Fastest Finisher, No Victory: All’s Not Fair in the Marathon
When is a race not a race? How about when you run the fastest time and don’t win? That’s a good place to start.
Posted Thursday, 23 October, 2008
Perhaps a better choice of words is in order, since “a good place to start” might cause Arien O'Connell to wince. The 24-year-old teacher from New York City, who recently competed in the Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco, apparently did not choose “a good place to start” in the marathon. In fact, she made no choice at all, which unknowingly cost her chance at first place.
The marathon, following the lead of some of the world’s biggest and most prestigious marathons, established a separate start for elite athletes, who were allowed to begin the race 20 minutes before the reminder of the field, comprising some 4,000 runners, including O’Connell.
All was well until the awards ceremony, at which point O’Connell saw the top finishers called up to the podium to receive their awards, all of whom ran times slower than she did: 2:55:11, a personal best by more than 12 minutes. But O’Connell did not start with the elite group, thus was ineligible for an award. "They called out the third-place time and I thought, 'I was faster than that,' " said O’Connell after the race.”Then they called out the second-place time and I was faster than that. And then they called out the first-place time (3:06), and I said, 'Heck, I'm faster than her first-place time, too.' "
Although she pointed out the discrepancy to race officials, they were initially unsympathetic to her plight. "If you're feeling like you're going to be a leader," race producer Dan Hirsch said, "you should be in the elite pack." But O’Connell did not consider herself an elite runner, never having broken three hours in her previous marathons. Should she have been penalized for not knowing she would be faster than all of the supposed “elite” participants? That is a tricky question, not as easy to answer it might first appear. Certainly the public has made its opinion known on this issue: comments on Internet message boards have supported O’Connell by at least ten to one, chastising race officials for a callous, misguided policy, demanding that O’Connell be named the race winner. Several days after the marathon, Nike, surely sensing a growing public relations fiasco, issued a press release in which they named O’Connell “a” winner (but not “the” winner) and said she would receive the same award as the elite group winner.
How did this gray area in marathon running suddenly become such a contentious issue? For that matter, why is there a need for women’s elite starts at all? Blame it on the “Chip.” Or the Olympic Games. Or Tegla Lorpupe.
Interestingly, the first known “head start” for women was viewed as more of a punishment than a reward. In the 1972 New York Marathon, during the era in which women were fighting for acceptance in the sport, the six women entered in that year’s race were allowed to compete, but would have to start 10 minutes before the men, so as not to “contaminate” the main running of the marathon. A “sit down strike” was staged by the six women entered in the race, in order to protest this edict from the archaic and stodgy AAU. When ten minutes had elapsed, the women began the marathon with the men, asserting their claim to equal rights. That 10 minutes was added to all of their times hardly bothered them, since the sit down had attracted the attention of local and national media, and the outdated policies of the AAU were brought to light.
By the end of the decade, women’s marathon running had become not only an accepted part of the sport, but an integral one. The world’s premier women marathoners were recognized worldwide. The astonishing record times run by Grete Waitz in New York starting in 1978 proved that women could indeed produce world-class marathon performances. The first Women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984 in Los Angeles, in which Joan Benoit Samuelson captured the gold medal, was the final piece of the puzzle that put women's marathon running on equal footing with the men, so to speak.
While women were setting records and engaging in terrific, competitive races, there were however, other men around to occasionally aid or hinder their performances. In the 1983 Boston Marathon, some felt New Zealander Kevin Ryan, an elite runner covering the event on foot for a local television station, offered support to Samuelson when she sped to a world record time of 2:22:43. Samuelson denied she either sought or received any help. That was not the case in the 1999 Berlin Marathon, however. In that race, Kenyan Tegla Loroupe was given open and systematic as she clocked a world record 2:20:43. Three separate “pacesetters” accompanied Loroupe en route to the record. On the face of it, the pacing seemed unfair, against the spirit of competition, the lifeblood of the sport at the elite level.
Men could also be problematic for the top women in big marathons. Some men capable of running a pace equal to the fastest women would often crowd around them during the early miles, seeking a moment on television cameras trained upon the lead pack of women, and often cut them off at aid stations or attempted to engage them in conversation, upsetting their concentration.
In 2002, the New York Marathon decided to resolve these issues by to establishing a separate women’s start. Those with times of 2:40 or better would start some 35 minutes before the rest of the field. ''The athletes say it's a wonderful thing,'' said race director Allan Steinfeld at that time. “The 35-minute difference will put more focus on the women because just as in the Olympics and world championships, where they have separate races, they will race apart from the men. It's an experiment we're sure will work.” Elite Kenyan runner Margaret Okayo added, “I'm glad because now I'll know where the other runners are.''
Such early starts were made practical by the “chip,” an electronic timing device that calculated each runner’s time by when he or she crossed the start and finish mats. That freed race timers from having to manually record finishing times based upon a single, mass starting time for all of the runners.
Other races followed the lead of New York; now women’s elite starts are accepted as commonplace in major marathons. While the early starts for women do create the fairest competition possible, there are occasional downsides. With often fewer than 40 or 50 women starting separately, the field quickly becomes spread out, leaving those incapable of remaining with the leaders to battle the course and elements alone. Watching one of these marathons past mile 20, one will often witness the trailing women struggling, with no place to hide. Inevitably, the field of elite men then flies past, further demoralizing them. Is this the best way to compete? It certainly can’t be much fun.
Then there is the issue of times, as cropped up in the Nike San Francisco race. The Chip has enabled finishing times to be calculated for each runner separately, but if they start at different times, are they really in the same race? If O’Connell had started with the elite field in San Francisco, perhaps her presence would have changed the dynamic of the race. One of the other runners may have pushed harder to keep up with her, or perhaps she herself would have started too quickly trying to keep up and faltered late in the race. As it was, she had nothing to worry about but sustaining her own pace, and was able to run a personal best time. It’s all speculation really. In the end, each event must decide if it will determine the winners by elapsed time or by who crosses the finish line first. Those are fundamentally different kinds of competitions.
While there may be some value to separate women’s starts in big mixed gender marathons, one has to wonder why such an early start was necessary in an all-women’s race such as the Nike Marathon in San Francisco. What was to be gained? Couldn’t all of the women simply have started together? It appears to be a classic case of overkill, in which a race copies the procedures of major, mega marathons without fully considering the implications, not all of which are positive. Since none of the presumably elite women were capable of breaking three hours in the San Francisco race, perhaps they should have anticipated that one of the 4,000 other women might be able to match or even exceed the winning time and simply started everyone together. After this debacle, you can bet the Nike San Francisco Marathon will do that next year.
It used to be that everyone that showed up for a marathon checked in at a table inside a school, and then after getting ready for the race, sauntered out to the start line and lined up, where race officials yelled “go” or fired a starter’s pistol, sending the runners on their way. That has all changed in the high-tech, media-driven culture of marathon running in the 21st century. Marathons have evolved from road races into “events,” which in some cases results in the window dressing becoming more important than the actual race. It’s enough to make you long for the good old days, long gone and unlikely to ever return.