Medals and trophies are nice, championships are special, and acclaim is welcome — but there’s nothing like that first cash prize for placing “in the money” at a road race.
My sister Robin, a faithful reader of the blog, reminded me of this the other day when she emailed to say that she had won a $30 dollar New Balance gift certificate, and asked whether that made her a “real runner.”
“Real” runners know that it’s all about taking home the big (or little) bucks. I congratulate Robin, who began running in her 50s and is still setting PRs in her 60s for finally deciding to “go pro.”
I often tell the story of winning my first prize that had a cash value. It was in the early 1980’s, and Ann and I were newly married. I finished third in a local race and won a gift certificate to Sears that I gave to Ann, who used it to buy a cordless drill. Every time she used that drill over the next fifteen years, she remembered whence it came and encouraged me to keep training. Nothing else I’ve done in running since then has ever made such a favorable impression on her.
In his autobiography “Marathon,” Clarence DeMar tells a similar story. Early in his career, he had his first payday, winning a local handicap race and receiving a crystal tea service as his prize. Seven Boston Marathon victories and an Olympic medal later, and he still remembered how good it felt to take home something more valuable than a laurel wreath.
I think that one of the things that makes us even more covetous of these cash and merchandise prizes is that there’s an element of luck involved. One’s best performances aren’t always rewarded (those days when a bunch of fast guys show up at the local 5k), and one’s mediocre performances are sometimes good enough. I remember one stretch where I finished one place out of the prizes in three straight races. I also remember my biggest payday ever at the Yankee Homecoming 10-Miler the year that almost no one else in my age group showed up.
I have to laugh when I re-read that last sentence, and especially the phrase “my biggest payday ever.” I would have starved many times over if I had ever tried to live for more than a week on road race prizes. Maybe that’s the other thrill, imagining for a moment that you’re winning the evolutionary battle, surviving on nothing but your fitness (and a knack for finding races with weak field and rich rewards).