The Meaning in Medals

A look at the meaning behind race medals and other mementos.

By on November 2, 2016 | Comments

Having run for the past quarter century, I’d become ambivalent to and, then, perhaps, opposed to race swag. Heck, in iRunFar’s earliest days, I wrote a piece questioning whether we really need all those medals and shirts and bags and mugs and on and on and what we could do about it. Well, two Mondays ago, I guess I had an epiphany of sorts.

On a beautiful late-October morning, I drove north out of Moab, Utah once again on my way to the Grand Junction, Colorado airport. As I glanced toward the right through my windshield at the splendor of Arches National Park, foreground motion caught my eye. I focused closer and touched the source. I was immediately filled with the sense that I could do anything. That’s the effect that the Hardrock finisher’s medal has on me.

The medal’s hung from my rearview mirror since just after I finished the race two Julys ago. Immediately upon finishing the race, I felt an awesome sense of accomplishment, and not from my time or my place or the like. No, just finishing that race felt like a huge accomplishment. It still does, even though I’ve since done it again.

What’s been percolating for the last year and a half and has just come to the surface in the past fortnight is that, for me, Hardrock represented my first major step up in terms of difficulty of race finish since running my first 100 miler, Western States in 2004 or, at the possibly, my first big mountain 100 at Wasatch in 2005. Finishing Hardrock allowed me to experience fully the sense of accomplishment that comes from successfully tackling a new race distance or race the completion of which otherwise seems more challenging.

Now, that Hardrock medal, which I see every time I get into my car, is a tangible reminder that I can work harder than I think, that I can dig deeper than I think, that I can accomplish more thank I think. And, for that, I’m thankful. And, because of that, I’m now cognizant of the meaning and the power a medal or shirt or mug can have for others. Personally, I can recollect having a similar appreciation for the wooden obelisk I received for completing my second ultra, the 71-mile Laurel Highlands Ultra in 2002. It makes me hope that my sister has a reminder of her first and only official ultra finish, the Laurel Highlands 50k, displayed somewhere and that it fills her with a sense of accomplishment. It makes me hope that others, like you maybe, can take a physical reminder of one of the moments from running that left you feeling empowered, place that item someplace you’ll see it often, and tap into that strength, that power, that spirit and use it not only to fuel your athletic endeavors, but also your endeavors in all other aspects of your life. I know I do.

So, while I do think we can and should make many race-associated items optional, I’m much more inclined to think that races should have some sort of memento available. You never know who at a race will be running her or his personal Hardrock equivalent. That could be the case whether the race is a 5k, 50k, or 500k.

Call for Comments

  • What’s your most meaningful race memento and what does it mean to you?
  • How and when does it motivate you?
Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.