw says:

    Excellent job by Howie Stern to tell this amazing story with his beautiful photos and words!

  5. Jukka Kukkonen says:

    As Laz said, bad things happen at the Barkley. Amazingly one good thing happened at 2023 Barkley: Aurélien Sanchez found his missing book page at the gate!

  6. Kelly says:

    You are all so awesome!! A coworker had me watch the Barkley and I was blown away!

  7. jonoogle says:

    Howie, your work is amazing as usual! Thanks.

  8. Geoff Adams says:

    F*** a duck!

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