In every field, there is a “currency” – a method by which we and our peers can assess our level of achievement. The word currency comes from Middle English: “curraunt”, meaning “in circulation”, in the most specific use of the word, it refers to money in any form when in actual use or circulation is used as a medium of exchange. I like this definition because the key elements in defining currency are 1.) being in circulation and 2.) being a medium of exchange – something of value to the users.
Let’s start with the first element of currency, being in circulation. This may in fact be the most important part of the definition for us as humans. We always want to be in circulation. We want to be on the road, in the game, at the table, and we want to be relevant. We as humans are terrified of becoming irrelevant and removed from circulation.
As for the second element of currency, a medium of exchange, in every walk of life, there is a currency by which we as a collective field, profession, and human race, assess achievement or value to ourselves and our communities. As a scientist, our currency is often papers published, grant funding obtained, patents submitted, and in some cases tenure achieved. As runners, our form of currency is typically PR’s (personal records), the ubiquitous Strava data, and “bling”.
“Bling” is the shiny medals, pint glasses, kitsch, and the most coveted bling, the belt buckle that accompanies the completion of a race and is tangible symbol of achievement in our community. In an ever growing competition for our race registration dollars, races from 5K’s to 100 milers (or more) often give out bling of epic proportions to attract prospective runners. Some races are giving our medals of dinner platter dimension and topping out at greater than 3 lbs. That’s a veritable albatross to carry after a long and grueling run.
For ultra runners, the greatest currency is the belt buckle. But of course, no one is quite sure when the belt buckle should be awarded. I have heard from some members of the ultra community that a belt buckle is the highest level of achievement and should only be awarded to runners who have mastered (or suffered) the 100 mile plus distance. Others maintain 50 miles of suffering is sufficient to warrant a belt buckle. However, one thing that most ultra runners will agree upon is that belt buckles should never be given for anything less than 50 miles as that seemingly “cheapens” the awarding of a belt buckle because it is no longer special at shorter distances. I have earned a belt buckle at distances ranging from a 50 K (see picture above from the Arctic Frog 50 K) to a 100 miler. I also earned one after completing 5 marathons in 5 days. I never felt I hadn’t earned it when I was presented with the belt buckle.
This issue of awarding belt buckles for certain distances or considering giving participation medals to race finishers (of any distance) is all one and the same; should we reserve our currency for only those runners who prove that can suffer the most or run the furthest? It is a fine line between recognizing achievement in our field without becoming elitist. I think at the end of the day, it comes down to each of us in how we choose to view our bling. I have run a lot of races and have a lot of bling. And in all honesty, when I look at 5 K participation medals and 100 mile belt buckles, I see the same thing, a memory. A wonderful memory of a struggle, a challenge, fellowship with my running tribe, and the thrill of a finish. I have run 5 K’s at paces well beyond my normal ability and wanted to lose my cookies at the finish. Is that somehow less suffering or achievement than crawling to a finish of a 100 mile race? Maybe. But not to me. If I give all of my talent and effort to a race, I have achieved and do not mind if the Race Director wants to give me a token to remember that effort. That being said, I am far more grumpy with a medal when I have run poorly and not given my best effort, because then I am stuck with a memory of weakness and perceived failure.
I think that ultimately, it all washes out. The most determined people who seek the toughest races and will be granted medals, buckles, or the coveted Croix de Barque as merited by their effort. And the community knows the hardest races and will appreciate the struggle and the accompanying bling.
As for the rest of us mortals, maybe the currency is not the bling or the buckle, maybe it is the memory. The memory that reminds us that we are in circulation. That we sped down the trails (or roads) with reckless abandon and felt truly alive. That we ran with our tribe (or herd) and struggled together and found value in a hard earned finish and a cold pint of beer (or chocolate milk) at the finish. That in the end, we enjoyed fellowship and told stories about other races and running foolishness and that we held value to ourselves and our peers by simply showing up and giving our best effort to drive competition and excellence. That we did not squander the gift that is running. That most definitely is a currency of immeasurable value.