In the News: Fastest Runner (Finally) Crowned Winner


By: , SparkPeople Blogger

If you are a runner, then you know that fall and spring are the top marathon running seasons across the country. As more and more marathons debut each year, traveling throughout the US to run is becoming quite a popular rite of passage. And the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco is no exception.

Just to offer a little history about this race, it is one of the most desired of all women’s marathons in the world. Runners from all over the country eagerly wait to see if they are chosen to take part in a race where only 20,000 entrants are allowed to compete via a lottery system held earlier in the spring. Not only does this race allow a great venue for women to compete against other women, but it also raises money for a great cause, The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. And the icing on the cake is the coveted Tiffany necklace and pendant presented to all finishers of the race.

As a runner, or any athlete for that matter, one’s goal is to go out and do the best that she can on that particular race day with the circumstances that she is dealt. She arrives at the starting line with a solid training base, five previous marathons under her belt, while yet to have broken the elusive 3 hour barrier. Would today be her day to finally get her personal best or would this just be another 3+ hour marathon?

Arien O'Connell was that runner. A 24-year-old fifth-grade teacher from New York lined up with 20,000 other runners all willing to take a stab at running the race of a lifetime, never knowing that having a personal best and finishing at the top of the women’s field would subsequently keep her from winning the race and having her go home without the overall female winner’s award.

Yes, you read correctly. O’Connell finished ahead of all women runners and placed second overall competing against elite and non-elite runners alike. Yet, still was robbed of being awarded the Nike Marathon 2008 Women’s Champion. Not only did she finish in a very well respected 2:55:11, but she beat the second closest woman runner by over 11 minutes.

So why the snafu? Well, O’Connell was not a participant in the elite category of runners; therefore, she was not eligible for any awards due to this one small, but very significant policy. You see, the elite runners were allowed a 20 minute head-start, but because O’Connell chose to run with the ‘rest of the pack’ so to speak, the rules state that the elite runners were not given a fair shot of who their competition was, even though O’Connell defied all the odds and won.

This has caused quite an uproar in my running forums across the net. While I agree this policy of elite status was in place, how is one to know if they are an elite runner or not? Most of the races that I have participated in have what many would call elite runners competing, BUT they start with the rest of the pack so that everyone has a fair shot at the brass ring.

Sadly, this has placed a dark shadow on the marathon. I just wonder how the woman who ended up going home with the award feels. Does the trophy have any less acclaim for her knowing that she won it not by merit but on a technicality?

Arien O’Connell, by far, is a true champion. While the awards and the acclaim are nice, just knowing she came out and ran a race of a lifetime and made a personal best made her a true hero in my book.

On Wednesday, the Nike Marathon Directors have declared. O’Connell the winner of the 2008 Nike Women’s Marathon and will no longer allow an elite field of women to begin the race ahead of the rest of the pack. While this is a noble concession, I wonder if this has more to do with the backlash from the running community and saving face than having to admit that they were wrong in their initial decision.

How would you feel if you trained for many months, went out and did your best, but because of one small technicality you lost the award? Do you feel O’Connell was treated fairly? Do you feel the rules should be changed to allow for all runners to compete on the same level?

Photo of the 2006 Borden UpTown Run-Nancy Howard

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  • 64
    This is very confusing to me. What makes one and "elite" runner? Just being faster than the average runner? Or, as someone else suggested, are more stringent rules applied to the elite runners? Was it possible to determine whether both runners met all of these rules except of course the category Ms O'Connel applied for? Why could the prize not be equitably shared? - 5/28/2010   7:48:15 PM
  • 63
    Since they went by the rules, you really can't say anything, but the rules should be changed.

    She did her best and that was definitely good enough. We don't always needs the accolades to know we did the best and won... She's a true winner in my book! - 2/25/2010   8:51:33 AM
  • 62
    I think that most people wouldn't like having to deal with being the winner only because of a technicality. If I was the fastest elite, I think I wouldn't be satifisied to know that someone else ran faster than me. I wouldn't think of myself as the winner. - 10/20/2009   11:25:19 AM
  • 61
    Many sports have "seeding" and "heats" and you're not able to move up and win if you didn't start out in the right category. There have been countless athletes over the years that don't get to win because of their starting position. Some races have a cap on the number of elite athletes, and I don't think that was even the case here. Some races drug test the elites and have stricter pre-race standards that the general population don't go through.

