A large number of condolences went to extremely strong women in 2018, so much so that laz dubbed it the ‘year of the woman.’ Unfortunately some of those strong women didn’t make it to the starting line for one reason or another, but there were still some very good contenders in the field this year. Quite a big deal has been made over the years about the lack of a woman finisher at Barkley, and laz loves to get people (and especially talented women) riled up by saying a woman can’t finish.
I’ve been asked about this myself not as much as I’ve been asked how to enter Barkley, but enough that in similar fashion I’ve decided to put my answer into a post as a reference (spoiler alert: yes… the answer is yes). I’ve also seen it asked to a lot of people who shouldn’t have to answer it (i.e. the women who might be able to finish). Should a player be asked before the Super Bowl whether he thinks his team can win? It’s a can’t-win question. If the answer is ‘no’ then everyone says “oh not even he thinks they can win, there’s no chance.” If the answer is ‘yes’ then everyone says “well of course he’s going to say that he’s on the team.” And if he refuses to answer it’s just assumed to be ‘no.’
So here I am, an observer who happens to have a bit of experience in the matter, but with no skin in the game. There are no “points” for me to gain from doing this. I’m already married and the chances of me running for political office are much lower than the topic of this post. I’m also a data scientist. I make my living objectively calculating the odds, identifying patterns, detecting anomalies, and so on and so forth on really complex datasets. Rather than making conjectures or giving my opinion, I’ve tried to approach this question with the same type of logic built upon accepted facts.
Why a woman can finish
It’s established that there is a multitude of factors and skills that lead to success at Barkley. Strengths in some of those can balance out weaknesses in others, but there is still a minimum standard that must be met in all of those skills.
Of those skills, the average man has an advantage over the average woman in one: physical speed and endurance. We don’t care about averages, though. We care about individuals. The average man cannot finish any more than the average woman can. And speaking of genetic averages, I had one of those DNA tests done recently. Apparently compared to the average person I’m “less likely to perform well at endurance-type activities” and my “potential for excelling at power-type activities, such as weight-lifting and sprinting, is greater than it is for endurance-type activities.” I guess there’s a lot of stuff I shouldn’t have been able to do. Oops. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
We also don’t care about comparing the best man versus the best woman, where there might also be a physical advantage. Saying that the hypothetical best possible man is faster than the best possible woman does not preclude the best possible woman from finishing.
What we care about is comparing the best woman against the minimum physical standard required to finish on the current course. I volunteer myself as that standard (although I think it is even lower, given the time we lost to mistakes and race conditions in 2017, not to mention that enormous 29+ minute buffer I had left at the end).
Are there women who have more strength, speed, and endurance than me and thus exceed that minimum physical standard? Absolutely. I’ve lost to women in ultras. I lost to 5 or 6 women at Kona. I don’t know if I could keep up with Shalane Flanagan if she were running a marathon and I was running a half.
It all boils down to this:
- Physical speed and endurance is the only Barkley skill where a woman might not be able to match the best man
- In pure tests of physical speed and endurance, I have and will continue to lose to women
- I finished Barkley in 2017
- The course and conditions in 2017 were no less difficult than what current entrants might face
- Given 1 and 2, a woman could beat me at Barkley (still true even if I were in the exact same shape I was in at the 2017 race)
- Given 3 and 4, I can finish Barkley
- Given 5 and 6, a woman can finish Barkley
- Q.E.D., etc.
It’s that simple. Until either I’m faster than all women everywhere or the course is made so difficult that it can’t reasonably be said that I (or at least the 2017 version of me) could finish, it can’t reasonably be said that a woman can’t finish.
Arguments used for why a woman can’t finish
Most arguments I’ve seen rely on one of two things:
- Historical Barkley statistics
- Calculating probabilities based on random draws from the entire population
Using historical race statistics does not work when the participants (and definitely the finishers) do not form a representative sample of the population from which finishers can come. Otherwise there are quite a few ridiculous assertions we could make: anyone who is originally from Morgan County, TN has a 100% chance of finishing, it is impossible for someone from France to finish a Fun Run, and clearly anyone whose name doesn’t start with J should change it: 7 of the 18 finishes have been by people whose names start with J. I’m pretty sure the p-value on that is well under 0.05 (after a quick Google search for the frequency of J names, it looks like the p-value is roughly 0.002… statistical significance!).
There are 15 of us. 15! That’s it. How many people would feel comfortable getting on a new model of airplane if told that it had flown or been tested a whopping 15 times and never crashed?
Not even the event itself has seen enough years to form a representative sample given all the possible variables at Barkley. But clearly no one can possibly finish when the conch blows at 2:33 AM with a crescent moon, partly overcast skies, and a wind blowing 8.7 mph NNE 2/3 of the way up Rat Jaw. Because that’s never happened before. It’s really a problem of looking at the race with a frequentist view rather than a Bayesian view, which just flat doesn’t work with the amount of data and the number of variables we have.
So historical Barkley statistics are a lot of fun, but they do little to predict success, which is something else that makes the event so fun. When I first did the race in 2015 I’m pretty sure most people would have (justifiably) said a woman can finish before they would have said that I could finish.
The second main argument goes something like this: given that only X% of women meet the minimum physical standard to finish and only 40 entrants are allowed each year, it is likely to be 10 gazillion years before we see a woman in the event who can finish. This argument assumes that we’re taking random draws from the population, which is not the case at all. Given the significantly increased knowledge and awareness of the event in recent years we’re not even taking draws that are similar to the ones taken 10 years ago (again making the historical Barkley stats argument invalid).
If anyone wants to take random draws from the population and have them race me for $100, I’ll do that all day every day. But there’s no way I would stand here and say, “I’ll race anyone who wants to for $100.” There are a lot of people who can beat me, and those people are the only ones who would actually choose to race with money on the line. It’s a self-selecting sample, not a random sample.
In the same way, we don’t care how many women do Barkley and if a random one of them can finish – we care if the right woman can finish. And given the exposure the event now has, and the challenge that is out there and no doubt appealing to many top women in the sport, I think the right woman will self-select and come forward if she hasn’t already. And I’ll be right there smiling, because I don’t know if many people enjoy a good “oh yeah, well I’ll show you!” story as much as I do.