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Why a Woman Might Never Finish the Barkley Marathons

Barkley Yellow gate

The Yellow Gate, Courtesy of Finally Found Something I love



Now irrelevant stuff:

Some loud and mean people think a woman will never finish the Barkley Marathons. It’s not exactly surprising; in every area of human achievement, we seemed doomed to continually repeat the past. Woman haven’t done X under prior conditions, thus woman can’t do X. Then they do X and the argument moves onto Y. It’s the most  boring, predictable and yet inevitable dialog you can imagine.

That doesn’t mean it’s always wrong. It may be possible that some things are possible for men and not for women. Peeing up comes to mind. The question is whether the Barkley Marathons is such an exception.

I know what you’re thinking: We already know the answer to this. John Kelly (aka Random Forest Runner), 2016 Barkley finisher (amazing) and data scientist (very cool) put this to rest in 2018 (in a far better article than this one). His conclusion? A woman can “absolutely” finish the Barkleys.

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. – John Kelly

At heart, this is John’s logic:

  1. John beat the course
  2. Women have beaten John
  3. Thus, women can beat the course

He concludes that If the right women are selected, they will probably eventually finish. But there’s a minor flaw in this logic that makes a big difference, and that has to do with your definition of the Barkleys themselves.

The Problem

John Kelly is  a data scientist and far better at understanding data and statistical data than I will ever be, but he nevertheless makes one fatal mistake; assuming data between Barkleys is comparable and/or that those differences don’t matter. But they do matter when considered on a timeline, a lot, and you don’t need statistics to understand why.

Simply put, race founder and director Gary Cantrell (laz) has stated repeatedly in various ways (and by numerous actions) that the Barkley will continue to evolve, and the course will change, and those changes will make it harder every year. As the quality / skill / experience / abilities of Barkers improves every, so the course must get harder every year for laz to hold true to his goals — keeping the Barkleys just at the edge of human abilities.

This means that past Barker finishers, male or female, might not come close to being able to finish future Barkleys. The race may have the same name each year, but it’s not really the same race. New courses might be beyond the abilities of Gary, John, Jared and even Brett. If the women entering don’t increase in aggregate abilities faster than the course gets harder, they’ll never catch up and never finish. And that would be depressing for everyone.

Isn’t this Just an Academic Argument?

Maybe, but I don’t think so. I believe the only way to assure that women finish the Barkley, ever, and possibly continue to do so for some period of time, is for the first female finisher to succeed before the inevitable onslaught of ultra-qualified male athletes forces laz or his successor to make the course essentially un-finishable by any woman likely to compete on the course at the right time under the right conditions. More qualified women need to apply to, get into, and run the Barkleys as soon as possible.

Could I be Wrong?

Of course. There is a lot of randomness in Barkley finishes, and it’s entirely possible that some fluke of a female athlete could finish on any given year no matter the course–the female Einstein of running, if you will. What’s more likely is that laz or his successor won’t be perfect in calibrating course difficulty every year, or they won’t keep making it more difficult, and that random variation in course and entrants will result in a female finisher even under non-unicorn conditions. Genetic engineering might even make it all moot. Or we may wake up and realize that woman and man are actually identical physically and all of this was a silly conspiracy. It could happen, but probably not.

So What am I Suggesting?

Let’s tackle this problem head-on. We need more women in the Barkleys, now. Maybe even an all-women Barkley year (#AllWomanBarkley), or at least ten or twenty per year. Soon. Just as one male finisher opened up the race for all other men, and one woman finisher would do the same for all women.

Why do I care? Because the gender question is a mundane distraction; of course a woman can finish the Barkley. The Tahoe 200 is way more exciting to follow now that it’s obvious Courtney Dauwalter or someone like her can win it. It broadens the competition, making it more compelling for everyone. So let’s just get this Barklady thing done and focus on the race rather than the shape of genitals smacking the Easy button.


Related Stuff

If you want to learn more about the debate over women and the Barkley, here’s a little background:

Let’s Run shot across the bow (Warning, don’t click to this site unless you want to get stuck in link hell. Nothing interesting to read, and very few insightful comments. Just here for reference). The shot across the bow was:

Love listening to these Ultra podcast hosts claiming, “oh, it’s going to be so epic when a woman finishes the Barkley Marathons. Why can’t just one of these guys (Ginger Runner, Coury, etc…) just be blatanly [sic] honest and lay it out there that it can’t be done.

Them’s fightin’ words.

John Kelly’s article about why a woman will, of course, finish the race is good reading for anyone interested in the topic. Probably the only good reading.

And lastly, there’s this Outside Magazine article, “The Women of the Barkley Marathons,” about the 2018 Barkley field:

The field included a handful of promising newbies (called “virgins”), including well-established ultrarunners like Amelia Boone, Liz Canty, Stephanie Case, and Maggie Guterl, and just one veteran: five-timer Nicki Rehn. Kaz Williams, also a Barkley virgin, was gifted bib number one—the annual distinction Laz gives to a so-called human sacrifice, who he believes has no chance of finishing.

And of course if you find any better information, let me know.

Barkley Resources

To learn more about the Barkley, check out the following:

Good luck Out There.

1 Comment

  1. What do you think about the recent ruling that a woman who naturally has a level of high testosterone that’s higher than many men cannot compete against women with testosterone in the “normal” range? I think it’s pretty outrageous, personally. But the more general point relative to your post is this: we are on the cusp of a totalitarian regime in America who might undo equality in many areas or even make it illegal for women to be athletes except under very strict conditions. For instance, gymnastics and ice skating might be okay but not track and field. I know! How absurd! But how absurd was it to round up 6 million Jews and incinerate them? I see your point that the race could keep getting harder and harder and keep outpacing a woman’s ability. But I think it far more likely that women simply won’t be able to run. It wouldn’t even surprise me if women had their feet bound at birth as the nobility did in ancient China.

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