They’ve infested my house. I find them in the toy box, in my bathroom drawer, lurking under the couch, on the floor in the hallway waiting to bite my bare feet in the middle of the night, and even more have made their home in my treadmill room. At first my children were amused by them, but now there are so many even they don’t give them a second thought. I remember when I got my first one back in 2006, before I even knew they existed. I lovingly carried it home on a transcontinental flight and proudly displayed it in my house. I had no idea once you let one into your home that soon others follow, marching in one-by-one until you’re completely overrun with them.
Yes, my house is infested; I am inundated with piles of shimmering finisher medals. I ran a half marathon the other day and I handed the medal to my three year-old daughter as I walked in the door. (She barely glanced at it.) What changed? Why did I so flippantly cast a medal off when I once would have cherished it as a token of my achievement? Was it me that changed or has the finisher medal changed?
I went in search of my very first medal. Surprisingly, I was upset for a moment when I couldn’t find it. I finally found it hanging unassumingly behind the clutter of medals that moved into the house after it did. As I held it, memories of that first half marathon race came rushing back to me.
I remember running along the California coast with my husband when he announced, “I love that we’ve started running.” I remember when I hit mile 11 telling a runner next to me this was the farthest I had ever gone. I remember being surprised when they handed me a medal at the finish line. Most importantly, I remember how proud I was of myself for finishing something which seemed so impossibly hard. I remember displaying the medal on a shelf in my home and how I looked forward to earning another one.
Since then I’ve moved on to a much larger goal: 50 marathons in 50 states. My 50 states medals have their own special rack on the wall. Currently there are 24 shiny memories hanging there, each on its own unique ribbon. As I look at each one, snippets of that particular race come rushing back to me. I remember a person I met during the race, or a particularly tough mile, or a new PR. Each of them a reminder of how much I have accomplished and all the potential I still have within myself.
I’m wearing 8.5 pounds of marathon medals here:
I earned those medals, because I did something that is hard. As one of the Saltines recently wrote “we do hard things.” I’m not a total ass; I know that for some people a 5k is a major accomplishment just as for some ultra runners a marathon is no longer a challenge. I get it. The distance doesn’t necessarily define how hard someone had to work to complete the distance.
However, with so many races ranging from 5ks to ultra-marathons giving away medals, the amount of medals released into the universe each year is absurd. On some level it feels as if the medals I’ve earned in some of my toughest races are in some way less meaningful because of the rise in medal-happy races. Why do I need one every time I simply participate in an event? Isn’t that what the race shirt is for? It’s gotten to the point that I am actually less likely to sign up for a race if they offer a medal. It’s wasteful, it’s unnecessary, and it’s yet another possession we don’t need.
When I first started running in high school, I struggled to complete the 5k distance. I can still remember the first time I ran three miles without stopping in my neighborhood. No one handed me a medal. I turned off my Walkman and walked into my house. Maybe the difference is that while shorter distances can be hard for some, let’s be honest; a 5k is achievable for the vast majority of people. It seems to me that just as belt buckles are reserved for 100-mile races, perhaps medals should be reserved for more arduous events than the county fair 10k, achievements that require a significant amount of dedication. With medals handed out seemingly any time someone slaps on a bib and crosses a finish line, it seems rather than being a symbol of a great achievement, the medal has become the adult equivalent to the t-ball participation award.
What do you think? Do medals still mean something?