Special Edition Blog -- Fastest vs. First


Jim Estes
Associate Director, Marketing and LDR
USA Track & Field

Below is a blog by USATF Associate Director of Marketing and Long Distance Running Programs, Jim Estes, on the issue of how USATF determines the winners of road races. In two different October marathons - including most prominently the Nike Women's Marathon - the official order of finish was made a bit unclear by a disparity between order of finish and runners' "chip times."USATF has received several emails and calls from runners, fans and the media about these situations. In his blog, Estes explains the rationale for USATF and IAAF rules, sorting through the philosophies behind the nature of competition and the definition of victory.


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.