The Finisher’s Medal

Finisher medals are ruining this great country. It’s not necessarily the medals themselves, but what they represent. The medals just seem to reinforce the notion that the act of finishing is good enough. A good friend of mine once told me, “It’s all outfits and finisher medals these days.” Sadly he was dead on with his analysis, and there’s something very wrong with that.

Picture this: Joe Shmoe, standing in the start corral with his GPS watch, heart rate monitor, Fuel Belt, salt tablets, Road ID, and CamelBak. Heck, he’s even filled out the emergency contact info on the back of his bib. Just what is Joe preparing for? Is he all geared up for a month of hard wilderness survival…or a thirty minute 5k? He finishes, collects his medal, goes home, and puts it on display with all the rest. Guests at his house will see all of that bling and automatically be impressed: “Wow, this guy’s a legit runner.” They’ll surmise this based on the quantity with no consideration given to quality. He’s much closer to a living caricature of a Michelob Ultra commercial than he is an actual runner, but the world doesn’t know or care to know. Joe Shmoe has cleared the bar that has been set so very, very low for him.

Since when is the act of just finishing something an accomplishment? In races there are winners and losers, and inevitably somebody will be walking away from it not feeling all warm and fuzzy. If you don’t come away feeling great about yourself or your performance, it’s okay; it happens. Perhaps a mistake was made or something went wrong, but failure can serve as a great motivator when you get back at it. There isn’t necessarily something wrong with that and it can be a good thing because it forces you to work harder.

There’s legitimate concern that the finisher’s medal is positively reinforcing a poor effort, which in a lot of cases can take away that need to strive for selfimprovement. So who’s really to blame here? It’s tough to say, but the finisher medal industry (aka Big Finisher Medal) certainly looks suspicious. It’s right up there on the list of the most profitable/evil industries in America: Big Oil, Big Insurance, and Big Not-For-Profit University. However, Big Finisher Medal can’t take all of the blame here. After all, they are just supplying the demand created by those who paid $80 for a half marathon and…oversensitive parents.

Participant awards (i.e. the youth sports equivalent of the finisher’s medal) are probably the root cause of this horrible trend. Some parents just couldn’t deal with the sight of their children losing, and pretty soon everybody was coddled and protected from the real lessons learned in defeat. If this keeps up, I foresee a horrible future for (youth) sports. Using soccer as an example, we’re probably not too far away from them removing the goals and switching to scoring based solely on smiles. The team that smiles the most is named First Winner, while the team that doesn’t smile as much is named Second Winner. Everybody smiles, everybody wins, and pretty soon the word ‘loser’ is erased from our vocabulary. It’s funny how we seem to be trending toward this, especially when you consider that for every winner there has to be at least one loser; you just can’t have winners without having losers.

In life, no one is guaranteed success, and everybody finds that out sooner or later. Success comes to those who learn from their mistakes and work hard. There seems to be less of an emphasis on winning and losing, and more of an emphasis on just having fun. That’s all well and good, but you must consider that if a kid isn’t having fun, then maybe they just don’t like the sport. Think of what’s to be learned from losing:

  • life’s not always fair (bad calls by officials, favoritism by parent coaches)
  • success isn’t easy (need to work hard at it)
  • the taste of failure (it’s horrible and you know you’ll do your best to never taste it again)

Simply put, if you know just how awful it is to lose, you’ll appreciate the victories that much more. By learning these lessons early in life, you’ll be better equipped to handle the more serious challenges later on. When a participant is awarded no matter what, he won’t work as hard, figuring failure isn’t likely. That same person just won’t know how to react when they are presented with real failure. Unfortunately, many will stop trying.

It wasn’t always this way. When Kennedy delivered his famous speech about America going to the Moon at Rice University in 1962, it was clear that our goal was to be the first there. “Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first,” Kennedy goes on to say, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Kennedy’s words would’ve been much less effective and inspiring if he had said something like “Our goal is just to get to the moon. Regardless of who gets there first or who works harder to achieve this goal, we all have equal rights to the moon. We have confirmed that the Space Race does issue finisher medals and initial reports are that they are fantastic, possibly made out of moon rocks. It will look quite good hanging in the White House in a frame containing the Space Race bib and an overpriced picture from MarathonFoto.” I’m afraid that if we had this current finisher medal mentality back then, we would probably all be speaking Russian right now. More borscht, anyone?

For the record, I do like finisher medals. They are a nice souvenir and are often the lone tangible representation of a tremendous accomplishment. Not much thought is given to them now, but I imagine that when my racing days are behind me I’ll look at them with a sense of nostalgic fondness. Each one is far more valuable than the cheap metal and ribbon that it is comprised of because I know exactly how much sweat, dedication, sacrifice, planning, and effort went into it. A hard earned finisher medal signifies more than just completion. It represents all those times where we couldn’t grab a drink with coworkers because we had to go for a run; all those sacrifices we make on a daily basis. It would be a shame if our community lost that.

