After 46 days of running an average of 60 miles / 95km per day, Belgian ultrarunner Karel Sabbe set a new record on the Pacific Crest Trail - a route that winds from Mexico to Canada
There are trails and then there are trails. And at 2,653 miles / 4,269km long, the Pacific Crest Trail is firmly in the latter category.
Spanning all the way from Mexico to Canada, through three states and across more than 100 mountain passes with a total of 420,879 feet / 128,284m vertical gain, it takes the average thru-hiker around five months to complete.
So Belgian ultrarunner Karel Sabbe's completion of the trail in 46 days, 12 hours and 50 minutes is notable for many reasons, not least that he set a new FKT (fastest known time) for finishing the route, beating the old FKT by five days.
And it’s not even the first time he’s completed it. He previously held the record in 2016, in a time of 51 days, 16 hours and 55 minutes – which he held until Timothy Olsen broke it in 2021.
The 34-year-old dentist, who felt he had more in the tank and is not averse to digging deep into the pain cave, re-laced his running shoes, pulled on his running pack and lined up to start again on 10 July.
“The reality is that there's nothing like the PCT in the world,” he tells Strava Stories. “I’ve done multi-day hikes and run trails across the globe, but the PCT, which is 2,650 miles of purely trail, is just amazing.
“In Europe, we have some longer hiking trails, but usually they are more cultural, so you go from village to village passing abbeys, churches and other historic buildings. There’s more human influence, like ski resorts and roads high in the mountains. The PCT is simply singletrack hiking trail for its entirety, and it goes to some truly remote regions.”
He also enthuses about the variety the trail offers, in terms of both terrain and environment. “The Appalachian Trail is beautiful [he also holds the FKT for that trail: 41 days, 7hrs, 39mins, set in 2018], but they call it ‘The Green Tunnel’ because you’re in forests all the time. With the PCT, it starts in the desert and you go high into the mountains of Yosemite and Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks through a volcanic type of landscape in Northern California. Oregon is special and unique, then Washington is more alpine. The diversity is wide-ranging.”
From the start, Karel’s aim was to beat the FKT. “I don't look at current records or times because the risk that comes with focusing too much on records is that you start to believe that that's the best possible,” he says. “My approach is: ‘How can I maximise today? What can I do today with the current air and weather conditions?’”
The result was that Karel averaged a staggering 59 miles / 95km daily, going purely on how he felt each day. And to stop himself getting overwhelmed by the vast numbers involved in a challenge like this, he focused solely on nothing but the upcoming few miles of trail. Not how much was left to run next week, tomorrow, or even when he would stop that day. “If there were road crossings coming up, the only thing I would focus on was the next meet-up with my crew.”
Karel repeatedly states the importance of his crew, and how crucial they were to his FKT success. “Two of my friends paced me, and were able to do a good distance every day. Along with my wife, they were always there when they were supposed to be. They could resupply me with food and drink, and force me to eat when I did not want to.”
The PCT is famous for its ‘trail angels’ – kind-hearted locals who leave water or food on the trail for hikers, something that Karel did not need to use too often due to the efficiency of his crew. “It was amazing to see the whole PCT community – trail angels and thru-hikers. They were all encouraging, often applauding or even trying to run with me, saying, ‘You're doing great’ and ‘We're rooting for you’.”
Karel kept his followers updated by posting his progress on Strava, which made for some eye-watering distance and vert statistics. “The Strava community is always a lot of fun,” he says. “It was great to get kudos and support on the platform. I signed up to a few challenges, too – in August, I was the runner with most kilometres on the site, so that was a fun side quest,” he laughs.
Despite the distance, he still had enough in his legs to take some Strava trophies, including ‘Move quickly to beat the mosquitos’ – an 11 mile / 18km-long segment in Washington. And he achieved all this while avoiding a hazard he’s not used to running in the flatlands of Ghent, Belgium – rattlesnakes.
“California and Oregon are home to a lot of rattlesnakes. They're beautiful animals, but they are often lying on the trail. As you’re running, you suddenly see them and then you hesitate: do I quickly jump over them or do I try to stop myself? Accidently stepping on one was my biggest fear.”
There were plenty of black bears, too, but Karel wasn’t so worried about them. “They are totally harmless. If they hear you from a distance, they run away. Sometimes if I saw that they hadn’t seen me, I’d shout at them to scare them away.”
Other risks included two extremes of temperature – snow early on in the trail, and wildfires near the finish. “The most special moment was in the High Sierra, which is the mountain range in Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Park. You go up to 13,100 feet / 4,000m, and it was clear the snow would still be there. Thru-hikers told me the passes were impossible due to flooding from the meltwater. So me and my crew decided to go in with ice picks and crampons. When we realised that the rivers and passes were possible as a team, it was a beautiful moment, as up to that point we weren’t sure it would be possible.”
Wildfires, meanwhile, raged near the Canadian border towards the end, and a trail closure meant Karel had to divert on a less-well-trodden path for 100 extra miles (160km) to avoid the danger area.
“Mentally, that was difficult as I knew I could break the record by six days, but it became five days because I lost one day during the detour. But I could accept it, as you always know that when you run the PCT, something like that will happen.”
Earlier this year, Karel became the 17th person to complete the almost-impossible-to-finish Barkley Marathons in the US, on his third attempt. However, he feels that may not have been the best preparation for this FKT attempt. “It built incredible fitness, but running 60 hours [his finishing time] in extreme conditions had a huge impact on my body. You need time to recover, you lose half of your toenails and you're pretty beaten up as you stumble and fall all the time.”
Still, the bonus was that the hours of bushwhacking through the undergrowth at Barkley helped Karel during the long detour, and a final 100-mile push in 28 hours meant he reached the end of the PCT in record time – before having to hike an extra 5 miles / 8km to get to the nearest road where he and his crew could celebrate with dinner, wine and sleep.
Since he’s been back in Belgium, he’s been focusing on recuperating. “My recovery is going slowly,” he says. “It’s understandable after 46 days of intense running. My resting heart rate is still double what it usually is – 85 instead of 43. But I did a short bike ride the other day, which helped loosen up my muscles.”
And there’s also the not-so-small matter of refuelling after burning in the region of 10,000 calories a day for 46 days. “There’s been a lot of greasy food, and Belgian specialities you can’t get in the US,” he says, “plus possibly some Belgian beer, too.”