The Great Infestation

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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?

The first of a gazillion.
The first of a gazillion.

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:

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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? 

I'm a running mom of two little girls, who is busy balancing life, work and marathon training. It's always training season for me because I'm on a quest to run a marathon in every state, while constantly striving to be the best runner I can be. Running has led me to some great adventures and I always have a good story to share!

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29 comments

  1. I still love the race bling, and every medal I earn is special to me. I think crossing any finish line is an achievement, and the medal is much more than a participation award. Maybe races need a no-medal option for those who don’t want them, but keep mine coming.

  2. I’m glad that most 5ks don’t give out medals. Most 10ks don’t give them out either. I’ve probably run 150 races and 150 medals would be crazy.
    When I do get a medal at a 5K or 10K, even for placing in my age group, it is often one of those generic $2.00 medals. I think I’d rather just get a $10 gift certificate to Starbucks.
    For a first time runner that first medal is exciting. But, I hate to think that someone who runs their first, and perhaps only 5K, will go home with a $2.00 trinket.
    That is part of the reason I created the My First 5K medal. It’s a real medal like you would get at a marathon. Your first medal should be special.
    Before my medals go into the pile, I hang them from my car’s rearview mirror until I get my next medal.

    1. I agree about the first 5k or first 10k. A first 5k can be a huge accomplishment for someone. I know that my medals hold great memories for me, and I hope everyone has that. I think it is maybe more than just the medals. With so many new races, races are pulling out all the stops to get you to sign up for their race. I don’t need a tech tee, a water bottle, a hat, a poster, a pin, a medal, a sticker and a towel to commemorate every race I do. Can’t we just go and run with out adding more clutter to our lives? I know I don’t have to take the “swag” home with me, but it’s still out there in the universe.

  3. I agree with you, medals are like a participation award- “here ya go Sally, thanks for running ” . It’s so silly. I might get shot for this but here I go, that’s why some people don’t train to their potential, go out and run a 3 hour half Marathon just to get a piece of bling. It’s bullshit and it’s the other reason races cost so much. A tshirt is good enough to show you participated, a medal should be reserved for awards , with exception to the marathon.
    I see all day long in a running group I belong to women saying ” I didn’t train right but oh well, as long as I finish” that’s a shitty attitude to have for a race with a respectable distance.

    1. “here you go sally” – ha! I guess I feel like a hypocrite. I still want my marathon medals, and my marathon might be to me what a 5k is to someone else. I don’t want to take away anyone’s accomplishments, but maybe we cut the medals at the 5ks and 10ks except for first timers?

  4. All right, make ME be the asshole here! I hate medals and race bling … I even hate the term race bling! I hate the trinkets I get for placing or even winning. I have no idea where any particular plaque or medal is, save for Boston because I threw all my Boston stuff in a bag and it’s stuffed away in my basement somewhere. I do like the things I’ve won that I can use like cash (of course!), gift certificates, mugs, gym bags, a blanket, a fleece vest, etc. Some of the trophies are so bad they’re good, but then again they take up tons of space, end up breaking when my kids get a hold of them and are generally utterly silly. But the tchatchkes I could completely do without. I guess for me, all I see is the object, the cheap, sweat-shop made, junk, and place no significance on the thing – the race performance lives on in my memory and for me, anyway, that little trinket is inconsequential … until I trip on it or one of my kids swings it at another one …

    1. I agree! Except for my 50 state marathon medals. (hypocrite) I love collecting the medals as I complete each state – I guess because it shows I am one step closer to completing my goal. But at the end of the day, when I’m long gone, what is anyone going to do with a box of old medals?

      1. I’ve never really been a collector of anything … it’s not really my bag. I also know that in a way that I’m spoiled in that I can say things like “things I’ve won” or talking about my Boston stuff like it’s an afterthought. But also, I think that I care so much about my actual race performance and not really the “stuff” part of the race experience is the difference and kinda what Margaret was getting at. Once people really get into *racing* that stuff often isn’t as important and I think the fact that it’s all become so ubiquitous shows how races are marketing themselves more as “events” with “participants” rather than “races” with “competitiors.” It’s all fine, but I’m definitely someone who prefers the latter approach to racing and probably always will and I will NEVER do it for “the bling” (it pained me even to type that! Ha!)

        1. Well said. As much as I like my collection of state medals, I for sure have never run a race for “the bling.” I’d run the next 26 states to finish my goal, even if they didn’t have a medal!

    2. 100% AGREE! Give me something I can use (preferably that I can eat) and I’ll both remember your race AND come back for more! I’ve never been more motivated to run well than at a trail race with pie for the winners. I always wonder how much cheaper my entry would be if I wasn’t forced to attain another medal and t shirt through signing up. I have been to some races lately where you get an option of a t shirt or some gear (water bottle, etc.) and that seems to be a good way to do it – get something you’ll actually use.

  5. I’m on the fence about medals. I agree that there is some sentiment there, and having lost some of my favorite in a move, I’m sad that I no longer have those mementos. That being said, some races medals aren’t worth what they’re likely charging me in race registration, and it would be nice to have the option to opt out for a lower registration price (like some races are doing with race shirts).