    It may seem unfair that she didn't initially win, but she lost according to the rules, and had the opportunity to register as an elite. The woman that was originally declaired the winner actually followed the rules and won. I'd feel awful taking something from someone that won fair and square. I think you just have to consider it a learning experience, and remind yourself that there is always next year. - 10/18/2009   10:35:42 AM
  • 60
    I don't understand all the end and outs of running competitions but I do understand the word "fair". I'm glad they reconsidered and changed their decision. - 10/17/2009   3:12:30 PM
  • 59
    I think some misunderstand the 20 min. headstart. It just means the elites started the race 20 minutes before everyone else. Arien didn't start the race, cover the 20 min. headstart and still finish first. It just means her time when she finished was better than the times the others posted. She should have registered as an elite just as the others. Next time she should read the rules when she registers. If she really wanted the prize money, etc. she should have registered properly. - 10/3/2009   5:54:13 PM
    Personally, I think the original winner got ripped off. The original winner followed the rules and won accordingly. Had she seen this other lady running at a faster speed, perhaps she'd have stepped up her game and run faster. Or, perhaps not.

    If Nike wants to eliminate the elite category from future races, that's fine. But to retroactively take away a victory from someone who one according to the rules AT THE TIME OF THE RACE is completely unfair. - 8/5/2009   12:36:17 PM
  • 57
    Elite or not, it is not right to give some a 20 minute headstart. When
    Oconnell won fair and square, she should have been declared the winner
    right there. Not later. The people and groups who complained were
    correct. Nike was wrong, and tried to save face by changing their decision. - 2/1/2009   1:43:02 PM
  • 56
    It seems odd to me that if you can run that fast and beat the elite athletes that you didn't know how fast you could run. To be able to run that fast doesn't just happen....especially over those long distances...she must have had to train alot ....and I know from training a moderate amount that I have a pretty good idea how fast I can run and if it is good, bad, or average....To be able to complete a marathon especially faster than the elite athletes she should have known her ability before hand....Everytime I do a training run I log how far and how fast I run....A person able to run faster than the elite athletes must not have been totally in the dark about their ability therefore it is their responsibility to enter in and qualify for the elite category if they want the advantages that come with competing at that level. As someone else mentioned the elite category racers are more closely monitered during the race...(for example that they didn't vere off course and take a short cut) .....if you are in the regular category running with 20,000 others you can easily cheat. Also more stringent drug testing etc are also incorporated. - 11/13/2008   5:37:47 PM
  • 55
    The fact that the elite group had a 20 minute headstart and O'connell was still the fastest, blows my mind. Wow!! I'm glad Nike saw the error of their ways. I do feel bad for the woman who took home the trophy. Does she have to give it back now? - 10/27/2008   8:03:07 PM
  • 54
    ELITE Runners spend a huge amount of money travelling to events and building a reputation, so I can easily understand why they didn't give her the award and money. - 10/27/2008   12:40:26 AM
  • 53
    Does anybody know if O’Connell applied to be an elite runner?

    There are DEFINITELY more stringent requirements for those classified as elite runners. They're racing for BIG money. And accordingly, they're treated just like professional athletes in any other sport. Meaning things like drug testing and closer supervision during the event to ensure no foul play. There is simply no way that these more stringent requirements can be applied to EVERY runner in the field. If they did, marathoning would become so expensive, it'd be cost prohibitive for the average joe to ever enter.

    Which is why races OFTEN choose to have an elite category for those who have a chance at the win. It makes sense.

    The question is, did Nike administer this process in such a way that O'Connell knew that an elite category existed and that the time she was trying to finish in meant that she should apply? Was this made clear during the application process? Did she apply and get turned down? If so, on what basis? Did O'Connell know that she would be eligible to win only if she entered in such a category?

    If O'Connell DID know these things, then she has nobody to blame but herself. If O'Connell did not know these things, or if she applied but wasn't awarded elite status, then Nike needs to review their regulations to correct this problem.

