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I am a Finisher’s Medal Maniac, How About You?

Is anyone else out there a Medal Maniac like I am? I’m talking about the increasingly larger finisher’s medals most running races give away to all those who toil to reach the finish line. To me, it’s a badge of honor and a small—OK, often quite big and sometimes huge—way of both celebrating the achievement of finishing and remembering all of the effort it took to get there.

For the record, I adored Susan Lacke’s recent column about finisher medal mania (“Medal Mania: Are We Going Overboard with the Awards?”) and found it to be hilarious, entertaining and thought-provoking for the running community. And she is a vegetarian and a triathlonist, as I am! But I could not share her recent views about medal mania, or at least not to the full extent.

My own history as a maniac started couple of years ago in Belgium, where I ran my first 10K. Scorched by a heat wave in usually cloudy Brussels, I barely reached the finish line—my dreams of a glorious racing debut had been replaced by visions of drowning myself in gallons of life-saving isotonic. I hoped for an Oscar/Grammy size thing that would equal the exhaustion. What I actually received was a dime-size joke, a tiny metal thingy dangling on a ribbon. No art, no date and no title.

It’s a pathetic medal, yet it fills me with more pride than any other.

I’m sure that hundreds of finishers that day made jokes about the “dime on a ribbon” award, perhaps throwing it away or not accepting the thing at all. But I also saw people who were overjoyed with it, new runners achieving something personally bigger than the first-place prize for pros, a key to the realm of health and happiness, combined with a daily hard work and demanding devotion—a true symbol of their own potential.

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For me, medals are visual reminders of the result that awaits if I can avoid habits like television binge-watching, bad cuisine addiction or post-work afternoon laziness. A medal is the alternative to being obese, nervous or unfulfilled. Every little and big chest-dangler I store in my 200+ collection tells the story of a long fight, not always entirely successful. Just a peek brings back the memories of places, people, weather conditions, travel arrangements and entry fees, no matter if that was a dull 5K feat, crazy city bikes triathlon, or a plunge into ultra-running territory. These little shrines makes me proud and sometimes cry out loud—don’t stop, push on and work out!

Neatly laid out in two Ikea glass cabinets back in Warsaw, Poland, my medals await the influx of a new U.S. batch, the memory refreshers of outdoor adventures, humidity challenges and meetings with great folks and fantastic observations from running in North America. Coming from Europe, I assure you that most races here with a ribbon-round-a-neck decoration in order to remind of a place, bring you back next year and celebrate the occasion.

What we have not yet fully developed in Europe are the local low-key races where—as Susan Lacke aptly points out—it’s the simplicity that matters, where the springboards to better achievements are carved out. The jogging culture as developed in the U.S. shows its beauty in the community events where people join together not for the sake of medals and awards but in the sense of common good. I never expect decorations during these runs—even when I burned my lungs out at a blazingly hot Washington D.C. run, a 20-miler on the Potomac river. I was rewarded with a mega-bagel and cream cheese instead of metal thingy on a ribbon. Loved it.

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But let’s make it clear—my case is individual and people collect running goodies for many different reasons. Some need to be praised and hang stuff in their offices, proudly displaying their amateur athletic achievements. Some enjoy the format and shape of the medals, revisiting the old-school collecting of coins, post stamps or baseball cards. Some show the trinkets to their kids and preach about healthy lifestyle (as I do). And some dig the history behind finisher memorabilia from an event in D.C., Fredericksburg or Philly. I say let them have it.

And here comes the crucial part that I believe Susan hinted at: The danger of adopting a “mania” for awards. Manias always mislead us. Too many selfies published online? Two smartwatches on each hand? Multiple sports drinks stops at a fun run 2-miler? Over 100 finisher T-shirts in a closet, yet only ever wearing a favorite few? I reckon finding a golden measure, an in-between solution remains crucial: You can always refrain from accepting another item of bling. But know this too: For someone it’s going to be seen as a little Olympic gold medal, an introduction to big-time running or simply a treasured collector’s item.

Let me end with a little coming out: I also collect bib numbers. And yes, I once did a virtual run too…

About the author:

Filip Jasinski, a Polish diplomat and former academic scholar, lives and runs in Bethesda, MD.