    If you’re looking for something to do with those piles of medals you don’t care about, there are groups that will donate your race medals if you’re looking to downsize 🙂 Medals for Mettle donates race medals to kids and adults who are fighting various diseases (and, in a way, running their own races): http://www.medals4mettle.org/

    1. does medals for mettle take all medals or just marathon ones? I know there a few organizations that take them, but one of them was specific about what races they were from, and I don’t remember which.

      1. Based on the website info I read, I believe they limit it to half and full marathons, as well as triathlon medals. I can’t speak to personal experience, as I’ve never donated to them 🙂

  6. I can take or leave most medals and tshirts, but there are glorious exceptions. (2015 Rt 66). There’s a bit of an overload, but I believe the trend will probably reverse as more of the regular participants get too jaded. Give it a decade and there will be a new race perk deemed to be a must have.

    BTW, I have had a blast running races I’m “not prepared” for. Knowing a PR isn’t happening allows you to relax and enjoy the craft beer a nice spectator gives you on mile 9. If I’m having fun and not in your way, I don’t quite see why this is a shitty attitude. YMMV

    1. True, I wonder what the next thing will be. Portland marathon gives you a coin, a medallion and a tree! Could you imagine if we planted a tree every time we raced? As far as running races you’re “not prepared for”.. I think the previous comment was meant towards people who sign up for a race and then just don’t train at all for it… like no running – or barely any. I don’t think she was referring to running a race that wasn’t a goal race. I’ve got at least 26 more marathons to run – and you can bet I won’t be racing all of those. I think there is a difference between not running full tilt, just enjoying a race and simply not being prepared to cover the distance.

  7. There is too much stuff in the world and too much junk in my house. I could live happily without another medal and would love to find a place (other than the garbage) for the pile that I already have. My elementary school-aged kids have started to get participation trophies for their various sports. C’mon! Maybe I’m in the minority, but I don’t even like the race t-shirts. I just love to run and compete.

  8. The BAA gives out medals for all of the (FEW) events they host — the mile invitational, 5K, 10K, half and the biggie-Boston marathon. These few events sell out quickly, have big purses and bring a crew of elite runners, so I understand the medals BUT . . for all but the marathon, they only give unisex race shirts. And, they suck. Most are awful colors (Black & Neon) and mens styles (3 stripes on a short sleeve). I’d gladly trade my 10K and half medals for a decent W shirt in some nice colors that I’d actually wear while training.

    Interesting I just went through my medals a few days ago. I don’t have my first marathon medal and I was a little sad. I did have my Men’s XL race shirt (why?!) and the Champion Chip that I didn’t return though.

    I’d much prefer a gift certificate vs. a sweat shop medal, even for Boston.

    I’m curious as to whether anyone buys the pro photos (e.g. MarathonFoto or related) ? I think they are about as useful as the medals, personally but I can understand someone wanting to memorialize their first/best race.

    1. Why is it that the ugly race shirts always stick around, but the ones we love tend to go missing over the years? As far as the marathonfoto – I have once or twice… simply because they were funny pictures where I was run jumping. I have a personal blog where I write about my 50 marathons in 50 states, and sometimes I’d like to have the pictures for that.. it’s basically my scrapbook for all of my states. I’m mostly too cheap to pay for the marathonfoto ones though.

  9. I’m not a serial racer; 1-2 marathons/year, maybe a half-marathon, and one 10k, so I don’t have a medal infestation. I’ve gotten my favorite race swag from the three 50ks I ran– a local beer and pint glass with the race emblazoned on it (SOB), then a bottle of red wine bottled for the race/with the race name on it and a sweet zip-up (MRTR). No medal needed!

  10. I’ve gotten to the point where I usually say no thanks to medals. If the race is special to me, I’ll shell out money for the t shirt, but medals…I just don’t need an ugly medal for every 10k-as-training-run, I guess. I can see myself keeping my first marathon medal though!

  11. I have all my medals but I don’t run races specifically for them. Some of them I love and I can pick up and think tons of memories and others I’m like…what race was that? I’ve seen some people do really cool things with them over the years, magnets, coasters, wall decor, whatever…or donate. I think One of these days I’ll pick out which ones I wanna keep and turn into something and which ones I want to donate. Or who knows, Maybe I’ll finally hang up a curtain rod like i’ve been thinking about and hang them all in my office at home.

  12. Commenting on this way late, but I don’t need a medal, shirt, or trinkets for a 5k/10k/13.1. For a more substantial event that I put a lot of time training for (for me, that means a marathon), I like having a keepsake and appreciate medals. Other useful memorabilia in place of a medal (pint glass, quality t-shirt, hat) are welcomed and preferred, though!

  13. I adore my “first” medals but could care less about the others . And I am annoyed that they are getting soooooo obnoxiously heavy.
    My favorite bling is the Finisher T shirts I was/am given after the longer events such as Ultras and Ironman events.

    I like the idea of opting out of a medal but recognize that could be a logistical nightmare