A Marathon Oddity Leads to Two First-Place Finishers

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  • #10602


    Seems like it was only a matter of time until this was going to happen. I'm not sure I see the need for a separate elite start, 30 minutes ahead of the rest of the field, for a women only race. I understand the reason for doing it at races like Boston, though this same issue is much less likely to happen when the elite field is truly a world class field, but for a women only race where the overall fastest time was 2:55 and the top time from the elite field was 3:06?

    When Arien O’Connell checked her watch after completing the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco on Sunday, she knew she had outdone herself. With a time of 2 hours 55 minutes 11 seconds, she had comfortably beaten her personal best.

    As it turned out, she had also beaten every other runner. Still, she was not initially declared the winner because she had not run in the 19-woman elite field, starting instead 20 minutes later with the 20,000 other runners in the main pack. The title went to Nora Colligan, who ran about 11 minutes slower.

    In a reversal, race organizers said Wednesday morning that O’Connell and Colligan would both be considered winners of the marathon. Though there was no prize money awarded in the race, both will have first-place trophies.

    Before being informed that the result had been adjusted, she explained that she had not applied to start with the elites simply because she thought that the field would be stronger.

    “I was running 3:07 at the time,” she said Wednesday. “I assumed that the kind of people who were going to be there were running like 2:35 marathons.”

    “I think there were a lot of things in this race that were not clarified in terms of what it meant to be elite,” she said.

    How many people with a previous PR of 3:07 would think to check on getting into an elite field?

    New York Times article

  • #26396


    Having an “elite field” for a race where nobody goes under 2:55 is rather an oxymoron.  What was the point for having a designated so-called elite field for that kind of a race?  Seems like they tried to pointlessly force a concept from a major race onto a minor one.

  • #26397


    Either that or they were hoping to draw some true elites.

  • #26398


    Doubtful.  I would presume that a race such as this has zero appearance fees, that they offer comped entries and possibly one-night's stay at the host hotel, at best.  Kenyans crawl out of the woodwork for even relatively modest prize purses if they can also get travel and lodging provided (and often even if not).  It is perhaps the most pedestrian major city marathon I have seen in quite a while, the winning times coming out of a field that size are testimony to that.

  • #26399


    Statement from Jim Estes on this issue (a couple of points bolded by me and some comments on his statement at the end):


    Perhaps the quality about competitive running that people most love is its purity: the first person to the finish wins. Normally, the first to the finish has the fastest time. Simple enough – right?

    On October 19 at the Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco, that purity was muddled a bit when it was determined that the first person to the finish line wasn't actually the fastest person in the race: a woman who had started with the “pack”, in an official gun start 20 minutes later, ran a time 11 minutes faster than the person who had won the “elite” race. Race officials didn't know it until the “chip times” – the times as recorded by electronic chips in each competitors' shoes – revealed it to be the case.

    This raises an important philosophical question: In any given race, who should be considered the winner? Is it the first person across the line, or the fastest person in the race? How do you define victory?

    In the case of the Nike Women's Marathon, there were separate gun starts. The “elite” women started first, followed by the rest of the field 20 minutes later. That means, technically speaking, the “elite” winner, Nora Colligan, and the fastest woman from the second start, Arien O'Connell, were in two separate races. They never got a chance to compete against each other.

    USATF and IAAF rules about victory are clear: the first person to finish wins. In order to be able to manage their large fields, races the size of the Nike Women's Marathon and other major events have to make the best judgment call they can about starting separate groups of runners. Chips are used primarily by race directors to give “mid-pack” runners who start farther back a true sense of their finishing time, and also to prevent race fraud. In their sign-up information and race rules, event directors state that placement is determined by order of finish, not chip time.

    Rules are meant to be applied to every race, regardless of circumstance. Part of the public outcry surrounding the results in San Francisco was due to the fact that Ms. O'Connell ran a time that was a full 11 minutes faster than the “elites.” If Ms. O'Connell's time had been only 1 second faster than the “elite” winner, would it still have been fair to award her the victory, since Ms. Colligan never got a chance to race Ms. O'Connell? Remember, they didn't even start at the same time and weren't in the “same race.” Who knows, if they had started together and raced each other, maybe Ms. Colligan would have run 12 minutes faster. Maybe Ms. O'Connell would have run even faster than her 12-minute PR. There is no way of knowing.

    Let's take it a step further, to a regional race scenario, and let's put you in the middle of it. You're training for a big race in your Midwestern state, with one to two thousand runners. On race day you take a place at the front of the starting line. When the gun fires, you take off, crossing the chip-timing mat and activating your 'chip time' clock.

    Over the course of the first mile, you trade a surge or two with your local rival but break away early and continue to press the pace as much as necessary to stay in front. By half way, you're a minute up, cruising, knowing that you're not going to run your fastest time but already thinking about where you're going to put your trophy. Going into the last mile you look back and notice another runner about 100 meters back. You pick your pace up as much as you can, and as you approach the finish, you check one more time to see that you've held him off. You finish 30 meters in front of second place, celebrating as you cross the line in 20:00. The local TV station captures the moment and interviews you about how it feels to win.

