My triathlon life has been a series of cascading tragedies that finally culminated in a horrific realization a few weeks ago. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. I’ll start at the beginning.
When I was in grade 5 (some context for my non-Canadian readers: grade 5 in Canada is equivalent to “Year 8” in the UK and “9th grade” in the US, except Texas where it is equivalent to “MBA”) I competed in an IronKids triathlon. It was a good experience, but I didn’t do another triathlon for almost 20 years, so it couldn’t have been that great.
When I finished the race John Stanton (the patriarch of Canadian Running) donned me with a shiny new finisher’s medal, which seemed pretty cool at the time. So cool that I figured I would bring it to school on Monday to show my friends.
I’m sure that I had grand illusions of the girls swooning at the sight of this metallurgical representation of my athletic prowess, while the boys hung back, pretending not to be impressed and failing to conceal their intense jealousy.
Fast forward to Monday morning and I’m waiting for the school bus. A girl a few years older than me notices the medal:
Her: “What the medal for?”
Me: “I did a triathlon on the weekend.”
Her: “Did you win?”
Her: “So what’s the medal for?”
Me: “It’s like, just like a… like, you know… a finisher’s medal…”
Her: “…so everybody gets one?”
Her: “Coooooool…” [This was accompanied by a vintage early-90s eye-roll.]
I was crushed, but also thankful, because she was right. And if she hadn’t clued me in I would have gone to school and the same scene would have played out with my friends and I my social life may never have recovered. I was left with only two options: bury the medal in the deepest depths of my backpack and never let mortal eyes see it again; or, I could use it as a prop for a much better story than the truth.
So when I got to school I took the only sensible course of action and told everyone that it was a bronze medal (it really didn’t look “gold”, so my hands were tied). I don’t remember exactly, but I probably juiced it up with some iron-war-like story that would make the final minutes of the 2008 men’s Olympic triathlon look mundane by comparison.
There is a very simple moral to this story: finisher’s medals are stupid.
They were stupid in 1993 and they are even stupider today.
Fast forward to last fall as I finish my 11th triathlon. I cross the finish line and a jovial volunteer bounds over to don me with my shitty reward. I instinctively lean back, wave my hand, and say “That’s ok” because I don’t deserve, expect, or desire a prize for finishing an Olympic triathlon in the middle of the pack. Thus began a silent stand-off where her facial expression and body language betrayed her journey through the following emotions and corresponding thoughts:
Confused: “No, you don’t understand. They’re free! Everybody gets one!”
Incredulous: “You don’t want one? What’s wrong with you?”
Introspective: “Maybe it’s me… what’s wrong with me?”
Utilitarian: “Hey, what the hell and I supposed to do with this thing?”
Angry: “Who in the hell does this guys think he is!”
This took about 2 seconds. That might not seem like much, but in my world of Canadian propriety and niceness, a 2-second awkward silence is bordering on rude, and allowing that silence to extend into the 3-second range is the Canadian equivalent of a Kiwi publicly exclaiming “I don’t like sheep!”
Desperate to end the awkwardness, and too Canadian to “make a scene”, I acquiesce. She smiles, proudly slides the medal over my head, and then reaches into her giant box of medals and bounds off to the next finisher whose “accomplishment” is even less worthy of recognition than mine. All this for a medal I wore for less than a minute and donated to my kids’ dress-up-clothes bin when I got home. And just as water always finds its way to the sea, the finisher’s medal eventually found its way to a landfill.
Though I struggled with the awkwardness of the situation at the time I found it highly amusing in hindsight. I was so amused that I decided to change my twitter profile picture to one my wife took right after that race, immediately before I took my medal off, and I changed my bio to “Collecting finisher’s medals like they’re going out of style”. I thought it was hilarious because finisher’s medals are stupid, clearly not worth collecting, and were never at any point in history “in style”.
But then a series of events occurred that lead me to a horrific, life-altering discovery.
First, I did a triathlete survey and one of the questions asked me to rank “What is most important to you when choosing a triathlon event?” and one of the options was “Goody bag / medal / t-shirt”. And I had a passing thought: “Huh, the people who made this survey think that triathletes care about the medals. Idiots!”
Then I received an e-mail from a race director trying to sell me on his race. One of his reasons for participating was “Custom Full Colour Finisher and Age Group Medals.” And it occurred to me: “Huh, the guy who organizes this race thinks that triathletes care about the medals. What an imbecile!”
Then I was on the triathlon sub-Reddit and someone posted a video of Meredith Kessler giving her New Zealand IronMan champion’s medal to some guy who missed the 17-hour cutoff by a minute. As I watched the video I was like: “Haha! That’s right Meredith! Let that poor fucker put it in the garbage for you!” But I made the first mistake of internet use and checked the comments and saw this:
- “I’d appreciate the gesture but wouldn’t want it. I didn’t earn it and would be reminded of my failure by looking at it.”
- “I suspect when you get to that level in the sport, you no longer have a medal rack on your wall showcasing every race you complete.”
- “they missed the cutoff, they shouldn’t get a medal”
And I realized that 100% of this cross section of triathletes took finisher’s medals much more seriously than I did.
Not long after this I received a direct message on twitter:
“Thanks for the follow James! I just built a cool case to display my collection of medals/bibs. Let me know if you want a copy of the plans! Looks pretty slick in the man cave!”
And BOOM, I finally understood: I was the outlier; a large majority of triathletes actually coveted finisher’s medals; a lot of people didn’t know that they were stupid; and, those people were reading my bio and thinking “cool, he likes finisher’s medals just like me”. Meanwhile the people who shared my point-of-view (aka people who don’t suck) were thinking “finisher’s medals are stupid and this guy collects them, what a douche.”
I was horrified.
As part of my extensive research for this piece I posted the question “What do you do with finisher’s medals?” to a group of triathletes. I was not surprised to see that the majority (59%) keep their medals, but I was pleased that only 14% of people are displaying them proudly. Most people (31%) had the good sense to be embarrassed of them and hang them discreetly somewhere no one will see them, with a further 14% just throwing them in a box (which is really as good as throwing them in the trash).
For those who don’t keep them the split was fairly even between people giving them away (usually to random kids) and people donating them. 10% of people cut out the middleman and throw it in the garbage themselves.
While these numbers are encouraging, it’s still true that the same Gen-X-triathletes who lament “kids these days” and mope around the water cooler commenting to no one in particular that “everyone gets a trophy” culture is somehow responsible for countless (though unspecified) ills of society are spending their evenings searching pinterest for great ideas of how to best display their finisher’s medals. The hypocrisy is nauseating.
This has been a journey of self-discovery. I told you at the start that this was a tragedy, and I am the tragic hero. Just like other tragic heroes (Oedipus, Macbeth, Willy Loman to name a few), I lived a sham-life, missing or misinterpreting hints at the truth of my existence until I finally had a grand realization. On a positive note, this experience has allowed me to identify my tragic flaw: I assume that people are as smart as I am. Trust that I will never make that mistake again.
This is the first installment of a series of articles focusing on “Important Issues in Triathlon.” Technically it is also the last installment because I have no more ideas; however, if there is an important issue you’d like to see examined with the same rigor, intelligence, and integrity that is displayed above, leave a comment and I’ll think about it.