The Boston Marathon’s Virtual Runners Deserve to Get Medals

By | March 6, 2021

My race medals hang on the wall above my dresser in a big clump of ribbons and matte silver. They’re among my most prized possessions, and still give me a feeling of deep satisfaction whenever I catch a glimpse of them in the morning.

Easily the most recognizable of these medals is the one I earned for finishing the 120th Boston Marathon in 2016. It’s hard to miss: the iconic silver unicorn, the pop of royal blue and yellow. That distinctive, eye-catching design is just one of the reasons the Boston Marathon medal is so iconic, and arguably the most coveted of the six world marathon majors.

More people than ever before will be eligible for a Boston medal this year, thanks in part to the BAA’s decision to grant official finisher medals to the entire “virtual” field. Those runners will cover the 26.2-mile distance wherever they happen to be, rather than in Boston where a much smaller group of select participants will run the course due to Covid restrictions.

The decision to award all runners a medal has provoked some controversy on Twitter and across various online running communities. One North Carolina runner, for instance, called the decision a “dagger through the heart,” according to the AP. “How about put an asterisk on the medal and call it even?” read another tweet.

This elitist mentality is nothing new within the marathon community, of course: Charity runners who raise money for important causes, for instance, are sometimes made to feel like they’re less deserving than runners who qualify for the race based on time. (As a “normal” runner, this is why I’ve sometimes felt embarrassed about mentioning my less-than-elite finish time around more “serious” marathoners.)

group of runners at boston finish line

Mike Darling

It’s a silly, petty, and ultimately divisive way of thinking, and it undermines the inclusiveness that otherwise makes the running community such a special one. Bickering over who belongs and who doesn’t, who should get a medal and who shouldn’t—especially after the year we’ve collectively just endured—also runs counter to the spirit of resilience and togetherness at the core of the Boston Marathon. In 2021, survival is all that matters: If a cheap hunk of metal helps someone capture that feeling in a tangible way, who are we to deny them of it?

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Race medals are personal. For some, they hold no value beyond a trinket you might absentmindedly purchase at an airport gift shop. “Running the Boston Marathon was one of the best experiences of my life. I also have no idea where my medal is,” read one tweet from Peaked Too Early, a running podcast.

For me, a medal is a reminder of the hard work, long hours on the road, and many, many aches and pains I fought through on my way to the start line. It’s also a way of immortalizing a time when I went outside with 30,000 other people I’d never met, and spent exactly 4 hours and 22 minutes achieving something remarkable.

If someone else’s medal changes how you feel about your own, then you might be running for the wrong reasons.

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