The prize for brutalizing your body for all 140.6 miles of an Ironman triathlon is the same as what was handed out at the finish line of last weekend’s 5-kilometer mud run at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Few trinkets motivate so many weekend warriors to do as much as running’s traditional finisher medal.
“It’s a badge of honor,” said Tony Phillippi, co-director of the Tacoma City Marathon and owner of more than 200 medals. “They’re pretty special, especially when you’re just starting out.”
Most are 21/2-inches in diameter, but many are much larger. This year’s Capital City Marathon medal was 4.25-by-4.25 inches and left room for competitors to engrave their name and time. Most are colorful with designs on both sides.
And some are quite imaginative. This year’s Tacoma City Marathon medal doubled as a bottle opener, while the half marathon is well known for awarding half medals that interlock like a puzzle piece with the next year’s prize to create a whole medal. The Olympia Lakefair Run makes its medal from red alder. And the Winthrop Marathon medals are shaped like sheriff badges.
Whatever the design, race organizers have learned to not even try staging a half marathon or longer race without offering medals.
“I’ve heard from people who won’t even do a run unless there is a finisher medal,” said Nona Snell, director of the Capital City Marathon.
The Capital City Marathon and the Tacoma Narrows Half Marathon used to go together like cups and coasters.
Finish the Olympia race, get a congratulatory coaster. Finish the Tacoma race 2 12 months later and get a nice pint glass to put on that coaster.
But after hearing feedback from medal-hungry competitors, both races changed.
Capital City switched to medals that double as coasters. Tacoma Narrows gave out a four-color medal but allowed participants to pay extra for a pint glass.
“We kept hearing from people who wanted us to do medals,” Phillippi said. “Finally, we succumbed.”
So, what’s the appeal of the finisher medal?
After last weekend’s Tacoma Narrows Half Marathon, it seemed everybody was proudly wearing one except Timothy Aukshunas, the man who actually won the race.
The appeal is simple, said Paul Morrison, who serves as co-director of the Tacoma City Marathon Association with Phillippi and stages many of the South Sound’s biggest races.
“Finishing is what it’s all about,” he said.
It sometimes seems as if races are borrowing the warm and fuzzy “everybody’s a winner even if you’re dead last” approach from American youth leagues that don’t keep score then give every kid a trophy. But race organizers say that’s not really the case.
For many, just finishing is a colossal accomplishment, perhaps even the culmination of months of hard work. For others, reaching the finish line might be a given but a growing medal collection serves as motivation to keep running.
And with marathon and half marathon entry fees often $75 or more, medals are a good way for organizers to help competitors feel as if they are getting their money’s worth.
“If I’m paying $75, I better be getting a pretty cool medal and a cool shirt,” said Zach Zimmerman, an avid runner. “Even at $50, it better be pretty cool.”
While finisher medals can drive up race entry fees, organizers say most of the fees still go to staging the race. According to finishermedal.com, race officials can buy medals starting at $2.35 each for orders of 3,000 or more.
Finishing a half marathon in less than two hours is a standard weekend morning for Zimmerman, but he still enjoys receiving new medals for his collection.
“It’s part of that cool running culture,” said Zimmerman, who has run two marathons and 24 half marathons. “I might even keep it out for a day to look at before I put it away.”
While each marks an accomplishment, Zimmerman sometimes talks about the mementos as if they’re an art collection. He appreciates the more creative designs.
He says he’ll even consider certain races based on the medals. He’d like to get a Sheriff’s badge at the Winthrop Marathon or finish Grand Coulee’s race just to own a medal inscribed with “That Dam Run.”
Some runners display their favorite medals in cases or hang them on the wall. Others tuck them away in boxes while some aren’t quite sure what to do with them.
Snell used to turn them down before she started organizing Olympia’s largest race. Now she keeps them in her office to use as examples when helping design medals for the Capital City Marathon.
While finisher medals are typically a phenomenon for longer races, some shorter races are getting in on the act.
Washington’s largest race, Bloomsday, started offering medals in 2011. During registration, the more than 50,000 participants in Spokane’s 12-kilometer race can opt to pay an extra $12 for a medal.
While the race continues to strictly enforce its policy of not handing out shirts until runners cross the finish line, those who pay for medals get them before the race begins.
Race director Don Kardong says only about 1,000 participants purchase medals.
“I think they are people who only plan to run the event once and want something to remember it by,” Kardong said. “And I think we have people who got the medal once and now they want to continue their collection.”
When organizers originally considered the idea, they thought a medal seemed like overkill for a run as short as Bloomsday. They weren’t alone.
In June, Sound to Narrows race director Danette Felt was asked if Tacoma’s oldest race might consider borrowing Bloomsday’s approach.
“A medal for a 12K?” Felt said with a laugh. “We haven’t thought about it, but I think you need to at least run a half marathon for a medal.”
Kardong said his mind was changed when he talked with organizers of the Washington, D.C., Cherry Blossom Ten Mile.
“They said a lot of new runners are really into this and that they had a good response when they offered medals,” Kardong said. “I’m a runner so I might think a 12K isn’t a long way, but that is a long way for some people.”
The design of the Bloomsday medals has been pretty basic the last three races, but Kardong says he’s “looking at making them even better collectibles, more elaborate.”
Even mud runs, some of which aren’t even timed races, sometimes offer medals. July’s Warrior Dash in Bonney Lake awarded medals with its trademark Viking helmet.
But June’s Dirty Dash in McCleary didn’t award medals and doesn’t plan to follow the trend.
“We do get calls asking why we don’t offer medals,” said Dirty Dash promoter Trudy Schug. “... But the reward is in the experience.”
Even the most dedicated marathon medal collector will agree. But at the end of a race, even the best experiences can’t be hung from your neck and proudly shown off to friends.
“It’s something people can be proud of,” Phillippi said. “No matter how fast they were, they probably worked pretty hard to earn it.”Craig Hill: 253-597-8497 Craig.firstname.lastname@example.org thenewstribune.com/fitness theolympian.com/fitness @AdventureGuys