Saturday, January 14, 2012

What's in a Medal?

If you don't regularly read The Runner's Kitchen, a) you should start, and b) you may have missed a recent guest post by Sarah about race medals. (If you haven't read it, go ahead; I'll wait.)

In case you didn't read it, Sarah begins:

"There are plenty of things that piss me off about running culture: $150 stability shoes, white compression shorts, overemphasis on marathons, Gatorade stops in a 5K, and so on. But there may be nothing – nothing! – more maddening than the impression among recreational runners that the completion of a race merits a medal."

She's got a real point there. On plenty of occasions, I've seen the preoccupation with race medals overshadow the focus on running, competing, being active, challenging oneself, and yes, even having fun.

Some choice statements about medals that I've run across:

"[T]he 10K runners and the 1/2 marathoners got the same medal. This is my first event that gave medals to 10K runners and I was disappointed that my medal had the words 10K on it. I wish they had a separate medal for 1/2 marathoners. I run for the medals and train hard for my accomplishments and wish I was rewarded for my hard work, not just with a general medal that was shared with everyone."

"Yes, I have shamelessly searched for the races with medals. I am always amazed that not all races have half marathon medals much less 5K medals so you have to look for the races that have them."

medals in box"I wasn’t going to actually do said race, since I stopped training about a month ago and also because I felt the promoter was not being nice. However...I went for it and I’m so so so happy I did. I wanted my MEDAL!!!!! That was pretty much my main catalyst for this night owl getting up at the pleasant, lovely hour of...FOUR AM."

And, overheard at a party, a friend-of-a-friend speaking with a patronizing grin to another friend preparing for her first half-marathon, "I have sooooo many medals."

Is it just me, or do these statements feel a little...well, sad?

I keep mine in a shoe box under my bed. Clearly among my most prized possessions.

Today I'd like to discuss, if you'll indulge me, the difference between an award and a souvenir. I could be wrong, but I feel like that maybe where a lot of this knotty business about finisher medals gets tied up. Now, push come to shove, I'm ultimately in Shelby's camp -- it's your medal; you do whatever you feel like with it, and go on wi' ya bad self. That said, I do have some strong opinions about how runners think about medals, the emphasis that different ones of us put on them, and how all of that affects our relationships with running and racing.

In every situation I can think of where awards are given out, they are given to a select few, in recognition of an outstanding accomplishment. I can't think of any situation where something given to basically everyone is called an "award." I'm not saying there's anything fundamentally wrong with giving something to everyone; I'm just saying we don't typically call those things "awards."

For example, I got my first-ever medal at the Cowtown 10K in the 4th grade. My friends and I ran-walked it, and it was by far the longest distance that any of us had traveled by foot in a single stretch. I'm sure it took us at least an hour and a half, and we were wiped out for the rest of the day afterward, but we couldn't have been more proud. This is the only finisher medal I have ever placed around my neck, and I don't think you can blame me. I was nine, I'd just done something *incredibly* hard, and I'd never had a medal before. I was proud of it and I still have it somewhere, but it wasn't an award.

My next few medals came from track and gymnastics. At that point, getting a medal just for crossing the finish line was a distant memory. These medals--perhaps a third the size of the monsters from my road races--were given not for participating or training really hard or meeting an ambitious personal goal, but for winning, or very nearly winning. I probably ran several dozen races during that time, maybe as many as a hundred. I received less than a dozen medals. A similar ratio applies to gymnastics. Those are examples of awards.

Because most of my early exposure to medals was as awards, as something rare and elusive that was never, ever presumed or guaranteed, I think I came to public road racing with a slightly different mentality about them than, say, the folks quoted above. I don't share this in order to point out how awesome and fabulous I am for having won *real* medals or to belittle anyone who hasn't (it was high school, for god sakes, not the freaking Olympics). I just point out this period in my life as the one that shaped how I think about medals. (Seriously, you should've seen my face at my first road race when the volunteer handed me one. I'd forgotten all about the Cowtown medals and for a split second figured there must be some mistake, because I'd definitely seen a lot more than two people finish in front of me.)

Track MedalSJ RNR Medal

Left - A medal nearly identical to the one I received for winning the All-District 400 meters in high school. I didn't have to pay for the race, but I did have to run hard & perform well all season and qualify for the District meet with a certain time. Right - The medal I received for stumbling across the finish line at Rock N Roll San Jose in six hundred and something place with three injuries for a personal worst. All I had to do to get into this race was pay $85.

Many years later, I started reading running blogs, and was again pretty confused by how obsessed some people seemed to get with finisher medals. They're nice keepsakes, but going out of your way to run specific 5Ks and 10Ks purely because you get a medal? Bitching and moaning because your half marathon medal has been soiled by the word '10K'?

