Ac occupational hazard of taking part in lots of races is that you’ll inevitably collect a lot of medals. While a handful of races offer the likes of T-shirts, mugs or glasses as prizes for finishers, most still hand out a pleasing lump of metal attached to a ribbon.
The trouble with collecting loads of medals is trying to work out what to do with them. I’ve got a handful on display – both my London and Houston Marathon medals are framed with my race numbers, and a handful of the more distinctive or memorable ones are on show around my desk – but the bulk of them are shoved somewhat unglamorously into a pot.
The vast majority of my medal collection are finisher’s medals – you get them, fairly obviously, for finishing a race. Now, that’s all very nice, but if I get the medal regardless of whether I set a PB or do my slowest race ever, the sense of accomplishment is separated from the lump of metal. It’s certainly not in keeping with how medals are dished out at top-level sporting events.
Now, of my not inconsiderable pile of bling (as I believe the kids call it), two of my medals were actually earned for performance reasons. And, curiously, I earned both of them in Texas.
The first came on New Year’s Day this year, when as part of my build-up to the Houston Marathon I competed in the Run Houston Race Series 10k event at Sam Houston Park – and promptly won the male 35-39 category.
The second came during my recent trip to Fort Worth. I was visiting in July, when the Texan weather is predictably hot – sorry, darn hot – and, as a result, not that many races take place. But after some web scouring I happened upon the Trinity 5000 Summer Series – a weekly series of 5k races held on 12 Thursday evenings during the summer.
It seemed perfect: the 7.30pm start time meant that, in theory, the intense heat should have subsided a bit, and the course was on the footpaths by the Trinity River – which meant it was pretty much flat. Having experienced Fort Worth’s surprisingly steep hills, this was a very good thing. So I signed up for one.
Now, the course was everything I’d hoped for: Fort Worth’s Trinity River trails system is utterly brilliant, creating a wonderful network of pleasant walking/running/cycling paths through the heart of the city. The section used by the Trinity 5000 events reminded me an awful lot of the paths that run alongside the River Thames near my house – albeit with a brilliant view of Fort Worth’s downtown.
The event was everything I’d hoped for too: it felt very much like a parkrun. Lots of the runners knew each other, and the organisers, and it was all very friendly and relaxed.
The weather, on the other hand, didn’t quite do what I expected. On the day of the race, the temperature in Fort Worth really built up – going some way past 100F (37.7C). And it kept on building, even into the late afternoon and early evening. According to my Garmin, which somehow keeps track of such things, it was 95F (35C) when the race started – although the heat index apparently took it over 100. At 7.30pm! It was ridiculous. Most of the Texans were struck by the evening heat – and if the locals reckon it was hot, imagine how it felt for the random British guy entered.
The organisers went out of their way to help though. There was water available before the start, and they laid out an extra water station. That meant there were two on the out-and-back course, which meant there were four opportunities to grab water in a 5k race. Now, I wouldn’t normally dream of taking a drink on a 5k race usually. On this occasion, I grabbed water on three occasions – partly to drink, and partly to throw over myself in a desperate bid to limit the heat build-up.
The problem with running in such heat is that there’s just no way to cool down. There was only the merest of breezes and even the air was just plain hot, so even aiming for shade to get out of the sun didn’t really help.
Normally, a 5k wouldn’t really faze me at all – thanks to parkrun, I do one pretty much every weekend, and it’s the minimum distance I’d class as a good training run. But in such heat, working out how best to run 5k was a really tough challenge.
For one thing, I was sweating standing around before the start, let alone when I started running. Then, once I’d started, the challenge was trying to keep up a decent pace without overheating. Because once you got too hot to function, there was basically no way back. That meant I had to apply a much greater discipline than usual, trying to control my pace to ensure I didn’t just collapse into a red-faced, sweat-covered, pasty-faced British heap in the second half of the run.
That said, the usual excitement of taking part in a race, and the desire to find a bit of clear space, meant that my first kilometre was a 3m 57s – not quite on my 5k best pace, but definitely not steady by my standards. I calmed down a bit in the second k, running a more controlled 4m 10s, and pretty much settled into that pace for the rest of the run.
The plan was to stay at that relatively steady pace (compared to my 5k PB of 19m 26s), and then try and pick up the pace in the final kilometre, if I could.
Spoiler alert: I couldn’t.
Really, I couldn’t. As the heat built up, the challenge was just to maintain my pace. I was actually surprised when, looking at my split times later, I realised I hadn’t actually slowed dramatically in the final stages.
My eventual time was 20m 51s. Not slow, but nearly 90s down on my fastest-ever 5k – and yet, it felt like a major achievement in the circumstances. Then came the bonus surprise. I hung around at the finish for a while, mostly because I was too busy sweating to do much else, and was still there when the provisional results were posted. I’d finished 12th, which was a solid effort. And I’d also finished third in the male 35-39 class. I was on the class podium.
