The Planet Wave: We Aren’t All Winners
by Bob "Wish" Wischnia on August 12, 2011
I like to race and I like to race a lot. In a good year, I’ll run 20-25 races all the way from road miles through the marathon. I haven’t actually won a race since high school, but I’ve been very lucky to have the chance to run in races all over the world from the Antarctic to the big-city marathons in world capitals to funky, little races like the Luling (Texas) Watermelon Thump 5-K.
Still, there’s nothing like running a race in the ancestral home of running: Boston. Usually, that means the marathon but I wasn’t ready for it this year. Fortunately, the day before the marathon, there’s the B.A.A. 5-K which starts and finishes smack dab on the Boston Marathon finish line on Boylston Street in the heart of Copley Square.
Even though this was only the second year the race was held, it’s a great 5-K with a world-class field. This year such former Boston winners as Bill Rodgers, Greg Meyer, Amby Burfoot, Joan Samuelson and Uta Pippig lined up with the 5000 or so other runners for the run around the Massachusetts State House and then back to the downtown finish.
After crossing the finish line, I was met by the usual swarm of helpful race volunteers, offering water and orange slices. But I was also greeted by a volunteer who immediately hung a beautiful medal around my neck.
I was stunned.
A medal? At first, I couldn’t quite grasp what I had done that deserved a medal. After all, I hadn’t won the race (only in my dreams) or even my age group (again, just in my dreams), but here I was being awarded a medal just like every other single one of the 5000 participants.
Then, it dawned on me, merely finishing a 3.1-mile race is enough these days to warrant a medal. When that realization hit, I quickly took it off out of a sense of propriety (my own).
Maybe—just maybe—I’m an old fogey who clings to the belief that you actually have to accomplish something in a race other than merely participating to deserve an award. To me, a medal is emblematic of some sort of racing success, rather than simply being able to remain upright for five kilometers.
I can understand receiving a medal for finishing a marathon (every marathon does that these days). I’ve run somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 marathons and anyone—regardless of how fast or slow—who can complete 26.2 miles deserves a special pat on the back that a medal represents. But a 5-K?
The thing is not everyone is a winner. Sorry. A handful of runners can actually win a race and they should be recognized as such. Finishing a race is a major accomplishment for many folks, but it doesn’t also make us a winner either.
I’m swimming against the tide here. But to me, that type of mindset is somehow symbolic of our ever-changing times. That was brought home and smacked me in the face a few years ago when I coached a girls soccer team. Despite my coaching, the girls did just fine and finished the season in the top half of the league standings. Nothing great, but commendable.
The night before the season-ending pizza party, a concerned mom called to ask me whether the trophies I was supposedly getting for all the girls were individually engraved or not.
“The trophies everyone gets for playing.”
“But, we didn’t win anything,” I protested.
Clearly, that wasn’t the point. As I was soon to learn, everybody is a winner in girls soccer. Whether you actually win something is immaterial.
But not to me.
I clung to my belief that it’s just as important to learn how to win as it is to learn how to lose gracefully. (I wasn’t asked to return as coach.)
Winning is a big deal or we wouldn’t keep score or have clocks at races. Winners cross the line first, and everyone else gets to figure how to get better, fitter and faster.
If you need a medal just because you finished, go buy one.