    But NOBODY should be putting any blame on the elite winner. It's not, in any way, her fault that another woman ran faster than her. And it is COMPLETELY true that you can't consider O'Connell to have beat her unless they actually competed against each other. Which they DIDN'T. So often in a race, if you're in front, you don't push harder than you need to. That way, if somebody tries to challenge you later in the race, you have the energy to fend them off. Racing to win is TOTALLY different from racing for time. Which is why almost EVERY marathon determines the winner by gun time, and not by chip time. Because if you're not pushing against each other to that finish line, you're not competing against each other. There is a VERY good chance that the elite winner would have pushed harder if she had to race O'Connell. Who would have won? Don't know. There IS no way to know that. Because they didn't compete.

    Declaring them both winners probably is the best choice at this point (assuming O'Connell didn't know about the elite runner requirements). But really, it comes down to writing and then ENFORCING good policies from the start.

    As for the 20 minute early head start... I don't really think anybody should be OFFENDED by this. At the same time, I don't see why it's all that necessary if runners are seeded by expected finish time. If seeding is done well, all the elite runners will already be at the front of the pack at the start of the race. Are people really going out so fast at the start that enough of them are pushing in front of the elites to cause traffic problems?

    (For non-runners: Yes, seeding is a normal, and what's more, NECESSARY part of racing. Starting the elite runners at the back of the pack would be dangerous for all involved. You want as little pushing through people as possible happening at the start of the race. And the best way to guarantee that is to line the fastest people up at front, and the slowest people at the back.) - 10/26/2008   9:32:12 PM
  • 52
    What I find most ludicrous about this whole issue is the fact that she beat the "elite" runners and then was denied the win! There is just no making sense of much of what goes on in the world today. I find that by just doing my best, competing against myself and being happy when I succeed is enough for me. - 10/26/2008   9:26:12 PM
    I'm still confused about what an elite runner is. I guess I don't have enough (or any, for that matter) racing experience. - 10/26/2008   6:14:41 PM
  • 50
    If Arien had the fastest time, she deserved to win. - 10/26/2008   2:10:55 AM
  • 49
    Oops. Sorry. Arien. - 10/26/2008   1:56:09 AM
  • 48
    That's outrageous! I think the "technical" winner should have showed some sports(woman)ship and handed Erin the trophy and prize herself as an acknowledgement that the policy was ridiculous. - 10/26/2008   1:55:39 AM
  • 47
    If you win, you win. Regardless where you started, regardless if you are "elite" or ordinary. The person who covers the course in the fastest time wins. And since everyone has a chip, they KNOW who covered the course in the fastest time. It's good she got the acknowledgement. Too bad she didn't get it at the event when she crossed the finish line. That would be a memory of a lifetime. - 10/25/2008   10:50:45 PM
  • 46
    I think the elite runners should start first, however, each and every runner should have the chance to win. I know runners are now given digital devices that track their location and time, so may the best runner win regardless of status. - 10/25/2008   4:10:08 PM
  • 45
    I can kind of understand the "elite" runners being in front of the pack, because of their experience, etc..But to give them a head start? If they're that good, then they shouldn't need the 20 min headstart..And what about Nike's world-renowned "Just Do It"? Well, This lady "did it" and they penalized her? I think not! Good for her for finally getting the recognition, shame on Nike for not giving her the recognition at the time she should've gotten it-when she won.. - 10/25/2008   1:30:47 PM
  • 44
  • 43
    If they're going to separate according to ability, shouldn't they have separate races and comparable prizes for each race? I don't quite get what happened. Were they on different courses? Did the elites have diferent-colored number banners? Was she not seen by the elites or judges as she caught up to and passed them? Let's see; elites started 20 minutes before the regulars. She came in 11 minutes before any elite finished. So that means if she had started at the same time as the elites, she would have come in 31 minutes before the other elites, theoretically. Seems to me a staggered time start is unfair in some ways. Too bad there doesn't seem to be any course wide enough to have everyone start on the same line, just with elites to one side and regulars to the other. I don't know how to make it fair. Separate races seems the fairest way. What a phenomenal runner! - 10/24/2008   3:34:23 PM
  • MARWAR2525
    I think this is a tough call. The problem is the elite runners did not know there was someone running at a winning pace and did not have the chance to actually "race" them. Perhaps the lead elite runner would have matched her pace if she knew there was someone else to beat. That being said, it's clearly unfair to not award the fastest overall runner. - 10/24/2008   2:34:17 PM
  • 41
    Plain and simple...Ms. O'Connell won the race! How do you judge whether you are elite or not? Unless running is your career most people just run the race because they enjoy, have goals, and want to run the best race you can. As a triathlon and marathon runner, I understand the value of having an elite wave, but just 'cause your registered as elite does not mean you will be the best, fastest runner that day. From a Public Relations standpoint, Nike made a huge textbook error! I'm glad they righted it finally! - 10/24/2008   2:14:36 PM
  • HISAKO86
    I agree with Swingcat. Do they really need a head start if they are faster to begin with? How does that play out in a situation, just like this one where a non-elite runner out runs the elites? I was shocked the other day when the other runner won, because she clearly didn't run as fast as O'Connell. She was number 1 and I don't think that humbling herself as a non-elite runner should have discounted her from the stopwatch. Go O'Connell. : ) - 10/24/2008   2:07:52 PM
  • 39
    My two cents- I'm glad that so many 'regular' people who are competing with themselves, their own time, are now in races. I also know that the pokey, don't do races regularly people can seriously mess up the 'real' comeptitors and racers. Seperating out the experianced from the inexperianced makes sense, and it seems to me to be fair. If you are just learning, you shouldn't be in the way of the hard core, run every day competitors.
    The ones comepeting for prizes and first are watched differently. Ergo, it makes sense to have different levels of wins. If you are approaching 'elite' status, it would make sense to have to apply for the more closely watched group to qualify.
    I have no probs with having 2 winners at different levels.
    I belive that getting under 3hrs is enough of a high, and that she could then apply to all future races for the higher standard.
    Arien O'Connell is a winner regardless. As are all the ones who complete the race, or who try. Prizes? Life is the prize, as is health. Yum.
    - 10/24/2008   1:35:53 PM
    The racing rules this and most other races abide by say that gun time, not chip time, is what determines the final winners. The real issue is that, with two separate gun times, they essentially had two separate races. Even though Arien had a faster time than the elites, she was in a different race. So much of a marathon is mental; do you think the lead elite runner would have run the same if she'd known someone was beating her? Do you think Arien could have dealt with the pressure of possibly winning the whole marathon? These sort of issues, along with stricter monitoring, drug testing, etc. make it impossible to look at it as one race. I think if Nike is going to create the divide, they should have to honor the winners of each race equally. I'm glad they awarded both women the prize money (though note in all of their statements they claim Arien is "a" winner, not "the" winner.) - 10/24/2008   12:25:54 PM
  • 37
    It isn't a head start. It is a staggered start, where one set of runners start before another. Many, if not most, races do the same thing.