    At the awards they announce that the runner who finished behind you started 15 seconds later – farther back in the starting-line pack – and had a chip-time of 19:57. He, not you, is declared the winner.

    At the risk of sounding too 21st-century, both Ms. O'Connell and Ms. Colligan were “winners” in San Francisco, as they both received first-place prizes. One way to avoid these messy situations is not to have separate starts. Another would be for a race to clearly state its definition of “elite” and to perhaps expand the definition of the word so more runners are considered “elite” in races that have separate starts.

    By working with race directors to establish “best practices” to avoid situations like the one that occurred in San Francisco, USATF can play a key role in helping to prevent these types of conundrums. What happened was no one's fault: nobody, including Ms. O'Connell, knew she was going to run as fast as she did. But we can all learn from what happened and adjust the way races conduct their starts and organize their prize structure.

    Anybody who has watched an Olympic or World Championship distance race understands that distance running isn't always about who runs the fastest. It is the act of competing against other runners, responding to their tactics, and coming out the victor. We must do everything we can to ensure that the definition of victory is clear and fair. And pure.

    Jim Estes is Associate Director, Marketing and Long Distance Running Programs for USA Track & Field.

    Now, my turn to comment. If a race is truly a head to head competition, as most people think of it, shouldn't it be obvious that place is determined by order crossing the finish line? If you read the first two passages I bolded, I would argue that this suggests that all places should be determined based on order crossing the finish line. If someone lines up improperly or shows up late, tough luck. Obviously, the “in the money” places are the most important but every place matters to some competitive runners. In my opinion, the organizers of this marathon simply failed in their preparations for the race. What was the need for the separate elite start. Completely unnecessary and more likely to cause problems than fix problems. Bottom line, they screwed up.

    As for who should be the “winner” and who should fall into whatever place, the USATF and IAAF rules seem to be clear. First across the finish line is first, 50th across is 50th. Also, as pointed out, these were two separate races with two separate starts. One runner won the “elite” race, the other won the open race. It just so happens that the open winner was faster than the “elite” winner.

    Finally, before saying that it should be all based on chip time, think carefully about the last passage I bolded. Think of it another way. Instead of battling for the win, you were simply running as a midpacker, battling it out with someone for 10th, 54th, 196th, or whatever place. You battled with this individual head to head for the last 2 miles. You surged, he responded. He surged, you responded. You both beat yourselves up badly. Coming down the final straight, he threw in a kick and got a step on you. You thought you were done. Then, he faltered just a bit and you found that last little bit of energy. You pull ahead by a step. You get another step as he regains himself. He doesn't have it in him now and you gain a couple more steps. You cross the finish line 2 seconds ahead of him.

    Later, you check the results, wanting to see who it is that you beat. The only problem? The next person behind you is 20 seconds back. What about the guy you beat? Wait a minute, there was nobody for 10 seconds ahead of you but there is someone 1 second ahead of you in the results. That's the guy you beat! He crossed the start line 3 seconds behind you so, even though you beat him in the duel, he wins. What do you think of chip time determining place now? What good is the head to head competition if that isn't what determines what place you finish in?

  • #26400


    I am in between both positions.  I do think that the first to cross the winner.  BUT – I start back from the start line out of respect for those that are “elite” or should be much faster than me.  If I start further back out of respect I am putting myself at a disadvantage and have to cover more distance is less time to be able to beat anyone at the front of the starting line.  I am conceeding before the gun.

  • #26401


    If you're conceding to those who are already faster than you, what's the big deal?

    If you're not practicing due diligence by lining up with those who you will be competing against or by arriving late, then you shouldn't be rewarded for your own mistake (and someone else punished for practicing their due diligence).

  • #26402


    Statement from Jim Estes on this issue (a couple of points bolded by me and some comments on his statement at the end):

    What happened was no one's fault: nobody, including Ms. O'Connell, knew she was going to run as fast as she did. But we can all learn from what happened and adjust the way races conduct their starts and organize their prize structure.

    Bogus.  It should be obvious to anyone who has followed the sport much at all that forcing a split start on a race field that does not warrant it at all is just asking for problems like what happened.  There is no excusing such incompetence.  Having a small pack start 30 minutes earlier rather than just having a separate corral at the front for them that starts at the same time as the rest of the field confers zero advantage.  The race organizers got way ahead of themselves, they just forced in something used at ING NYCM without really bothering to think and analyze the necessity of either context.  It tells me that the organizers of this race are green, they really know little about the sport.

  • #26403


    The organizers should have waited until they had enough true “elites” before having an elite start.  Even with 20-30 people a seperate start would be dumb. 

    I was thinking since there were two gun starts there should be two winners.  It is unfortunate that one won with a time that was significantly faster than the “elite”.

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