Last weekend I did a 5K with my sister. It was nothing spectacular—3.1 miles in aesthetically pleasing scenery with about 800 new friends. No PRs were set. We gabbed most of the way (as sisters do), and I think we may have even stopped to take a selfie.
Yet at the finish line, one might think we had just won the whole darn thing.
“YOU DID IT!” A volunteer shouted as we crossed the timing mat. “I’M SO PROUD OF YOU!”
“WAY TO GO!” another woo-hooed as she handed us water bottles. A tunnel of high-
fiving children steered us toward a gaggle of local pageant winners, who were waiting to hand out medals.
“Good job!” Miss Dairy Days smiled as she lifted the hardware around my neck. And hardware it was: dangling from the end of a red ribbon was a bedazzled dinner plate. I have held babies that didn’t weigh as much as this behemoth of a finisher medal. A medal for the incredible act of finishing a 5K fun run.
Is it possible we’re going overboard with the awards these days? When I first started running, all I got at the finish line of a 5K was a banana. Now I get Hulk Hogan’s WWE belt.
Don’t get me wrong: I love finisher medals just as much as the next runner. There are a few hanging on the wall in my basement. I sometimes wear mine to post-race breakfasts as a shameless way to get a complimentary side of bacon. My nieces and nephews enjoy stealing mine for awards in their make-believe Olympic Games (which includes amazing feats of strength like “cat wrangling” and “poop jokes.”)
But I also have more medals than I know what to do with. They tumble out when I open my car’s trunk and rattle around in the silverware drawer. I once found a medal in the dishwasher, as if to say, “Kudos for using lavender-scented soap!”
The fanfare surrounding finisher medals has inflated my expectations outside of running, too. After I get a medal for meandering my way through a fun run, I start to expect praise for everything I do. My boss wasn’t too pleased when I requested my pay be
written on massive checks and presented by Ed McMahon. (At the very least, couldn’t he get Miss Dairy Days to deliver it?)
Perhaps we should return to a simpler time, when races handed out high-fives and bananas. A finish line should not be an endpoint, but a springboard for the next challenge: to go farther, faster, harder. A medal implies finality, as if one has reached the pinnacle of success as a runner. Too many people collect their medal, get free bacon at breakfast and never run again. The bucket list item has been checked off.
But if we can keep those runners coming back, they might discover something kind of cool: The reward of running is running itself, not a sparkly piece of tin that sits in a drawer somewhere. It’s the feeling of satisfaction, sense of community, stories and bragging rights, not to mention positive, self-perpetuating steps toward a healthy life.
Free bananas are a pretty sweet prize, too.