    As far as I know, there is absolutely no question as to whether Nike has the legal right to make rules for their own race. And it was a rule, not a disclaimer. - 10/24/2008   11:40:29 AM
  • 36
    I can't believe that they give people a head start! If they're elite, do they really need one? They should not have two sets of rules for the same race, all runners should have been given the same rules. Also, just because someone writes something down like a disclaimer doesn't make it fair or legal. She was definitely treated unfairly, a show of good will from Nike would be to give her the same as they gave the woman who won the prize. Clearly this is a situation where the special circumstances should warrant at the very least a special title or honor. - 10/24/2008   11:36:24 AM
    I'm sure glad to hear that Nike changed their decision. She was clearly the winner. - 10/24/2008   11:29:45 AM
  • 34
    Glad they corrected their mistake, but as someone else stated they stole the glory of the win from the rightful winner. Especially if she beat the "cream of the crop" eventhough they started 20 mins ahead of her. - 10/24/2008   10:42:06 AM
  • 33
    Wow, I see that I am definitely in the minority viewpoint, but to me, the rules should be followed. Once you start going back and changing them to fit the circumstances, no one knows what to expect any more. And I agree with the poster who pointed out that the monitoring of the elite athletes is much stricter than that of the non-elite. I assume the athletes are given copies of the rules before the competition. In my opinion, she should have read and made sure she understood them. There doesn't seem to be much personal accountability here.

    Having said all that, yes, if I had finished with the fastest time but couldn't be declared the winner because of a choice I made, yes, I would be devastated. It was a phenomenal accomplishment. - 10/24/2008   10:40:34 AM
    They aren't getting a head start, they are getting an earlier starting time, so they don't have to wade through all the 'regular' runners. It isn't unusual. - 10/24/2008   10:33:28 AM
  • 31
    Just so you know, she didn't actually cross the finish line before the people that started 20 minutes before her, but her time was 11 minutes better.

