What do you want, a medal? : Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 36

A little something for the effort, you know?

Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Southern storytelling/sports/culture/food offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. Thanks for reading, and if you’re new around here, why not subscribe? It’s free and all.

So I just got back from a day in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and a stop at the Democratic People’s Republic of Buc-ee’s. (Actual motto: “Where the beaver never sleeps.”) That’s as Southern (and Texan) as it gets. When I arrived home, I found in my mailbox a little totem that’ll remind me of this era long after masks become retro chic: another running medal.

This time a year ago, I was getting ready to run in a half-marathon in Nashville. Half-marathons — 13.1 miles — are the perfect distance for aged marathoners like me: short enough that you don’t have to dedicate one entire day a week for four months to distance training, long enough that finishing it feels like an actual achievement.

Well, you know what happened next. That 2020 Nashville Half-Marathon was pushed to November, then to April 2021 (surely we’ll be done with the pandemic by then, we laughed), and now to an undetermined date in fall 2021 dependent on the Tennessee Titans’ schedule. (The race starts and ends at the Titans’ stadium, and we have to run more than 200 yards, unlike Derrick Henry, that slacker.)

Anyway, during the pandemic I’ve gotten more into running (and, on occasion, knee-saving walking) as a way to get rid of, you know, the ol’ covid 19-around-the-waist. But since I am not a military-disciplined fitness-bot, I need something to keep me going besides just “it staves off death.” That something: medals.

Back in the olden days, when we’d have to sidestep dinosaur crap on our long runs, you only got medals if you finished a full 26-mile marathon (I did that a few times) or finished in the top three of most races (I, uh, did not do that).

Somewhere along the line, though, race organizers twigged to the fact that there are a whole lot more people like me than the fitness-is-its-own-reward automatons. So medals started showing up for all distances and all kinds of races. I’ve gathered a nice collection of medals through the years, some of which are large enough to hurt someone, and a couple of which — at races sponsored by beer companies — double as excellent bottle openers.

The quarantine only kicked the medal craze into orbit. Race promoters, unable to hold live events, pivoted to virtual ones, with rewards available for weekly and monthly distances. Disney’s got a bunch, and so does the “Rock N’ Roll” virtual running club, which put on some of the best live races in the country back when that was possible. Right now, I’m working my way through races created by The Conqueror running club, which offers up medals like these:

Damn, son! Look at those creations! That’s a long way from the stamped-tin-and-Christmas-ribbon crap I used to get. Tied to specific geographical routes, they range from the English Channel (21 miles, the one I just completed) all the way up to the Pacific Coast Trail (2,485 miles, or three miles a day for more than two years).

What is it about these little trinkets that gets so many people so hyped? In many cases, you’re not even tracked for your mileage; you’re on your own to do the distance, so you’re basically buying a medal for 30 bucks. (Of course, if you decide to cheat your way through a virtual challenge with literally no stakes and nobody else watching, that’s a conversation you might want to have with your deity of choice.)

The value of the medal isn’t tied to cost, of course, any more than the value of an Olympic medal is the $500 or so worth of gold in an Olympic gold medal (or the $5 worth of slag in a bronze) or the couple hundred bucks’ worth of cloth in a green jacket. It’s representative of an achievement, a tangible item you can hold in your hand and say, I did this. It kicked my ass and I am sore and want to sit on the couch and eat Krispy Kremes for awhile, but I did this.

Yes, they’re basically participation trophies, and I know that’s one of the hot-button fire-up-the-base grenades in the ongoing culture wars. But like most of those grenades, gripes about participation trophies are all pointless, distracting flash. There’s nothing implicitly wrong with participation trophies — “participation” being the key word, it means you got off your ass and at least did something — as long as there are bigger and better trophies for the people who win. Nothing wrong at all with offering up, as the prophet Carl Spackler once put it, a little something for the effort.

“Effort” is the hinge point. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t quite get “King Lear” written during quarantine. I’ve gotten a little better at guitar, I’ve read dozens of good books, I’ve caught up on most of my Netflix queue. But mostly, I’ve rededicated myself to the basic discipline of effort. One foot in front of the other. One day just a wee bit better than the one before. One moment of appreciation after another.

Do I deserve a medal for that? Hell no. But I’ll take one anyway. And you should too.

Be good, stay safe and we’ll catch you back here next week.

—Jay


This has been issue #36 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party, everybody’s welcome.

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