There wasn’t actually a podium to stand on, but there were medals for the top three in each class. Which meant, for the second time, I earned a medal on merit (let’s not mention the class winner doing an incredible job to finish more than three minutes ahead of me…). And, for the second time, it came in Texas. What are the odds?
Well, actually, there’s likely a fairly simple reason – classes. Most British runs I’ve done have a very limited number of classes, and I’m usually grouped into the ‘senior’ category which spans everyone between the ages of 18 and 39. The two Texas races I’ve taken class podiums in divide the classes into five-year age groups, making my route to the podium substantially easier. Yes, I’m a sort-of Texan running pothunter.
But, well, it would be churlish to hang on that technicality too much, because, well, medals! Shiny medals!
Of course, that still doesn’t quite answer the question of where to stash the things…
A statement to file in the ‘cliche but true’ category: running is it’s own reward. Frankly, unless you’re a professional (or aspiring to be one), most runners enter events not for glory or riches, but for the warm feeling of satisfaction that comes with completing an athletic endeavour – hopefully in a Personal Best time.
Yet if running really is it’s own reward, why do the organisers of just about every paid-for race always provide some form of prize for finishers? And why is there always something thrilling about being handed your finishers’ prize.
When it comes to running prizes, the most common remains the medal. And, while it’s a long way from an Olympic gold, there is something quite nice about walking away from a run with a little bit of shiny metal hanging around your neck.
Now, you do get some medals that seem a bit basic – classic bits of metal with runners or a similar design on. They’re nice, but… a bit simple.
What’s more pleasing is completing a race which offers a far more customised, bespoke medal – it’s a nice touch that shows the effort many event organisers put in to make sure their event (and prize) stands out as a little bit special.
Sometimes that means a medal with a design that reflects the venue: a picture of a stag for the Bushy Park 10k, or a Christmas design on a festive-themed race held in late December.
Or perhaps a medal shaped like a dragon for the Wyvern 10k, reflecting the logo of Wyvern College, which hosted the race HQ (and no, the Wyvern 10k isn’t in Wales, but near Eastleigh in Hampshire).
And some medals stand out just for being big, chunky and colourful.
Yes, we like medals. Except there’s just one problem: what do you do with them after a run? Sure, they’re nice to show off, but you tend to end up with a lot of them. And unlike, say, an Olympic gold for winning a race against world-class opposition, you probably don’t want to hang a series of medals for finishing somewhere mid-pack in a race of a few hundred amateurs up on your wall. Well, you might, but if you end up entering lots of races, you can end up with a lot of medals.
My growing collection started taking up space in a rough pile on the top of a bookcase, until a visit from my Mum came up with a better solution: she bought me a jar to put them in.
Here’s the thing though: medals aren’t the only finishing prizes that are offered by races. And some of the other prizes might not be as shiny, but are far more useful. The next most common prize I’ve encountered are technical T-shirts – and, as every runner knows, you can never have too many running T-shirts.
Helpfully for me, lots of the T-shirts given away as prizes come in somewhat bright colours, which is very useful – if you’re going to run in the dark in winter you need bright colours, and as someone who doesn’t like standing out much, I’m rubbish at buying brightly coloured clothes. So getting them as prizes saves me a lot of bother. And yes, there is something quite satisfying about going out running in a T-shirt that shows other runners you’re a proper runner who’s done races and everything.
There’s also a brief nod of respect here to some of the bigger events that have multiple prizes: the Hampton Court Palace Half-Marathon I did recently offered a T-shirt and a medal – and the medal is perhaps the finest, most original I’ve received to date.
Then there are even more creative prizes. The Thames Towpath 10 is sponsored by the Fullers brewery, and so the finishing prize is a pint glass. Even as a non-drinker, it’s one of my favourite glasses. Another event gives every finisher a mug – which is strangely satisfying to reflect on every time I slurp tea from it.
What’s notable about the T-shirts, mugs and glasses I’ve been given as prizes is that I use them regularly – while the medals have ended up in a corner of my room in a pot. Is that a sign that more events should be thinking outside the medal when it comes to prizes?
Possibly, except the truth is it really doesn’t matter. Because the truth is I really don’t do it for the finishing prize. It’s a lovely gesture, and always makes the end of a race that bit more enjoyable. But, as I started by saying, the real reward of completing a race is in the running it took to do it. Any finishing prize on top of that is a nice bit of icing on a cake (a sweaty cake with aching legs, obviously).
Having said all that, I already know that, should I finish the London Marathon in two weeks or so, the medal I’ll get for doing so will instantly become one of my most prized possessions. Am I running for that medal? No, but it will be a shiny, metallic bit of proof of my achievements.
I’m running the 2016 London Marathon to raise money for the South West Children’s Heart Circle, who help care for children undergoing heart surgery in the south west of England. Any sponsorship received would go to a great cause – click the ‘Just Giving’ button for details of how to donate. Thanks!