Who decided only the runners get medals?

Guest Blogger Charlie Johnston

The idea emerged during my first trip to Beantown to run the 2009 Boston Marathon. It was only my sixth marathon, but already I was well aware that I wouldn’t have made it so far if not for the unflinching support of my mother. How could I show her my gratitude? What gesture could possibly be grand enough to embody my appreciation?

It finally came to me at the airport, moments before boarding the plane home. I overheard Mom talking to someone about the race. “A good son would give you his [Boston Marathon] medal,” the stranger said. “After everything he’s done to get that medal,” Mom replied, “you’d have to pry it from his cold dead hands.”

Everyone knows that runners get medals. You finish a long enough race and you get a shiny bauble attached to a ribbon—a symbol to the world of your accomplishment. But the victory does not belong to us runners alone. Though it is our feet that endure tens of thousands of steps and our legs that are pushed to their limits, no race would be possible without a veritable army of volunteers and supporters.

The 2011 San Francisco Marathon would not have happened if not for the nearly 1,200 volunteers who supported it—no marathon, anywhere would happen without them and others like them. Mostly representing Bay Area high schools and nonprofit organizations, those volunteers combined for about 6,000 hours of work during the two-day expo, race setup and preparation, and myriad race day responsibilities from staffing aid stations to distributing medals and bananas at the finish. Another 300-400 course marshals from various motorcycle clubs helped mark the course, kept runners safe, and cheered over the rumble of their Harleys. These volunteers worked an average shift of five hours, though according to race officials, some, especially course marshals, worked for up to 10 hours. To provide some perspective, the median finish time in the 2011 San Francisco Marathon was four hours, 26 minutes, and two second. Median finish times for the first and second half marathons were about two hours and 20 minutes and two hours and 11 minutes, respectively.

Gratitude for the people that make our races happen and the work they do does not require gifts or grand gestures, and as much as their hard work might be deserving of bling that proclaims to the world their invaluable service to racing, volunteers don’t get medals like us runners do. Which means it is up to us. Showing our appreciation can be as simple as eye contact and a smile, a heartfelt “thank you,” patience when something goes wrong at packet pickup, or a few minutes to introduce yourself to a volunteer and ask what made them decide to give their time and how their experience has been. There is so much focus on the runners at marathons; you might just make a volunteer’s day by being kind and focusing on them for a moment.

While expo, aid station, and course volunteers are vital to runners’ racing success, we cannot overlook the friends and family who come out to support us race after race. And they don’t even get cool volunteer shirts.

Mom has attended and cheered me on in every marathon I’ve run—32 and counting after the Napa Valley Marathon this Sunday, March 4. My sister Lily (Sis) joined us in Boston in 2009 and has been at every marathon since. They spend their own money to travel alongside me, patiently cater to my obsessive and irritating pre-race habits and nerves, pour over course and city maps to find the best places to cheer during races, and wake up at ungodly hours to navigate unfamiliar cities and wait patiently in the morning cold to shout, snap photos, and ring cow bells as I run by. There is no aspect of a marathon or race weekend that is not aided by their support and companionship, and they make me a stronger, happier, and all-around better runner.

Mom didn’t give much thought to the stranger’s suggestion that she had ought to be given my first Boston Marathon medal, but she knew exactly what was in the wrapped shadow box I gave her on Mother’s Day a few weeks after the race. She started to cry even before she opened it. The small display case (in the photo above) holds my medal, bib number, and a postcard-sized photo and hangs in the hallway outside of her bedroom. She shows it to just about everyone who visits her home.

By April 2010, Sis had turned out to be every bit as supportive as Mom, and has my second Boston Marathon medal to prove it, because once in a while, it isn’t only the runners who get medals.

Who cheers for you during races? Helps you train? Watches the kids when you go for a run? Rejoices with you after a good race or pats your on the back after a tough race?


How do you show them how important their support is?

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