Race medals are a year-round endeavor for running events

Alex Morris awards medals to a 2017 Clarendon Day 5k/10k double finisher. Photo: Charlie Ban

Bling on the Brain

A race medal is a symbol of achievement; a shiny token signifying a goal achieved. While these medals seem like a small part of an event, race teams put a lot of thought into them — everything from shape, design and ribbon color — to drive home the theme of the race and its significance in runners’ lives.

The Parks Half Marathon uses its medal as a marketing and branding opportunity, said Race Director Don Shulman. The Montgomery County race is often the first half marathon for a lot of its participants, so Shulman said the medal is vital because of the pride finishers have for it.

“It’s a prize — running 13 miles is not always easy — it’s a great reminder of the day and I really believe it’s a great reward for a task completed and several months of training and hard work,” Shulman said.

The race, set for Sept. 8 this year, debuted the design for its medal in June. The theme this year was derived after a soggy 2018 race.

“Last year it rained the entire race, so this year we wanted a sunrise and sunshine agenda behind it,” Shulman said of the 2019 medal design, which features a rainbow in the background.

Theme is crucial for Ragnar Relay Series‘ medals, too. The relay races — with more than 40 races worldwide, including one in D.C. in September — have multi-functional finisher medals that signify the bond its teammates share, said Kelsey Wardwell, creative director at Ragnar Relays.

Ragnar’s road race medals have a built-in bottle opener so participants can “crack open a celebratory drink at the end of the race,” Wardwell said. On top of that, each medal turns into a puzzle piece that connects with teammates’ medals.

The Parks Half Marathon’s previous medals

“We want to drive home the message that it takes a group of people to do Ragnar,” Wardwell said. “We try to create a sense of community and togetherness with medals.”

Not to mention that posting the team’s complete Ragnar medal puzzle on a social media is seemingly a must-do — another testament to the marketing value of medals, she said.

Ragnar’s trail medals are arguably more functional than flashy: a multi tool including a wrench, screwdriver and a spork.

Ragnar even upped the ante on the medal front with additional specialized medals given to those who run the most difficult legs of the relays. Also, for those who compete in more than one Ragnar race in a year, the series offers additional medals that connect to honor the feat.

For the Ragnar design team, no idea is too crazy when it comes to the medals. The design process starts early so the team can go through its “crazy ideas and narrow it down,” Wardwell said. Then the team employs North 40, an agency based in Denver and they work with factories and to make the roughly 120,870 medals needed for Ragnar’s races annually.

Conjoined Ragnar Relay medals

For the Parks Half Marathon, Ashworth Medals collaborates with Shulman on the design — they bounce around a few different ideas and narrow it down. Ashworth then manufactures the more than 2,000 medals needed for race day. 

Almost as soon as the race is over, Shulman starts the planning process for the next year’s medals. Around November he will begin working on the following year’s medal design.

“For 2020, we may look at a silver finish because we have already done black; cobalt blue is a popular color with medals. We don’t copy anyone else’s look,” he said. “In looking at it, it’s beginning a thought process — ‘Gee I’d like to go with polished silver this year. If we didn’t go with round medal, what do we have?'”

One challenge is remaining consistent to the brand, but changing up the look of the medal each year — a priority for Shulman. For example, the word “Parks” is prominent in the same font every year, but Shulman said he always wants the look to be “fun and different” every year.

In the past, Parks’ medals have been a corkscrews and the colors of Maryland’s state flag.

“I like to have something meaningful and representative and a story behind it,” Shulman said.

Keeping the medal fresh for Ragnar runners year after year can be as tough as a multi-day relay race, Wardwell said.

“That is the hardest part of my job — we kind of throw everything at the wall and no idea is a bad idea,” she said. “We look at different materials and moving pieces and come up with as many options as we can and then narrow it down from there.”

Medals’ importance 

Parks hasn’t always given out medals. The race began medal distribution in 2014 — Shulman attributes that decision to the changing running landscape.

“Years ago, running was a very elite activity and now runners are not that way … people run for different reasons,” he said. “The runner profile has expanded a lot.”

When the runner profile changed, Shulman said he found more people wanted a token of their achievement. And the cost was worth it to him, too. The 2019 medal costs $3.26 a piece, plus shipping.

“Medals are really [an] insignificant [cost] — they are not a lot of money and they drive a lot of value from the running perspective,” he said.

Costs can vary based on the type of medal, how many are ordered, the ribbon and many other variables.

One downside to going medal crazy is that races can have leftover medals at the end. However, Ragnar and Parks Half Marathon have a plan to make the most out of leftover medals.

Shulman said most years he has a few dozen medals left over from Parks Half Marathon, and those that are not used can be sent back so the manufacturer can use the metal. The race is refunded on what can be reused. Ragnar melts the medals and recycles them every year “so nothing goes to waste,” Wardwell said.

Also, Parks works with an organization called 22 Too Many, a non-profit organization that honors veterans and active duty military who have died by suicide or due to a post-traumatic stress-related tragedy. Through 22 Too Many, participants can run Parks Half Marathon in honor of a member of the military; Parks provides a finisher medal to the family of the fallen soldier.

In the end, medals can mean different things to people depending on why they run a race, Wardwell said.

“People run [Ragnar] for so many reasons. Some do it because they love running, some want to do something competitive, for some it’s a life journey or huge life goal and Ragnar is one of their bucket list items,” Wardwell said. “We hear so many stories from people and why they choose Ragnar and we are so happy we can mean so much to so many different people, and we are glad medals are a symbol of that achievement.”

Medals are mementos — points of pride that have the power to transport runners to a powerful moment in their lives, Shulman said.

“They can hang it up and keep it visible as a reminder of the accomplishment and the fun they had along the way,” he said. “Part of the memory is who you ran with and the fun you had, so use it to represent that and the accomplishment.”


The Parks Half Marathon’s 2019 medal

Celebrate Running: Katz’s Poäng

What started as an innocent IKEA chair purchase in 2014 has turned into quite the display of race medals for Mike Katz of D.C.

His springy bentwood Poäng, which he pronounces POE-ayng, is adorned with 32 pieces of hardware from marathons, half marathons, relays, ten milers, and more. He layers them on with the completion of each race, hoping (with mixed success) they stay in chronological order.

His favorite? The 2014 Rock ‘n’ Roll USA (now Rock ‘n’ Roll DC) Half Marathon medal has good aesthetics and was the first medal he draped onto the Poäng while unpacking in an otherwise unfurnished apartment in 2014.

Another notable design includes the 2015 Parks Half Marathon medal featuring a wine stopper welded onto the bottom.

His memento from the 2016 Santa Barbara Veterans Day Half Marathon is a round aluminum pendant that a friend hung on a candy necklace with “Good Job Running Boy” written on it in Sharpie.

The Poäng makes an appearance on Katz’s social media accounts from time to time, captioned with some variation of “Another medal for the Poäng!” and the occasional race report.

“I’m gonna need a new medal chair soon if I keep making these terrible choices,” he wrote in 2015.

If it gets to that point, he has his sights set on the children’s version of the Poäng as a contingency.


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