In 52 days, 8 hours, and 25 minutes, Karel Sabbe made short work of one of the country's longest trails.
Setting a long trail speed record can take a village. When Appalachian Trail speedsters Scott Jurek and Karl Meltzer set records, pit crews rolled from road crossing to road crossing with food, water, and gear. Pacific Crest Trail runner Joe McConaughy brought a three-person support team to set his 53-day, 5-hour, 37-minute record back in 2014.
Karel Sabbe, a 26-year-old Belgian and a dentist by trade, had only Joren Biebuyck, a good friend with a rented Jeep.
With most would-be FKT challengers eyeing the Appalachian Trail or standing back in awe of PCT royalty Heather "Anish" Anderson's eye-popping unsupported record of 60 days, 17 hours, and 12 minutes, Sabbe quietly laced his shoes at the Mexican border and put one foot in front of the other with no fanfare. Fifty-two days, eight hours, twenty-five minutes, and seven pairs of shoes later, on August 13, throbbing feet carried Sabbe into Canada, making him the fastest known person to complete the trail, a feat that takes most travelers six months. Then, with a weary exhale and a satisfied nod, he boarded a plane and slipped away back over the Atlantic, vanishing as soundlessly as he’d appeared.
From a Land Without Mountains
The Belgian man of mystery stands out amidst his record-setting peers in more ways than one. Metzner and Jurek are sponsored ultrarunners. McConaughy was a college cross-country athlete, and previous PCT record holder Josh Garrett was a track coach. Anderson works as a personal trainer when she’s not smashing FKTs. (In 2015, she claimed the unsupported AT thru-hike record, finishing in 54 days, four days faster than the existing record.) These trail-fiends all have a professional background in athletics and are natives of the United States, the land of purple mountains majesty and plenty of butt-busting slopes.
Sabbe’s field of employment, however, ends at the lower jaw. Not surprisingly, working in a six-square-inch, gum-lined cubicle leaves him craving open spaces. "In daily life, Karel is working as a dentist,” declares his website. “This continuous working with great focus in a small setting gives him a ton of energy that begs to be let out!"
Another difference between Sabbe and his contemporaries? The former hails from a country 2,200 feet above sea level at its highest point. “We don’t have a lot of mountains in Belgium, so we have to do the same mountain over and over again,” said Biebuyck, whose own preparation comprised of occasional jogging and playing basketball. “No one knows how intense Karel’s training must have been or how mind-numbing.”
That’s because Sabbe did almost all his training alone. Though the trail running bug has hit Belgium as it has elsewhere in Europe, most races are under 40 miles, and the country’s longest race is just 100km (60 miles)—insufficient for someone planning to run over 50 miles a day for 50 days. Belgian interest in ultrarunning began to surface about a year ago, said Sabbe, but as of yet, the community is close to nonexistent.
In the 10 months he worked part-time to prepare for his 2,660-mile run, Sabbe was seldom able to find a partner. “I just didn’t know anyone in my city that was interested in it,” Sabbe said.
As non-runners, Sabbe’s friends and family initially reacted to his PCT goal with disbelief. Those who were supportive had no way to fathom the difference between 26.2 miles and 50 miles, and the disconnect made it hard to talk about his training.
There was one person who was supportive right off the bat, and that was Biebuyck. The two were trekking through Fjordland National Park, New Zealand, in March 2015 when Sabbe said he was considering running the PCT. “I didn’t even ask,” Sabbe said. “Joren mentioned that I would need the support, and he said, ‘I will support you.’” And that was that.
Searching for the Impossible
The PCT had been on Sabbe’s bucket list since he first heard of it on a road trip across the American West eight years ago. Then, he thought only to hike it.
Sabbe started ultrarunning seriously about two years ago. Originally a soccer player, he found himself energetic even after workouts and started running to tire himself out more efficiently. He signed up for a marathon and finished in under three hours with only modest training.
Next was the Coast to Coast, an adventure race across New Zealand, divided into three disciplines: 87 miles of cycling, 22 miles of running, and 42 miles of kayaking. Uncertain of whether he would ever be able to make the rigorous time requirements, Sabbe submitted his registration. “I thought, ‘Okay, do I always wonder how good I really am, or do I sign up for an extreme challenge and see?’” Sabbe said. “I start with the idea that’s nearly impossible and find out whether I can train for it and make it possible.”
Chasing the PCT record was an extension of that MO. To beat it, Sabbe would have to run 51 miles a day for 52 days straight. Preparation began almost immediately after he finished the Coast to Coast (as the first Belgian to finish).
Training to Break a Record
On a typical week, Sabbe did core work and strength training on Monday and Tuesday. Strength exercises targeting his hips were the most crucial to his success, Sabbe said. (Think side leg raises, side steps with an elastic band, and single-leg squats.) He’d log a pre-work marathon on Wednesday and Thursday and run 25 to 45 miles per day on the weekends.
“The most important thing was making sure my body would be ready to take the distance,” Sabbe said. “[To train for the PCT] I would run fewer sessions but longer ones.”
To streamline his hydration and nutrition plan, he had his sweat tested in a local university hospital lab. High salt sweaters need more electrolytes to avoid hyponatremia, whereas low salt sweaters can dehydrate themselves by consuming too much salt. Luckily, Sabbe landed right in the middle, which meant he could rely on an average sports drink to rehydrate him without bringing along supplemental salt tablets.