    It's an amazing thing that right now I can't even dream about doing. I'm just not a fast person. I think that it's great what Nike is doing, but I believe that their reasoning is strictly based on the bad PR they were getting. - 10/24/2008   10:30:22 AM
  • 30
    I have not ever run a 5K before, but from where I stand, I don't see where the "Elite" should be given any more advantage than the "rest of the pack." If they are the best of the best, then they should be able to show it and move to the front of the pack and stay there. I don't see where they should be given any advantage point. A race is a race. - 10/24/2008   10:24:24 AM
    Well put! I just ditto: So she beat the people that started 20 minutes before her, but Nike said it was unfair? Woooow. She should've been "crowned" the winner at the end of the race. Finishing a marathon is an accomplishment, finishing it first is a feat. Congrats Arien!!! - 10/24/2008   9:41:06 AM
  • 28
    So she beat the people that started 20 minutes before her, but Nike said it was unfair? Woooow. She should've been "crowned" the winner at the end of the race. Finishing a marathon is an accomplishment, finishing it first is a feat. Congrats Arien!!! - 10/24/2008   8:49:58 AM
  • 27
    She entered a race like everyone else she worked just as hard as anyone else all with the same goal.She rightfully won that race and they made a huge mistake by taking it away from her in the first place. It's kind of like the saying if you have the money it's your if you don't it's not your. Congratulations O’Connell you won the race. AND
    Shame on Nike Marathon Directors for ruining her win in the moment and taking away all her glory at the time of the win. - 10/24/2008   8:38:49 AM
  • 26
    Fastest time should win it - assuming that the start times of everyone running are properly recorded, which I gather wasn't an issue. Starting elite runners, or runners who have achieved a particular running time, is reasonable. Otherwise, people who rely on their running as a day job could be injured or delayed by people who are much slower. Starting in waves is a very reasonable approach when the capabilities of the field are so different - but it shouldn't keep a person from winning! - 10/24/2008   8:37:53 AM
    I don't think Nike would have declared her the winner if they hadn't gotten such bad publicity over it. They did it because they had to, not because they were trying to be fair. - 10/24/2008   8:35:46 AM
  • 24
    I would be MAD! I just ran a half marathon last weekend, and I did much better then I had hoped for. Sometimes you just can't plan for what you think you will do. If you finish 1st you should get the prize! (And those other runners saw her run by!) - 10/24/2008   8:03:52 AM
  • 23
    Great article. She deserves to be decleared the winner. - 10/24/2008   8:01:06 AM
  • 22
    If they are so "elite" then why don't they put them at the back and give everyone else a 20 min head start! Give everyone else a fair shot. If they're the best then they'll catch up! - 10/24/2008   7:36:29 AM
  • 21
    I understand that the elite is suppose to be better, but if someone wins ahead of the elite they should get all the rewards that come with winning the race. - 10/24/2008   7:25:57 AM
  • 20
    Okay, like many, I don't "get" what "elite group" is - and why they get a TWENTY minute head start??? Then again, a 'head start' to ME means extra time - I think that in this case the 'head start' isn't extra TIME, just an earlier 'gate/stat time'? Does it TAKE 20 minutes for the slower people to 'get out of the way'? I dunno.
    If this is just about different STARTING times, okay, I get it.
    I'll bet the start is a MESS! LOL
    - 10/24/2008   6:52:02 AM
  • 19
    I think every runner should start at the same time. - 10/24/2008   6:05:25 AM
    I think the decision to be declared the winner was for the best interest of all.Allowing a group to start 20 minutes ahead of the rest is not really fair is it? - 10/24/2008   4:46:30 AM
  • 17
    I'm glad Nike reversed their decision - fastest chip-time should win it, no matter which time group they were seeded.

    That being said, I don't really think abolishing the elite field altogether was the right thing to do. It's important to remember that seeding the elite field isn't just about status (and increasing publicity for the event by increasing the visibility of the potential winners) - it's also a safety issue to keep slower runners from being trampled. - 10/24/2008   4:10:11 AM
  • 16
    Unbelievable. She deserves it 100%. Right on. - 10/24/2008   3:10:14 AM
    She won the race far and squard, so she should got a award - 10/24/2008   12:04:16 AM

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