Sorry, Fastest Time Didn't Win

With over 20,000 competitors at the Nike Women's Marathon this past weekend, an interesting thing happened: The finisher with the fastest time, didn't win. That's right! Arien O'Connell, a 24-year old from New York City, ran the fastest time of all the women finishing 11 minutes faster than the field and did not claim the first place trophy. How does this happen?

Let me tell you, in certain Marathon races there are what is considered "Elite Runners." These are usually the people that finish in the very top percentage of the runners. They start earlier than everyone else and are escorted by a blockade of police and observed for anything that may cause disqualification — essentially the pack race against each other. They normally stay in a close knit running group throughout the race until they slowly break apart and the faster runners emerge. The remaining thousands of people start 20 minutes or so after this and are released in waves based on their estimated finishing times. The 3 hour group first, 3:30 next and so on. This usually spaces out the field and allows the faster runners to be in front to avoid having to maneuver around (us slower) runners.

With that quick fun description out of the way, let's get back to Arien O'Connell who finished with an amazing time of 2:55:11 besting her PR by 12 minutes. Let me repeat: beat her PR by 12 minutes!! That right there is astonishing. For someone like me who finishes above 5 hours, shaving off 12 minutes is a matter of drinking one less Starbucks a week and maybe running an extra 5 miles a week. When you get down to the 3 hour range of finishing times, shaving off 12 minutes is extremely tough. Here is a bad example, but I'm going to use it — imagine a 300 lb. person trying to lose 5 lbs. Now imagine a 100 lb. person trying to lose those same 5 lbs. (with my slow time being the 300 lb. example) With Arien O'Connell not registered as an "Elite Runner" and not racing in the elite field, she was not eligible to place. Sounds totally unfair right? It's a race, fastest person wins, right?

But let's look at it from a different perspective. The elite field is essentially racing against each other and basing their pace on the pace of one another. If the lead runner knows that the person behind him/her is a minute or so behind them, then they will conserve their energy for the end in case there is a push or to reduce the risk of injury. If the runner behind the lead runner sees that they are a minute or so behind, they will increase their pace to catch up. Here lies the problem, these runners didn't know that someone (Arien O'Connell) was technically in front of them (even though she is 20 minutes behind their current location). You might be asking yourself, they should be running their fastest, it is a race. Plain and simple, not every runner can go a thousand percent every race, they would injure themselves and not be able to participate in future races. Sometimes you have to run just fast enough to win (which to their knowledge they were), especially if you are viewing this as a training run for another race or a much larger event such as Boston or an Ultra marathon. 

This story ran on the cover of SFGate.com for the majority of the day and has received over a thousand comments with 4 or 5 times as many thumbs up or thumbs down votes (as of when posted). So here we go, I open up the floor — where do you stand and what are your thoughts? I really havent come to a consesus on how I feel about it myself and have tried to look at it from all angles. What's your take on the situation? Should Miss 2:55:11 be given first place and all the glory that goes with it? Or since she didn't register as an "Elite" and run with the pack, it's tough cookies. Please share your comments below. And don't forget to participate in the vote box to the right.


lomond said...

The problem,as I see it, is that the elites in this race were not elite at all. some of the women came in at over 4 hours. the #10 non-elite woman was faster than the #10 elite woman.
That says that the elite method is flawed in this race as well as Chicago, where the same thing happened. In other words, my PR is 4 hours, should I be allowed to register as an elite? Should it not be the rule that everyone who who has a PR of X:hours should be automatically registered as an elite? That would make more sense than this artificial elite field that seems to exist now.
Or the race needs to be specifically set up, that there are two races. one for prize money, and one for fun. But to call it an "elite race" is incorrect.
In my opinion, If the women aren't coming in at 2:30, they are hardly elite and dont deserve to be separated in their own group.
running a 3:06 as an elite would be like the elite men coming in at 2:45. fast? sure. but hardly elite. and If the elite are worried about an injury, and they aren't coming to really race, then let them do an exhibition race the day before.

The "elite" pre-start needs to be abandoned.

end rant.

Anonymous said...

it's amazing to me that this Still happens at all! And that Nike is just turning their heads and walking away is infuriating as hell! While I don't wear Nike shoes, I've always supported their brand and what they evoke as a brand; you would think they would stand up and support the Fastest Runner! For cryin out loud - it's Nike that has the saying "JUST DO IT" - lame!

Anonymous said...

why didn't she register as an elite? I still think the fastest runner no matter where they start should be prized as the fastest runner, no?!

Charlie said...

i loved your analogy. it worked perfectly!

Anonymous said...

To not give this woman first place goes against everything Nike is about as a brand and a company.

ZLBDAD said...

Elites or not there is no rationale for NOT giving her the prize. Arguing that other runners would have run 12+ minutes faster if they had known makes no sense. If they were treating this as a training run they would have never increased their pace :30/mi.

Further....what if a runner suddenly emerges from unknown status to elite during an event. Should they be penalized by not having been recognized before. I hardly think so.