Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 28 Mar 2003 08:29:41 -0500

Just Rewards


(Rerun from March 1999 RC)

Ask runners why they choose to enter a particular race, and type of awards will appear far down the list of reasons. Or at least this isn't a big concern to any but the elite who compete for monetary prizes. Most of us look first at the location and tradition of the event, size of the field and speed of the course.

But if awards don't rank high among the reasons to run a race, they stand at or near the top among ways to remember it. While writing today, I wear a shirt from the Royal Victoria Marathon.

Near my desk hangs a medal from the George Sheehan Classic of 1994. In a box across the room sits a collection of race prizes, including a seashell necklace draped over my head at the 1992 Honolulu Marathon.

And, oh yes, upstairs in a drawer sit more T-shirts than I can count. I give old ones away when the drawer overflows, but their number is still impressive.

Each shirt represents a race completed. The harder the race, the longer I keep the shirt that recalls this effort. Marathon shirts are always the last to go.

The T-shirt has come to be the most common way to reward runners in the U.S. Often it is the only way. I don't recall exactly when this tradition started, but do know that it is unlikely ever to end.

A few runners complain that they already own too many T-shirts and don't need to pay for another. A few races offer a reduced entry fee for runners who don't choose to take a shirt.

But the vast majority of American races award these shirts because runners demand them. The shirt is the runner's way of saying during later training runs or trips to the grocery story, "Look what I accomplished." Race sponsors like the shirts too because they're a highly visible and long-lasting form of advertising.

So the T-shirt is here to stay. But the more creative events practice variations on this theme. Some step away from the usual short-sleeved shirt by offering long sleeves or singlets, or occasionally even a sweatshirt for winter running.

Some shirts become works of art. Runner's World conducts a yearly contest for the best T-shirt designs. Runners have been known to sew their favorite shirts together to make quilts.

Few races dare operate without shirts. However, many also give additional awards.

The Hospital Hill Run in Kansas City hands out running shorts. The Honolulu Marathon presents its shell necklaces or pottery medals. The Okanagan International race awards half a medal to its half-marathoners.

Most events give some type of medal or certificate to all finishers. A cherished medal of mine is the one from the Sheehan Classic, with a likeness of the late doctor-writer on one side and a saying of his on the other. I also have special fondness for the certificate from my first marathon, Boston 1967.

These awards come with the runners' entry fees. Other mementos may be purchased at race expos.

These range from jackets and hats, to drinking mugs, to personal photos along the course or at the finish. They all help keep memories of the race alive. But souvenirs that can be bought never quite match the value of prizes that must be earned.

UPDATE. This morning I ran in the tattered long-sleeved shirt earned at the 2000 Napa Valley Marathon. Yesterday I wore the sweatshirt from my most recent race, Royal Victoria '03.

The only medal now hanging in my office is the one mentioned in this column, from the first George Sheehan memorial race. Inscribed on one side are his words, "Winning is never having to say I quit."


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