Editor’s column: Giant medals test this runner’s mental mettle | PostIndependent.com
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Editor’s column: Giant medals test this runner’s mental mettle

Randy Essex

I’m afraid someone is going to get hurt.

The size and bulk of finisher medals for footraces is simply out of hand.

I ran the Missoula Half Marathon last month, a well-organized, flat race in a nice town. The finisher’s medal, though, is over the top — the size of a coffee saucer but unbreakable and much heavier.

Putting it on a shelf beside other marathon and half marathon medals, it takes the space of four or five of the medals I got early in my marathon life, which started 20 years ago.

I’m not sure why this is good. As I looked at its enormity, I noticed that the medals have escalated in size through the years. The first marathon finisher medals I got were no more than 2 inches by 2 inches, and many were smaller.

The 20th anniversary Chicago Marathon medal in 1997 was the first oversized medal I got, but I thought, “Well, big race, special occasion, big medal” — and it turned out to be nothing compared with some I’ve gotten since.

In 2005, the San Francisco Marathon medal actually was a coaster, with little felt pads on the underside. At the time, it was a novelty, kind of creative, and still smaller than the Missoula medal.

The Detroit Free Press Marathon medal in 2006 had some real bulk to it, but more in thickness than other dimensions. Perhaps it was designed for practical value to make visitors and suburbanites feel like it could stop a bullet or they could use it to ward off an aggressive panhandler as they walked away from the downtown finish area.

The 2011 Marine Corps Marathon medal has a spinning globe in the center — heck, I’m surprised it doesn’t have a battery and flashing lights.

It’s vain and silly, but I enjoy wearing a marathon finisher’s medal out to lunch or dinner on race day. You see other finishers, exchange high fives and maybe chat a little about the run, and it helps the joy of the event linger. I’ve even worn half marathon medals a couple times if the half was the longest race of the day. I feel too sheepish to do that if a marathon also was part of the event; I can’t bring myself to show off for having finished half of something.

But some of these medals are so big they are embarrassing to wear — plus, I’m going to need to strengthen my neck if they get any bigger. Many runners are quite small, and you have to worry about these things throwing off someone’s center of gravity and pitching them forward, face-first into the pavement as they stagger on sore legs.

If you or someone close to you has been a runner for a while, you’ve also noticed that medals are handed out to finishers of shorter and shorter races these days.

I tread on thin ice here. I’m all for people running 5Ks and doing walks and all manner of events. I applaud anyone who gets out there, exercising and participating.

That said, for my first races back in the early ’90s, participants were rewarded with a T-shirt, a banana and a good sweat. Winners got ribbons or medals, but not everyone — which made the medals special.

I got my first nonmarathon medal when my son and I finished third in the father-son combined time division of a 5K. I readily admit being the dead weight on that team, but I still have that medal as a memento of a great day.

As much as I praise participation, getting a medal for finishing a 5K strikes me as part of the force in our culture that also produces kindergarten graduation ceremonies. I’m not even fully in on the appropriateness of a medal for finishing a half marathon, but I haven’t turned them down, so maybe I’m just a righteous hypocrite. (Is there any other kind of hypocrite?)

In Missoula, the 5K finishers also got saucer-size medals. While that’s the biggest medal I’ve ever gotten or even seen, the Little Rock Marathon medal is famous for being the size of a dinner plate — “as big as your head,” as one participant said.

I’m not alone in noticing this arms race of medals.

“Once, only winners got a medal,” the Wall Street Journal reported in April. “Now, last-place finishers get at least one — and can get more by participating in frequent-runner programs. ‘You can walk away from one of our events with three or four medals around your neck,’ says Cassidy Runyan, a race-registration executive with Competitor Group’s Rock ’n’ Roll race series.”

The Rock ’n’ Roll series, which represents the corporatization and sterilization of racing, discovered, along with other race organizers, that doing marketing around the medal did more to increase sign-ups than anything else. The T-shirt used to be the thing, especially marathon shirts that said “Finisher.” Ironically, some marathons, including Rock ’n’ Roll events, now include shabby shirts with your entry, but will sell you a nicer one.

Then there’s this gem in the Journal report: “Companies such as US Road Running and Fit, Fab & Lean sell race bibs and finisher medals to purchasers who vow to run a certain distance on their own time and turf. The model is based on trust that customers will award a medal to themselves only after completing the promised distance.”

Sure. Next kids won’t even have to attend kindergarten to graduate.

Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.


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