Amidst all of the tremendous performances that took place over the past couple of weeks at the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary, many runners have had their eyes steered only on the daily results piling up from the preeminent international event.
After all, most of the top running news outlets are naturally going to feature the track World Championships as the emphasis of running news coverage.
While it is undeniable that there were some stellar performances at the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest—some of which we are still replaying in our minds in awe—the rest of the running world didn’t stop training and racing.
Belgian ultrarunner Karel Sabbe ran the entire 2,659 mile (4,279 kilometers) Pacific Crest Trail in the south-to-north direction in just 46 days, 12 hours, and 50 minutes.
The Pacific Crest Trail, more commonly referred to as the PCT, runs along the West Coast of the USA, all the way from Mexico to Canada.
This means that ultra runner Sabbe covered about 58 miles per day (93 km per day) for 46 days straight across a very rugged trail!
The single-track Pacific Crest Trail meanders along the coast of California, through both the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, and then crosses the challenging Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, as it winds up through the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington to Canada.
Trail runners or thru-hikers looking to take on the challenging PCT cover over 400,000 feet (about 122,000 meters) of elevation gain from end to end!Although a beautiful trail running course and one of the longest trails in the world, it is certainly among one of the hardest, making Karel Sabbe’s new PCT FKT, or fastest known time, all the more impressive.
However, if you are at all familiar with this Belgian ultra runner, you may be aware that Sabbe was one of three finishers at the 2023 Barkley Marathons in March.
Finishing the Barkley Marathons in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee is nearly unheard of.
It is designed to be essentially impossible, with only 15 runners having ever finished the course in its 34 years of existence prior to this year.
The course is not marked. Runners have to find hidden checkpoints, and the 100+-mile course has over 120,000 feet of elevation change—you read that right.
Karel Sabbe’s successful completion of the 2023 Barkley Marathons made him only the 17th runner in the history of the notoriously wild ultramarathon to finish the race.
Reportedly, Sabbe almost finished the Barkley Marathons last year, but he had to pull out of the 2022 race near the end due to hallucinations (certainly not unheard of for any ultramarathon, let alone the beast that is the nearly indomitable Barkley Marathons!).
Karel Sabbe Is also no stranger to running the PCT end to end, as he held the Pacific Crest Trail FKT for five years until 2021.
However, Sabbe’s original Pacific Coast Trail FKT was broken by about 15 hours in 2021 when Timothy Olsen bested his Fastest Known Time PCT performance finishing the trail in 51 days, 16 hours, and 55 minutes.
To reclaim the South-to-North PCT FKT record, Karel Sabbe began his 4279 km trail run in early July 2023 at the USA-Mexico border near Campo in San Diego County.
He dominated the California portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, reaching the California-Oregon border just 29 days, 23 hours, and 59 minutes after he began his attempt to take down Timothy Olson’s Pacific Crest Trail FKT.
Sabbe’s running pace through California set a new record for the California section of the PCT. He went on to successfully reclaim the PCT Fastest Known Time by more than 5 days.
Aside from the Barkley ultramarathon, Sabbe tends to focus his ultrarunning career on FKT attempts rather than conventional ultramarathon trail races.
However, the Belgian titan of ultra trail running did run the Marathon des Sables in April 2023 as a “training session” to prepare for his Pacific Coast Trail FKT attempt.
The Marathon des Sables has a reputation for being one of the hardest races in the world, with runners traversing their way across 155 miles (250km) of the Saharan desert in Africa in just six days (a stage race), carrying all their own gear.
In a 2020 YouTube documentary in which Karel Sabbe took viewers through his training journey to his first attempt at the Barkley Marathons in 2019, Sabbe provides sound reasoning as to why the Marathon des Sables ultra was particularly chosen as a training race for his Pacific Coast Trail end-to-end attempt, noting:
“My biggest fear was the Mojave Desert. I’m from Belgium, It’s a very moderate temperature. In the Mojave Desert, at the hottest time of the year in June, you need desert experience,” he explains, discussing the long stretch of the PCT through stiflingly hot temperatures.
Sabbe continues, “On my bucket list was the Marathon des Sables. For one week you’re self-sufficient carrying your own food, your own gear, and you run about the marathon a day. There’s one long stage where you run two marathons.”
So, this year, Sabbe followed through with that plan, finishing the ultra marathon across Africa’s Sahara Desert in 37th place out of 1,200 starters.
His cumulative finish time across all six stages of the 2023 Marathon des Sables was 30:47:58. The winning time was 21:01:21 (Rachid El Morabity from Morocco).
It certainly seems like Sabbe’s plan worked, and breaking the Fastest Known Time on the PCT by over 5 days (and his own former PB on the long trail by even more than that) is amazing and indicative of significant progress in his ultra running abilities.
To keep up with Karel Sabbe’s adventures in ultra running, you can follow him on Instagram here.
If you are interested in trying some trail running yourself, check out our guide to trail running for beginners here.