An elite is an elite is an elite

(With apologies to Gertrude Stein.)

This week’s running kerfuffle involved the Nike Women’s Marathon, in which Arien O’Connell, who describes herself as a “pretty good runner,” ran a 2:55 race and blew away the “elite” field by about 10 minutes. But since O’Connell didn’t register as an elite (and go with those who did 20 minutes before everyone else), her winning chip time was initially not acknowledged.

News articles began appearing, which led to reader outrage, which then led to complaints to Nike. Within a day or two, Nike reversed its decision, declaring O’Connell “a” winner (but not “the” winner). They also decided to do away with their elite start going forward.

Given how screwy their race was set up to be, I think they made the right decision under the circumstances. It seems unlikely that had O’Connell been running with the pack of 3:06+ “elites” one or more of them could have risen to the occasion and matched her time. But because she started 20 minutes behind them, we’ll never know.

The fatal flaw in Nike’s race design was their failure to properly define who qualifies as an “elite.” Registrants were left to their own devices to self-identify. Most knowledgable female marathon runners know that “elite” runners are fast. They are very fast. Not just the top 3% of runners, but more like the top 0.3% of runners. A 3:06 time might be considered “local elite,” but, again, Nike gave no guidance, so I can’t blame the slower runners who entered as elites any more than I can blame the faster ones who didn’t.

Also worth noting is the trend toward using chip/”net” time (rather than gun time) to determine order of finish. NYRR just started doing this. I think this is a good thing, because it measures and acknowledges performance in absolute rather than subjective terms. Although NYRR takes a hybrid approach in that the first place male and female winners are those who cross the finish line first. All other place finishers are determined by chip time:

In all NYRR scored races, each participant’s official time, the net time, is recorded from when a participant crosses the start mats to when he or she crosses the finish mats. This official time is used to establish the order of finish and to determine award winners. However, the first male and female runner to cross the finish line will always be the winner of the race.

Here’s something that illustrates what happens when there is no set standard. The table below shows the average finishing time for the non-elites vs. elites, based on the race result leaderboards. The first average time shown includes the top 19 runners in each category. The second average time in the non-elite column removes O’Connell’s time (since it could potentially skew the results considerably).

Non-Elites Elites
2:55:11 3:06:18
3:06:18 3:08:59
3:08:59 3:12:35
3:12:00 3:13:07
3:12:25 3:13:44
3:13:07 3:13:48
3:13:44 3:14:34
3:13:48 3:22:00
3:14:33 3:22:24
3:14:34 3:23:29
3:15:23 3:23:52
3:16:50 3:25:22
3:17:30 3:25:38
3:18:13 3:26:06
3:18:14 3:27:27
3:18:35 3:30:49
3:19:10 3:33:52
3:19:57 3:57:56
3:20:38 4:23:09
3:14:10 Average for all runners 3:25:32 Average for all runners
3:15:13 O’Connell removed

Even with O’Connell removed, the average time for the elites is still over 10 minutes slower than for the non-elites. So, in actuality, the non-elite racers were much more competitive than the elite racers were. The numbers do not lie.

Having a separate start for elites makes sense in many cases. Its purpose is to allow faster women runners the chance to compete against each other fairly, meaning they run only against other women without the opportunity to draft off of (or otherwise receive a pacing advantage as a result of running with) male runners. It also gives them the chance to shine in their own right rather than getting lost in a mass of slower male racers. But given that this is an all women’s race*, those are non-issues. In the all women’s races I’ve run thus far, there’s been no separate elite category for prizes, and the elites know who they are (and the non-elites know who they aren’t!) and line up accordingly.

But what do you think? Did Nike make the right decision?

*To further complicate things, the women’s marathon allowed about 350 men to race it this year. So the fastest runner in the race was, not surprisingly, a man. What on Earth is Nike trying to do with this race?