One of the funny things about track is that you do best when you focus on yourself, but you cannot bring out the best in yourself without the aid of competition. From a young age we’re encouraged to go for the gold, and for elite athletes the lure of Olympic gold is one of the enticements that keeps them in the sport, that leads them to make enormous personal sacrifices. I’ve seen athletes on the medal stand crying tears of joy while their national anthem is being played. I’ve seen youth athletes wearing multiple medals around their necks, posing for photos that will go into family photo albums to be looked back upon fondly for years. But is it really all about the medals? Is that why we bother? Well, no, but yes.
On one level, it could be argued that chasing after medals is no different than chasing after fast times, chasing after fame and glory, chasing after money, desperately trying to cash in on your talents. The more you chase, the less your focus is on yourself, which leads you to focus more on outer things that aren’t in your control. When I was competing in the hurdles back in the day, I didn’t care about medals and I didn’t keep the few I won. I loved to hurdle and just being able to hurdle was all the award I needed. Also, I looked down upon those who would go into a meet asking the coach about how nice the awards are for the ribbons. I remember hearing teammates saying things like, “This meet only gives ribbons? Man, I don’t wanna run here,” and just rolling my eyes.
But since I’ve started running road races in the past couple years, I’ve gained a new perspective. When you run a half-marathon you receive one just for finishing. I’ve run two and I have both on my wall on my office. I didn’t set any records or even come close, so why do I keep those medals on my wall? Well for my first half-marathon, I didn’t even know I would be able to finish one. The second one, I ran about ten minutes faster than the first one. The second one I actually trained for. I lost about twenty pounds and increased my mileage to 40-50 miles per week. My goal was to run in the 7:15 range per mile, and I ended up running 7:00 per mile. I did something I didn’t know I could do. So when I look at that medal, or the bib number I wore during that race, I’m reminded of what I can accomplish when I put forth a full effort and enter into a competition with the proper mindset.
So, the medals matter not in and of themselves, but for what they represent. They symbolize a lot of hard work, as well as the process of overcoming many hurdles along the way – self-doubt, bad weather, lack of a social life, etc. It symbolizes the accomplishment of something you didn’t know you could accomplish. It stays with you for the rest of your life, when you find yourself in situations where you have to make the impossible happen. Athletic competition is most meaningful when it ascends to the realm of metaphor. When your accomplishments on the track carry over to the other aspects of your life, that’s when they mean something, that’s when they are truly of value.
© 2008 Steve McGill