Bitch, please. Receiving a finisher's medal is basically the organizers saying, "Congratulations! You did at least the minimum amount of training necessary to finish the distance, and didn't get irreparably lost or forget to breathe!" Sure, that can represent a real accomplishment (I know it certainly did for me at my 1st marathon last December), but when you're sniffing out short local races every other weekend just because there's a medal, I'm going to go with not so much. Let's be real; in the grown-up world of adult road racing, how many medals someone has doesn't say as much about how fast, strong, or even necessarily hard-working s/he is as it does about how much free time and disposable income s/he has.

So no. Medals I have received for merely completing a race in which finishing was never in doubt really don't mean much to me in the way of achievement. Furthermore, I will go on the record in saying that I find the thought of paying good money to meander one's way down a course that poses little challenge for said one, just to get another $5 bauble to hang on the wall, kind of pathetic, not to mention financially wasteful. I mean...what IS the point of that, really? It can't be the accomplishment, if it wasn't a real challenge. It can't be just running the distance, because you can do that for free any day of the week. Let's be honest about what's going on here. At this point, you are purchasing medals; case closed.

medals on ebay

You can also purchase medals on Ebay. Some of them are a lot cheaper there!

Certain medals, on the other hand, do hold a lot of meaning for me. My first Cowtown 10K medal meant a lot, because 6.2 miles seemed like an impossibly long distance to my nine-year-old brain. I was pretty sure I could finish it, but not completely sure. I worked hard to prepare for it. I was afraid of what might happen. I encouraged my friends during the race and they encouraged me. It was a real, true challenge that I was not sure I was equal to until I did it.

I felt the same way about my CIM medal. Preparing for & completing that race was a real, honest-to-god challenge for me. Billable hours, those were. (And unlike the woman on Twitter that Sarah quotes in her guest post, I definitely understand that simply finishing a marathon doesn't make me a 'winner.' It makes me a marathon finisher, just like millions of other people on the planet, and nothing more.)

Absolutely, those medals are reminders of sweet accomplishments that I'm proud of. But the value they have for me lies in the fact that they remind me of the accomplishments, not in the actual, physical medals themselves. They are symbols, and it is what they are symbols of that's actually important.

They aren't awards. I'm under no illusion that I in anyway deserved them. I didn't earn them. The race just gave them to me, like they did everyone else who crawled across the finish line regardless of how hard they worked, because that's just what they do. As much as we like to wish it were otherwise (especially in the U.S.), working hard and accomplishing something challenging doesn't entitle anyone to an award. It entitles you to pride, to bragging rights, to be able to say, "I worked INCREDIBLY hard and achieved x." Awards, at least in a race, aren't for accomplishing something amazing relative to your own goals & abilities; they're for accomplishing something amazing relative to everyone.

Don't get me wrong; I like finisher medals. I don't throw them in the trash or give them away. But I do think that some of us maybe need to do a little shifting in how we think about them. There are a good number of us who I believe would do well to stop thinking about them as prizes that we have somehow "earned" with our mediocre performances and start thinking of them more like souvenirs. Kind of like when I went to Niagara Falls that time and bought a key chain. They remind me of a place I went and a thing I did and (hopefully) a good time that I had.

Note that I don't hang all my gift shop key chains up on my wall, or display them on a giant rack that reads ALWAYS PURCHASED, NEVER GIVEN or some such. (Though I guess some people do.) I am not under the impression that, by completing the journey to Yellow Stone and back and laying down a few bucks, that I have done anything terribly notable. If I tell people about this neat, fun journey I had to Yellow Stone, they might be all like, "Oh, nifty!" Then, they'll probably be like, "So where do you want to go for dinner?" Because, let's face it; that's about as interested as my non-runner friends are in any race I've run. (In that sense, I can sympathize with people like those who ran RNR Las Vegas and were irked that the race ran out of medals. If you think of it as a memento, as something that was advertised and supposedly included in the race fee as a souvenir of the experience, that makes some logical sense. What I can't get behind is people claiming they "earned" the damn thing. You didn't earn it, folks; you paid for it.)

Finisher medals are party favors. Like the wine glass you get to keep from a tasting. Or the heart-shaped candle holder you took home from your friend's wedding. They are not awards.

And let's not pretend that they are. It's fantastic that more people are running road races of all distances, getting active, and becoming healthier. I'm incredibly excited any time I hear about a friend taking on a new physical challenge, be it signing up for a first race, a longer distance, or a type of event s/he's never tried, and I'd never begrudge anyone being proud of a medal they feel like they worked really, really hard for (again, see CIM). But the accomplishment should be its own reward. Run and race for the challenge of it, for the achievement, for the social aspect, for the physical benefits and how it makes you feel. Run for the joy of it; not the party favors.


  1. I think of the finisher medals I have received as a memento. They were included as part of the cost of the race and they are generally pretty cool. I didn't run to get a medal, but it is nice to receive something tangible for my efforts.

  2. Good points. I generally agree, but I do like my medals and my daughter loves to wear them around the house (especially a new one). I know for me if I have a good race - I am going to feel great even if there was no medal. And, if I had a bad race, then I'm going to feel bad, even if the medal was the best medal I've ever seen.