Read the message boards on letsrun.com and one can see there is a sentiment out there that things like finisher medals and race jackets are too much, and any display of them is over the top and just wrong. That is a bit extreme and not something with which I would agree. It’s not the medals themselves but the attitude that goes along with it. If you just ran a marathon, I see nothing wrong with walking around that day wearing the medal proudly. It is an accomplishment, especially if you trained and raced to do much more than just finish it, so you deserve it. I’ll cut people slack on that. I just can’t stand the whole “I’m just doing this to finish but I deserve to be treated just like the fast people” mentality.

The finisher medal is becoming the nasty little equalizer in the way that the 6 hour runners are bringing home the same hardware as the 3 hour runners. Is that fair? No, not really. After all, it’s a race not a parade. The clown wearing a Batman costume at the back of the pack getting the same thing as a guy who just ran a 2:20 just seems really, really wrong. How do we go about fixing that? What if we handed out the same number of finisher medals next year, but made half the batch out of plastic? The metal ones would be handed out first and then once those run out, the remaining runners would get the plastic ones. Oh, you didn’t get a metal medal? Well spend more time training and less time stitching your fancy costume together! It’s a race. Treat it like one.

Some people have an across the board disdain for all finisher medals, and in some cases even trophies. Part of this seems to stem from the monetization of the race day experience. Race entry fees are steadily increasing, the bleeping “convenience” charges for online registration are only getting worse (yeah, I’m calling you out Active.com), and even certain tour companies are snatching up numbers at high profile events and reselling them as part of packages. There are enough damn tourists in races as it is, no need to encourage more to jump in. It almost seems that some race directors think they can do no wrong as long as there’s a finisher medal at the end. It’s working, so who can blame them? The medal medicates the masses, and they keep coming back for more.

A tweet from David Monti caught my attention back in early May:

Wow. The top three in each race got one of these, but I wonder how that would affect the popularity of the event if all participants got one? People would literally be lining up and paying for shit. Yeah, I know it’s disinfected, but something still seems wrong with having a turd dangling from your neck by a ribbon…or maybe it’s totally appropriate.

This originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Level Renner and is being re-released now to help promote the publication of the October 2012 issue, and to help keep my blog fresh. New stuff is in the works.

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About ejnshow

Runner. Writer. Lover of the absurd. Hobbies include bringing all three of these elements together.

8 responses to “The Finisher’s Medal”

  1. Beth says :

    I’m a middle of the pack runner. I run to compete with myself to better myself. I like your sentiment that the finisher medal as an acknowledgement of all that has been sacrificed to train for and do well or do better than last time in the race. Having come in dead last in a race. Well two people didn’t finish so was I really last? I don’t feel like a loser, it was my first 15K it was a trail race, and damn it I did it. This year, I’ll run the same trail series with the goal of improving all of my times. Maybe I will come in last again in that race, but I bet my time will be better.

    I don’t know that I actually have a point to this comment other than some of us newbie runners are extremely in awe and perhaps intimidated by those of you who line up at the front and are in true competition for first or to place!

    Enjoy reading your blog and Level Renner!!! Keep the good works coming!

    • ejnshow says :

      First of all Beth, thanks for the kind words about the blog and Level Renner. I too know what it feels like to come in dead last in a race. Well, actually I was second to last, but I was so far behind the field and the last place guy was so far behind me that essentially two runners got to experience that ‘last runner coming’ feeling that time, haha. In your case it looks like it’s driving you to improve yourself, and that’s the effect it had on me.

      It’s never really about the result, it’s about the effort. I applaud your mentality and your effort, it’s totally what the Level is all about. It seems that races these days are shifting the focus from the competitive aspect to a more good time, social aspect, and I just used the finisher medal to take a tongue-in-cheek poke at it.

      • Beth says :

        Gotcha! The effort, exactly! Races do seem to be a big party, and that detracts from the competitive aspect and the drive to put in the effort to achieve a goal. Enjoy your blog and articles!!

  2. Killam says :

    Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and elephant dung medals!? That’s practically down the street from me so I MUST have one. Message received, Narc–the only good medals are the medals made from poo.

  3. TRJ says :

    Thank you for this piece. I could not agree more. I’ve spent much thought on a better way to respect the sport and all its runners while maintaining the integrity of the sport. As you wrote, it’s a race- treat it like one! There is something displeasing about giving a medal to EVERYONE. Maybe the shirt can be for everyone but medals are only for 2 h (13.1) and 4 (26.2). I pick those because they seem to be the prevailing “standards” for time. Clearly, I don’t have THE ANSWER but I agree fully with your position! Safe running!

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