I often volunteer at local running and triathlon events. I have had almost every race volunteer job there is: registration, water stop, making endless pbj sandwiches for marathoners. You would think “handing out medals” would be simple. The two times that has been my job, I have encountered medal quandaries.
It should be simple.
- Runner or triathlete crosses finish line.
- I place medal around said athlete’s neck.
At the April 2012 triathlon I worked, an athlete approached me who had decided not to complete the race after he finished the swim portion. He had to turn in his timing chip, and I stood between him and the bin where the chips were. He said, “DNF [did not finish], can I still get my medal?” I am not sure what expression my face portrayed, but my inner dialogue was, “What would the race director tell me to do?” At an event like that, I want to be compliant with the race director’s preferences. And at a triathlon, the race director could be miles away on the bike route or otherwise inaccessible. Sensing my hesitation, the athlete angrily threw his chip in the bin and huffed away.
The other time my job was medal hander-outer, I also had an athlete who had not broken a sweat that day ask for her medal. She was pregnant, so she had deferred her entry to the following year, but still wanted her medal. Again, I told her I needed to consult with the race director. I think between the time I asked the race director and could respond to her, she had convinced another volunteer to give her the medal.
Getting back to the giving out of medals in general, the vast majority of athletes at races accept the medals that are given out as rewards.
The day I worked the triathlon, several people matter of factly declined the medals that were offered to them as rewards for finishing. Whatever led them to make that choice, they must have felt “complete” solely for finishing such a grueling endeavor.
I guess it’s splitting hairs in a way to question the honesty factor of owning a medal for a race you didn’t compete. I guess it’s not any different (to some people’s way of thinking) than wearing a race shirt for a distance you could not have possibly completed (case in point: me wearing the Tallahassee Marathon shirt I was given as a “volunteer reward”).
But I always walked away from the interactions where someone wanted a medal for a race they didn’t complete feeling conflicted. Sure, they had “paid” for it with their registration fee. The monetary value of the medals is probably nominal compared to their emotional value.
And I doubt the athletes planned to parade around in these medals, proclaiming to everyone they encountered, “Congratulate me! I competed the [insert name here] Triathlon! I’m amazing!”
What I ask myself, still, after both of these interactions (and one of them happened years ago) is: what does that individual think when they look at that “finisher” medal?
When we have athletic goals, just as when we have principles in our lives to uphold, no amount of external reward will counteract the fact that we did not honestly keep our own bargain with ourselves. To do the right thing, to serve others to the best of our abilities, to do what we said we would.
As you approach your week, consider finding that incident, that conversation, that challenging moment when there is no outward reward, but the serenity of knowing you did the right thing.
“If we say something often enough, we come to believe it. We don’t usually delude others until after we have first deluded ourselves.” – David Frum
PS – While I am on the subject of Triathlons, I would like to congratulate my friend Ann Brennan on definitely, 110%, undoubtedly earning her medal at yesterday’s Beach to Battleship Ironman Triathlon in Wilmington, North Carolina. Ann has inspired me, motivated me, and (most importantly) befriended me. Congratulations, IronAnn!!
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.