On medals…

This is a post that’s been building for a while, and I think I’m finally ready to address it.


Specifically, FINISHER medals.

Personally I’ve never been part of a race where the words “participant medals” are used. Participant shirt or participant bag, yes. But participant medal? Not so much.

Out of curiosity, I went to the sites of the two specific companies I’m addressing in this post to see what their wording is as to what is included.

From runDisney‘s WDW Marathon page (though it could apply to any of their distance events):

“Race participants in the Walt Disney World® Marathon will receive:
Champion® Unisex Long-Sleeved Marathon Tech Shirt*
Commemorative 20th Anniversary Mickey Mouse Finisher medal*
Official Race Program Guide*
Personalized bib (Must register by November 1, 2012 for name to appear on bib)*
On-course and post-race refreshments
ChronoTrack B-tag timed race
Personalized results website

Dates, times and prices subject to change. All races are subject to capacity limits and may close at any time.

* Participants must attend Packet Pick-up at Disney’s Health & Fitness Expo to receive their race packet, bib, and tech shirt. Finisher medals will be distributed to finishers during the race. None of these items will be mailed to registrants that did not participate.”

The bold emphasis is mine. Please note that “medal” is not included in the list of what your race participants will receive. Instead it is stated that (again) “Finisher medals will be distributed to finishers during the race.”

And from Rock n Roll‘s site for “Participant Perks”:

“Participant Perks
Scenic course highlighting host cities famous sites
Live, local bands along the course
Spirited cheer squads lining the course
Brooks Technical Participant Shirt
Official Finisher Certificates
Finishers Medal
Swag Bag
Plentiful Course Support
Free Admission to the Finish Line Festival and Post Race Concert (where applicable)
Free Admission to the 2 day Health & Fitness Expo”

They are less specific – indeed, reading that, it does look as if ALL participants receive a “finishers medal” – though they do say elsewhere that the participant shirt will be mailed to people who are unable to attend after registering and do not mention the medal.

So what is the big deal?

In cases with races run by both of these groups, there are documented and witnessed cases of runners who have been swept from the course due to time and/or medical issues who are offered – and in many cases take the finishers medal by race staff or volunteers. At least runDisney takes the swept runners to a section after the finish line, so that’s a point in their favor. Rock n Roll is known for, and indeed they state on their website that they do this, shuttling swept runners further up the course so that they can continue from a point closer to the finish line. Don’t believe me? Read:

“If a participant’s pace falls below the course time limit, they have a few options:
* Increase their pace to stay within the event minimum pace;
* Board a “sag wagon” shuttle to move forward on the course, where they may continue to participate in the event, maintaining the minimum pace required; or
* If the participant cannot continue, they may board a sag wagon to be dropped off at the next shuttle location, at a nearby medical station. The participant will be seen by a Medical Team captain to be cleared for the medical shuttle to transport the participant to the finish line.”

(again, bold emphasis is mine)

All of us who participate in distance events (well, I’m sure there are some who don’t bother to train) train hard for race day. We are working to earn that finishers medal by going the entire distance of the course in the required time under our own power. Is it hard? Yes. Would it be heartbreaking to not be able to finish? Of course!

Sticking with Disney in this case as I know Chicago won’t be endorsing this practice, last year I trained really, really hard for the Walt Disney World Marathon. I was prepared and ready. If you remember from my race report, the week of the race, I picked up some kind of stomach bug or something, and it decided to hang around through race morning (granted, part of it could have been nerves). I wasn’t sure I was going to make it during the first half of the race. If I’d decided to DNF, yes, I would have been heartbroken. And I’m 100% positive I would have been offered the medal. I’m also 100% sure I would have refused it. It is called a finishers medal for a reason, and if I don’t finish the race, I’m not taking the medal. (And I know from reports from friends who have had to DNF or even DNS a Disney race (yes, someone who DNSed the Wine and Dine last year was offered the finishers medal!) that I would have received a shocked look and something like “Just take it anyway” from the volunteer or race official offering it to me.

I’ve worked my butt off for Chicago. I feel ready and confident, but who knows what the marathon gods have in store for me. Should things go south very quickly and I either DNF or don’t finish in the required time, I am not going to get or expect a medal. That doesn’t mean I didn’t work hard. It means I didn’t finish! I will have my participant shirt to show that I took part. And if I want and choose, I can run it another year to earn that medal.

I realize we’re still dealing with the repercussions and in many cases still living with the self-esteem era. You know – let your child sing/dance/paint/whatever even if they don’t have talent and tell them they’re amazing at what they’re doing so as not to “damage their spirit” rather than redirecting them to something they might be amazing at (example: maybe your child can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but she’s an amazing dancer – get her in dance class and focus her that way!; your son can’t play soccer, but he’s amazing at tennis? focus him that way!); or there aren’t any winners of losers in this tournament…everyone gets the same size trophy regardless of where the team ends up; etc., etc. People feel entitled to things even when not earned, and they demand them. (A friend was participating in a race this past winter that was rescheduled because of weather. When she was at the expo before the first scheduled running (they went ahead and had it the original time), there were people demanding their finishers medals even though they wouldn’t be able to run the following weekend.

I don’t understand the mentality of people who demand finisher medals for races they didn’t finish. (And let’s not even go to the people who BUY medals off of EBay. I can’t even.) Why would you want it? Do you think about how it will feel when you really do earn one? As I’ve said, I’d never take one anyway because even from the beginning of my running time, but if I had, I would never be able to look at it the same way as one I truly earned when I finally finished a distance.

I know there’s debate about whether it cheapens the medals for everyone, and honestly I feel it does. Because while there are lots of people like me who would never accept a finishers medal for a race we didn’t finish, there are many, many others who gladly would and who in some cases may think along the lines of “I really want that Mickey medal, but I could never go 26.2 miles. But that’s ok, because as long as I start, I will get one anyway!” Particularly now that races are filling in record times, enforcement of only finishers receive finishers medals might help to free up spots for people who legitimately want to run the event and who respect the distance and what that finishers medal means as opposed to people who just want the medal and have figured out they just have to start. Those of us who do go the distance now sometimes feel the need to justify that we did in fact do it because others are not.

Most races, especially those with finishers medals, have some kind of souvenir for participants – a t-shirt, a bag, and/or something else. THAT is the mark that you participated. Disney does offer pins for sale at their events – maybe that could become standard as part of what everyone gets, and THAT is your participant reward.

Race directors! If you’re going to call something a finishers medal, give it only to those who legitimately finished the entire distance of the race. Stop the shuttling them to a mile or so out from the line to “finish” and then get a medal. Will people scream? Probably. Because you’ve set a precedent. And like children, the screaming will likely get worse before it gets better. But please! Let the medals truly mean something to those who finish the race and truly signify to the world “This person finished the race!” Come up with participant swag alternatives if you must, but please leave the finishers medals for the finishers!

And runners! If something happens and you can’t finish a race, learn from what happened (sometimes there’s nothing to learn – fractures happen), train smarter the next time, and earn that finishers medal. You’ll feel better about it. And yourself!


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