Medals and Magnets
It seems all 18,000 runners are in the party tent. Organizations like J&A Racing understand how to have great races, and great after-race parties. Huge effort is put into both. I've stepped from the stress of the cold and the wind into the stress of the din of a massive crowd in a tent a football field long, with blaring live band, and quarters so close a fellow runner is always at elbow. We all have a couple of important things in common; we've just endured a weather induced hardship, completing the half marathon or marathon, and are wearing our medal. Everyone also seems to have a beer.
When you cross the finish line, the area is still confined to participants, so volunteers can hand out a series of little goodies. First and foremost are the medals. As I approached the area, at least six volunteers are spread out, each with dozens of medals on their arms. A young girl made eye contact with me, holding the medal as if she was going to drape it around my neck. I didn't buy the pretense and instinctively reached out to take it from her. What I wanted mostly was to be warm. And food. I wanted hot food. Other volunteers had bananas and little bags of potato chips, and I appreciated them very much. I then got a hat and a beach towel. Not a beach towel, actually, for the thing is smaller and thinner than it should be, but it's kind of like a beach towel.
Medals have always been awarded to finishers in running. It's not a product of the modern everyone's a winner concept. I did a lot of stuff in school and received no trophies. If I was doing it today, I would have a room full of them. You can debate the difference from both sides of the self-esteem fence, but that's how culture has changed. Running, though, was ahead of its time, and has awarded a distance event medal to every runner making it to the finish.
My wife has her medal from completing the Chicago Marathon. Mindy's award is one inch across and about the same in height. It is one color. The narrow neck ribbon has no writing. The medal, though, was awarded in 1998. My half marathon medal is three and another half inches wide, and the same in height. It's a multi-colored, stamped zinc alloy design featuring both iconic Cape Henry lighthouses, four-leaf clovers, the event date, plus two major sponsor logos; one healthcare, the other beer. I'm appreciative of the ironic paring. Especially since the 1881 lighthouse is adorned with the beer logo. The medal's most important feature is the top: a bottle opener. I'm undecided if I've received a bottle opener that's a medal, or a medal that's a bottle opener. Holding it in my hand for the first time, I'm leaning towards the former. The wide ribbon is colored in several shades of green, with the race name and main sponsor logos repeated. And now I, and thousands of others, are wearing this thing around our necks as we queue for our free food and beer. Mostly for our beer. That's another race award, beer tickets, and the organizers have brilliantly attached them directly to my race bib. I have four.
Runners call medals, “bling.” A term making the homogenized cultural trip from the eighties. When we came home, I hung my first ever bling on a doorknob. Our Turkey Trot didn't have medals. Scroll media was filled with runners taking various poses with the bottle opener. Sometimes the opener was the only star, featured in creative pictures in the sand, held in front of the Virginia Beach boardwalk, or dangling on a rack at home filled with other achieved bling. I jumped on the wagon and posted a shot of both our medals run through a graphics program with one of those vintage spirals.
My wife and I shared a brief conversation about getting a bling rack but agreed since the races are so hard to afford, the rack would likely take years to fill and serve as daily reminder that the races are hard to afford. Since I'm not a huge fan of the featured beer and pay large amounts of money each month to the healthcare sponsor, I also didn't need to display their logos in my home. I tired quickly of hearing the bling clank on my door, and after a week it ended up in a drawer. I wished they had given me a coffee mug instead. I might use a coffee mug. And the wholesale point would be about the same as the medal for the organizer. I understand the issue would be the boxes holding the thousands of mugs, vs the fewer boxes all the little bottle opener filled, but still, a mug would have been fun.
The bling, though, is a major sales tool for race organizers. The designs get bigger and bigger. No color combination or design is too extreme. The sponsors, of course, want their name as the major feature. Since most races have themes, graphic designers craft imaginative, thematic wonders around pirates, animals, flags, or city skylines. Forget the round shape. High speed robotics make any shape possible. Competition among the medal makers keeps costs low, with big organizers paying a buck or two or three for simpler designs.
I got a lot of stuff as a half marathoner. I got a bottle opener medal. I received a runner hat with the event logo. It even said Finisher on the back to eliminate any confusion I had merely attended. I got a weird beach towel thing. I had a race shirt, colored in a two-tone green reminiscent of my parents’ '79 Pontiac. Kind of pea green combined with a baby chewed the peas and spit them out green. And I got a party. A big party, with a live band, hot food, and four beer tickets. And the option to buy more beer.
I like my magnet the best. I didn't get the magnet, I bought it, snatching the gem from a table full of race trinkets at the pre-race expo. The magnet is a simple expression. The magnet gets right to the point. Mine had a big 13.1 printed in green on white. Oval is the accepted shape in the running community. I never got a 10K magnet. I didn't give it much thought. The Turkey Trot was fun that day, but I absorbed the experience as more a step towards the bigger goal, than a magnet worthy achievement. The half marathon was always the chosen prize. I wanted to remind myself I had really done this and would do it again.
I see nothing wrong with the refrigerator door serving as a place of emotional touch points. My wife and I disagree about this, and it's become a source of comic badinage at home. She prefers cleanliness to clutter in our small space, and I, left to my own devices, would cover the fridge front and sides with little magnet souvenirs from our travels and adventures. Now I can add running magnets to my hording. We've agreed when the time comes for a new coolerator my magnet mess goes, but for now, I celebrate my greatest running achievement to date with a five-inch oval proclamation.
Many runners put the magnets on their cars. Since we live in a large running community, it's common to see car trunks and hatch covers and bumpers adorned with personal numeric victories. Everything from the 5K to 100 milers and beyond, for red light gazers to behold. Some go for one numeric mark, others seem to have magnets from each and every event they've finished, giving the vehicle that certain elegance a car dealership will send immediately to auction at trade-in. A personal favorite is to see cars adorned with the hilarious 0.0 magnet.
Now that I am a distance runner, it was obvious choices needed to be made about medals. About magnets. About stickers. Big choices. Life choices. Some runners even make the tattoo decision. I conclude a lighthouse with a beer logo tattooed to my left quad might be a bad idea.
In the meantime, this half marathoner is going to sit back, open a cold beer with my medal, and look at my three-dollar magnet. This is, indeed, the running life I was promised.
The above essay is a book excerpt from Running to Zen - A Marathon Journey
Available at Amazon Books.
© Copyright William Hazel, 2023