Nike Just Did the Right Thing, by Larry Eder


The Nike women's marathon and half marathon in San Francisco is in its fifth year. It is a moving street party, a celebration of women in sport, women running and 20,000 plus women in fact. I went out last year and was amazed. The feeling, the excitement, the women, all make the event unique.

The event was and is the antithesis of a big city competitive marathon like the Bank of America Chicago marathon, held on October 12 in the Windy City, also sponsored by Nike in the footwear and apparel categories, or the upcoming ING New York City Marathon, held November 2 in the Big Apple, which is sponsored by ASICS, also in footwear and apparel categories.

Arien O'Connell, a fifth grade school teacher from New York City has run a 3:07 marathon, pretty good in any time and age, but downright fast in this generation of marathoners. The average time across the U.S. is a nudge over five hours in most marathons.

Arien ran with the large group of marathoners, not the so called elite start that Nike had provided for serious racers. The elite start was Nike trying to please everyone, and quite frankly, in this race, they have come pretty darn close to doing that. Ms. O'Connell got into a groove just after the 7 AM start. She started running sub seven minute miles and it felt good!

All of us have had one of those dream race days, where it is all clicking and the conditions are great and we can just run for ever! Well, Arien O'Connell did just that,
running an average of 6:40 per mile for the whole 26.2 mile distance. Ms. O'Connell ran her marathon personal best by an astounding twelve minutes!

2:55:11 is a very good marathon. My guess is that Arien can run much faster, but the day's festivities were a little strange. As Arien did not start with the elite runners, USATF, the governing body of the sport, felt that she was in a different race and that the elite runners, who were nine minutes slower than her, by the way, did not have the time to adjust their races to her racing style.

Arien was greeted with the top three women, who were running in the elite group, running ten minutes slower than her, receiving the awards. According to USATF rules about elite competition, Nike should not recognize Arien's accomplishments, even though she ran faster.

So, Nike, the sponsor, the folks from Beaverton who have done this event to celebrate women in running, were caught like a deer in the headlights. As USATF is the governing body, and rule maker, does Nike follow the governing body's lead, or do they, in this writer's mind, just do the right thing?

A column by CW Nevius in the SF Chronicle ensued on Tuesday, October 21. Today, on Wednesday, October 22, the folks at Nike issued a statement. In the end, they did the right thing. In an event made to recognize the twenty-fifth anniversary of Joan Benoit Samuelson's Olympic gold marathon run in LA, now, five years later, the event had an unusual challenge. Not only have women wanted to run at any speed in the Nike women's marathon and half, some want to run fast.

Nike is giving Arien O'Connell the same Tiffany award the elite group winners received. She is being recognized as the overall winner, which she is. And Nike is ending the elite start at this event-all runners will start together-and that, to quote a famous women decorator, is a good thing.

A bit more is at stake here. As Nike running, under the direction of Leslie Lane, has spent much of the last two years working to rededicate itself, the Nike Women's marathon was one of the cries in the wilderness during a time, when many in the running community had wondered if Nike had lost its way in running. This event, under the encouragement of the US Running marketing team, championed by Mel Strong, was the second major event in two weeks for Nike running (Bank of America Chicago was two Sundays ago). Alot of hard work has gone into planning both events, and in the end, 60,000 runners in two cities had pretty good days. Nike had accomplished a difficult task-two major events, one new, one evolving, and two very different running groups.

Women's running has come full circle. First, women could not run anything longer than 880 yards, then famous coaches warned of deadly results if women ran long, then women ran and raced long, but only for time. Now, women can race long, either fast or slow, or walk for that matter, if they choose. Their speed of locomotion is celebrated at every pace in the Nike women's marathon and half marathon. And in the City by the Bay, the City of San Francisco, for a race of this stature to come full circle, just adds to the lustre of this unique event.

In the end, Arien O'Connell ran a great race, and joined her fellow women runners and walkers on the starting line. Running times do not lie. She ran the fastest time and Nike recognized that, and changed their policy, for the better, I believe.

A quiet revolution was started in San Francisco this weekend. One starting line, fast, slow, runners, walkers, keep it simple, like the old days. A sponsor is reminded of a simpler time, and in the end, acts on it, and just does the right thing.

For the Nike statement and Chronicle column, just roll on down:

Nike Statement

Nike is announcing today that it recognizes Arien O'Connell as a winner in last weekend’s Nike Women’s Marathon completing the full race in 2:55:11. She shattered her previous time and achieved an amazing accomplishment.

Arien will receive the same recognition and prize, including a Tiffany & Co. trophy, the full marathon elite group winner received. Arien was unfortunately not immediately recognized as a race winner because she did not start the race with the elite running group, which is required by USATF standards. Because of their earlier start time, the runners in the elite group had no knowledge of the outstanding race Arien was running and could not adjust their strategies accordingly.

