Arien O’Connell undeniably ran the fastest time at the Nike Women’s Marathon this past weekend. She had a tremendous race, she ran a 12 minute PR, and now she has a great story to tell her friends.

What Arien did not do, however, was win the race. Just because she ran 11 minutes faster than her next closest competitor, she was not the first woman to cross the finish line. Nora Colligan was.

Should there have been a 20 minute head start for the “elite” women? Probably not. Should some of those “elite” women have signed up as elites? Probably not. Should Arien have signed up as an elite? Questionable.

The fact remains, however, that there was an elite field, that for whatever reason did have a 20 minute head start, and the rules pertain to the first person to cross the line. Nora crossed it 9 minutes before Arien did.

I hope that Nike and the city of San Francisco use this fiasco to improve the management of their race next year, and should they decide to offer some prize money to Arien for her great effort out there on the race course, that would be great. However, they should not take the win away from Nora since she was in fact the one that won the race.

The elite start is a mainstay of large marathons, usually to allow the women a chance to shine and to make it easy for media vehicles to follow them so that they do not get lost in the crowd. However, the Nike race fails to draw an actual elite group of women to race, otherwise they wouldn’t have been beaten to the line despite a 20 minute head start. How the group that starts with the elite women were chosen for this race, I don’t know.

A quick search on a few of the women in the elite field returns recent marathon times ranging from low to high 3 hour races. With nothing to go on other than an elite designation, Arien is nowhere close to being an elite runner, nor are most of the women that started in the elite corral. If Nike isn’t already, they should base their elite corral on the top women with qualifying times rather than whatever flawed system they are currently using.

Better yet, since the race is predominantly run by women with only 15 men in the top 50 finishers this year, they should consider doing away with an elite start 20 minutes ahead of the rest of the field and just let them race it out the normal way. Give the “elite” runners a chance to stretch out and do some striders and then start at the head of the pack, and otherwise let everybody start at the same gun.

No matter how you cut it, though, Arien O’Connell did not win the 2008 Nike Women’s Marathon.

Update: It appears as though Nike is going to award a separate award in a new category to Arien and will get rid of the elite start next year

(More Info & Photo Credits: Full ResultsRace RecapSan Francisco Chronicle)