It is one of the strangest occurrences in adult athletics. If one stopped to think about it, maybe it’s actually a bit insulting and condescending. We do it with our young children’s baseball teams and cheerleading squads. It’s done so everyone feels good and comes away a winner. It’s the celebrated PARTICIPATION TROPHY. You know the things I’m talking about. Our youths cherish those things and assign a value to them that is much greater than the monetary cost.
So, your son’s team finished 14 games out of first place. So what? They tried.
Your daughter couldn’t outswim a lead brick at the meet. Big deal. She showed some drive.
So, your forty year-old husband finished in the back of the pack in a half-marathon and got lapped by an 80 year-old diabetic who got lost on the course… twice. Hubby gets a medal!
If you have participated in, or watched, any half-marathon or marathon in the past few years, there is a good chance you noticed the hundreds or thousands of finishers get what most believe to be a well-deserved Finisher’s Medal, regardless of how fast they ran. If they beat the time cut-off, they got a medal. How is this acceptable? What are we, children? Do we really deserve a medal for simply finishing a distance race?
You’re damn right we do.
The sport of distance running is unique in several ways. Often, the number of participants outweighs the number of spectators. Not to mention, it’s difficult to follow multiple runners to see how they are doing at any given time. There are no goals scored, no baskets made, nor bases rounded. Most distance runners aren’t even trying to beat an opponent. They just… run. How strange. How anticlimactic. How cool.
Generally, Finisher’s Medals aren’t given out for races shorter than a half-marathon. It’s not that the finishers do not deserve medals; it’s more a matter of economics as those races generally cost less. At least most races give us a T-shirt version of the participation trophy and we certainly wear those.
Perhaps comparing our Trophies of Participation to the child version is not fair. Kids are happy with pretty much any cheap-looking gold or silver figure that roughly appears to be performing some athletic endeavor. Adults aren’t like that. Instead, we yell, “Pimp My Medal!“, and show off our coolest awards. You have, or will probably, do it. I sure have.
My medals from different years of the Pittsburgh Marathon have gotten nicer and nicer. Images of the city skyline and various bridges are raised above a gold background. I have others from the Marshall University Marathon where the front of the medal is the front half of a buffalo (Marshall University’s mascot is a buffalo named Marco). The back of the medallion displays a raised image of the buffalo’s rather large rear end, tail and all. It’s awesome. Kids don’t appreciate craftsmanship like that. Only mature adult runners can truly appreciate a raised buffalo butt. Right?
So why are these participation medals and trophies important to many of us? We know why it is important for the kids (although some may argue the logic). With children, we want to instill a sense of confidence and pride in participation. In a sense, they understand vague concepts of accomplishment and failure, but can’t fully grasp the gravity of such things on the human psyche. Every building brick of confidence is important in a child’s development.
As adults, we understand all too well how we tend to measure our lives in terms of our successes and failures. We are old enough to understand winning first place is not always realistic. Individuals are designed differently and have certain biological advantages. I could train 12 hours a day for the next five years and never, ever be able to run a distance race like Ryan Hall or Meb Keflezighi. Not only am I a much larger person (they are each under 6 feet tall and weigh as much as a helium balloon, without the balloon part), but their bodies convert oxygen to energy in superhuman ways. Almost none of us will be Olympic swimmers. We won’t play professional baseball (I’m still available. Are you listening Reds?). As adults, we understand human limitations and simply try to push ourselves to our personal limits.
All of us understand the pressures of juggling work responsibilities with the needs of our families. We understand money isn’t everything – but it is certainly something; people are not perfect; our heroes fall; our best efforts are not always enough; our worst efforts are sometimes better than we think; we find love; loved ones sometimes leave us; our favorite TV shows get canceled; and in hindsight, the book that shaped us in college was actually pretty dumb. We know heartache and joy, gain and loss, triumph and tragedy. The journey is incredible and different for each of us.
Life is the ultimate distance race. If we choose to symbolize that mountainous journey by grinding out mile after mile on unforgiving dirt paths or hard city streets, then give us that damn medal. Participation is enough. We earned that trophy.
J.J. Hensley is an avid runner and the author of the critically-acclaimed novel RESOLVE, which is a mystery involving a marathon. He has multiple Finisher’s Medals and one 5K second-place age group medal that he won because a freak snowstorm scared most of the runners away and he was too stubborn (or too dumb) to go home.
Resolve is available on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and several other outlets.