Learning from the unique experience in this year’s race, Nike has decided today to eliminate the elite running group from future Nike Women's Marathons. Next year, all runners will run in the same group and all will be eligible to win.

Nike has a proven track record of supporting athletes and we’re proud to be able to honor Arien and other athletes who surpass their goals and achieve great accomplishments.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008 (SF Chronicle)
At Women's Marathon, fastest time didn't win
C.W. Nevius

There were over 20,000 competitors in Sunday's Nike Women's Marathon in
San Francisco. And 24-year-old Arien O'Connell, a fifth-grade teacher from
New York City, ran the fastest time of any of the women.
But she didn't win.
<< Photos from the Nike Women's Marathon >>
It doesn't get much simpler than a footrace. All it takes is a starting
line, a finish line and a clock. You fire the gun and the first person to
the end of the course is the winner.
However, as the marathon officials said to O'Connell - not so fast.
While O'Connell had the greatest run of her life and covered the course
faster than any woman, she was told she couldn't be declared the winner
because she didn't run with the "elite" group who were given a 20-minute
head start.
So what could have been a lovely Cinderella story about a young woman
rising above her expectations in a race that bills itself as all about
empowering women turned into a strict the-rules-are-the-rules edict.
That's not the image we're trying to promote here.
San Francisco has become one of those destination locations for the new
breed of distance runner. Between the San Francisco Marathon in July and
the Nike race - billed as the largest women's marathon in the world - over
40,000 runners will visit this year.
It is great that these events are held here, but they are also
representing the city. What we are hoping is that they leave town talking
about the terrific location, the great restaurants and the perfectly
organized event. Instead, we look like we don't know how to operate a
"That's pretty weak," said Jon Hendershott, associate editor of the
authoritative Track and Field News magazine, based in Mountain View.
"Think of the PR they could have had with this girl coming out of nowhere.
It sounds like they got caught totally off guard."
O'Connell, who describes herself as "a pretty good runner," had never
managed to break three hours in five previous marathons. But as soon as
she started at 7 a.m. Sunday, she knew it was her day. In fact, when she
crossed the finish line 26.2 miles later, her time of 2:55:11 was so
unexpectedly fast that she burst into tears.
"I ran my best time by like 12 minutes, which is insane," she said.
At the awards ceremony, the O'Connell clan looked on as the top times were
announced and the "elite" female runners stepped forward to accept their
"They called out the third-place time and I thought, 'I was faster than
that,' " she said. "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.' "
Just to make sure, O'Connell strolled over to a results station and asked
a race official to call up her time on the computer. There it was, some 11
minutes faster than the official winner.
"They were just flabbergasted," O'Connell said. "I don't think it ever
crossed their minds."
No one seemed exactly sure what to do. The trophies had already been
handed out and the official results announced. Now organizers seem to be
hoping it will all go away.
"At this point," Nike media relations manager Tanya Lopez said Monday,
"we've declared our winner."
O'Connell said some race officials actually implied she'd messed up the
seeding by not declaring herself an "elite" runner.
"If you're feeling like you're going to be a leader," race producer Dan
Hirsch said Monday, "you should be in the elite pack."
So this is her fault? O'Connell was just being modest.
"I'm a good, solid runner," she said. "I never considered myself elite."
Jim Estes, associate director of the long-distance running program for USA
Track and Field, did his best to explain the ruling. He's had some
practice with the issue. The Sunday before last, at the Chicago Marathon,
a Kenyan named Wesley Korir pulled off a similar surprise, finishing
fourth even though he wasn't in the elite group and started five minutes
after the top runners.
In that situation, and in this one, Estes made the same ruling: It didn't
count. O'Connell wasn't declared the winner and Korir didn't collect
fourth-place prize money.
"The theory is that, because they had separate starts, they weren't in the
same race," Estes said. "The woman who is winning the elite field doesn't
have the opportunity to know she was racing someone else."
Estes admits that giving the elite runners a sizable head start may not be
the best policy.
"These are things this race and other races need to look at," Estes said.
"It comes down to what a race is, and who is racing who."
Nonsense, said Track and Field News' Hendershott. He said O'Connell took
her best shot, ran the fastest and should have won.
"What's she supposed to do, lay back because she's not an elite runner?"
he asked. "If the elites are going to lay back, that's their fault."
As for O'Connell, she's not bitter. After all, she got her best time ever,
had a nice weekend in San Francisco and comes home with a story.
But she didn't win. Maybe the best way to explain that is to say it is
just another case of the elites in San Francisco giving the city a bad

C.W. Nevius' column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail him at
[email protected] Copyright of Nevius article is retained by SF Chronicle, 2008. encourages you to check out the sites of Shooting Star Media, Inc.: American Track & Field (, Athletes Only (, California Track & Running News (, MIssouri Runner & Triathlete (, Latinos Corriendo(, Coaching
Athletics Quarterly (, and USATF Fast Forward ( All of the above magazine websites can be found at (

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