For mental preparation, Sabbe signed up for 100-kilometer and 100-mile races. The race most crucial to his success? The Marathon des Sables, a 7-day, 156-mile self-supported race through the 115-degree Sahara Desert. Sabbe said the Marathon des Sables, billed “the toughest footrace on earth,” taught him how to conserve energy in a desiccated environment and how to fight through complete exhaustion, digging deep to find the strength to continue.
“On the PCT you have those moments every day,” Sabbe said. “Without that experience [of the Marathon de Sables], I’m not sure if I would have made it.”
The Secrets to Success
The PCT is a grueling course. It includes more than 900 miles of desert and climbs jagged peaks and passes as high as 13,150 feet. Much of the challenge occurs within the mind, and success is impossible without mental fortitude.
For one thing, you can’t think about quitting. “If you do, you will give up because you’re so tired and everything hurts so much,” Sabbe said.
At times, the pain in his blistered feet was unbearable. “The hardest part of each day was just to get into my shoes in the morning,” he said. Sabbe’s advice for keeping hot spots in check? “Take many pairs of socks!” He started out with just four, which soon stiffened with dried sweat and dirt. Expanding the wardrobe helped, he said, as did airing out his soles nightly by sleeping with his feet outside of his sleeping bag.
On the trail, Sabbe fought pain and boredom with the crooning lyrics of Pink Floyd and Radiohead, and when the music and his own thoughts weren’t enough at the end of the day, Biebuyck was there.
“If I wasn't feeling good, Joren would motivate me or take out a slice of pizza or cheer me on,” Sabbe said. “I don’t think this record would have been possible with another person. He was just the perfect partner.”
Biebuyck’s signature optimism was the secret to their success, Sabbe said. Between misplacing a sleeping bag somewhere along the road to missing meetup points, the two found plenty of ways to lose time.
“You could say we had bad luck, but we never thought of it as having bad luck; we thought we were just lucky to be on such an adventure,” Sabbe said.
That positivity was tested just six days from the Canadian border. Biebuyck arrived at a trailhead to find the trail had washed out in a storm. It was passable, said internet reports, but only with 10 hours of hiking and a machete. He punched Sabbe’s number into his satellite phone to relay the change of plans. Biebuyck would have to drive to the next trailhead and carry their 60-pound pack another 10 miles, hitting the trail 20 miles north of where Sabbe stood on the other end of the phone.
“I couldn’t believe how much farther it was,” said Sabbe. They decided to keep moving, Sabbe north and Biebuyck south, until they ran into each other.
Sabbe had already run 54 miles that day, and he was exhausted. Midnight found him zigzagging across the trail, dozing off mid-stride. Eventually he curled up in the dirt and slept until the cold woke him, an hour and a half later. He pushed to his feet and kept going. When the day’s mileage hit 65, light appeared on the horizon. “It was just us, running toward each other the whole night, and at seven o'clock the sun came up, and we saw each other,” said Biebuyck.
“Knowing he’d been through the same experience I had, and that he did it for me—it was a pretty special moment,” said Sabbe.
They had one hour to sleep before the clock started ticking on the next day’s mileage.
Looking for the bright side, consciously avoiding negative thinking, and having a partner he could trust all helped Sabbe get through that day, one of his hardest on the PCT. Before setting out for a big objective, Sabbe cautions adventurers to check in with themselves and make sure they’re with the right partner and following the right passion. “If something is your passion, you don’t see it as a burden,” he said. That drastically reduces the number of times you catch yourself thinking, “Why the hell am I doing this?”
Another tip? Do what it takes to be informed, especially when that involves asking peers and competitors for help. Sabbe said part of his preparation was reaching out to previous record holder Joe McConaughy, who helped Sabbe with logistics and planning details. Sabbe urges any future FKT hopefuls to contact him in turn.
The Real Victory
On an average day, Sabbe would wake up “way too early,” down a cup of coffee, (“Coffee at times was the only reason for me to wake up and continue,” he joked.), eat breakfast while running, break for a lunchtime meetup with Biebuck, run until nightfall, drink a recovery drink, swallow some dinner, and hit the hay. Sabbe’s pack weight maxed out at 10 pounds. He carried food, water, a raincoat, a satellite phone, a headlamp, and spare batteries. Sabbe went through seven pairs of shoes on the trail—all the Asics FujiTrabuco 4, the only shoe he’s ever run in.
Each of those days, however average, was a small victory, said Biebuyck. They treated every on-time rendezvous and injury-free day as a miracle.
There were other, above-average accomplishments, like the time Sabbe successfully completed the Pinchot, Mather, and Muir passes all in one day. Or the time Biebuyck hiked in two hamburgers in honor of the first day in the High Sierra, a 50-mile bruiser across rocky, challenging terrain.
“But then, back in Belgium, we found our friends and family waiting for us, giving us applause. You can feel the warmth of the people who care about you, and maybe that’s the real triumph” said Biebuyck.
Now, Sabbe says it’s time to rest, spend time with his friends and family, and reflect on his memories from the trail. “There’s so much inside the human body, and doing something like that shows how exceptional it is to be human,” Sabbe said. “That’s a feeling I will cherish.”
But it would be out of character for Sabbe to sit still for too long. He’s already signed up for a 100-mile charity run. And in November, he plans to run the 75-mile Torres del Paine Cirque. He’s always dreamed of Patagonia, and this fall seemed like the right time to go. Maybe that’s because Biebuyck will be there, too.