If you have ever won a trophy for any reason, you know the feeling of success in having earned recognition for your efforts.
I don’t remember my first trophy, but it might have been for winning a prestigious youth league baseball championship in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was the type of baseball league where you really learned how to play the game. Sliding practice. Fundamentals. Major League rules. And it was fun. But it was work, too.
In the Lancaster New Era tournament we won the first game 26-0. At one point the coach put me in the lineup and said, in all kindness, “I’ll never ask you to do this again. But please try to strike out.”
I swung up at the ball that way you should not, and accidentally cracked a double up the middle. Standing on second base, I looked in at the coach and shrugged. Sometimes when you try to lose, you still win.
I got to pitch in the second game, which was a pretty big honor considering I was one of the younger kids on the team. Then we won the championship game and headed to the Dairy Whatever for ice cream. I ordered both a cone and a shake because Coach said we could, only to hear one of my fellow players say, under his breath; “He didn’t even do anything to help us win.”
Hello! I pitched four innings out of six in the second game, which we won by a score of 8-6 or something like that. The anger I felt at the insult fueled many another triumph over the years. It’s funny how much a small comment can drive the human mind.
I suppose the trophy for that championship is sitting up on a shelf somewhere with a few of the others. Most of them are running trophies. I was lucky enough and worked hard enough to win a few races over the years.
Not so consolation prizes
Yet toward the end of my serious racing career in my late 20s, I entered a road race and won my age group, but did not place in the Top 3 overall. Given that the awards ceremony was not scheduled to be held for another 2 hours for some strange reason, I went home.
That afternoon a local competitor showed up on my doorstep with my age group trophy and a lecture. “You’re bad for the sport. You don’t show any respect for other runners when you don’t pick up your trophy.”
I’ll admit I was pissed off about not placing high enough overall to earn a “real” trophy rather than an age-group consolation. At the time I was a bit of a prick about my achievements, for better or worse. I did not really care about the age group trophy. When you are accustomed to winning races, the redundancy means little.
Trophies and meaning
But the incident made me wonder if trophies really mean anything at all. I have not won a trophy for running in years (just a ribbon last year for finishing a 3 mile cross country run in 21:00) and have never won a cycling race or placed high enough in a criterium (staying with the bunch sprint doesn’t count for much…) to get a trophy or even a six pack of beer as a premium.
My collection of trophies sits on a shelf high above my art studio. They don’t even collect much dust because it all falls downhill.
At least one that matters
There is one “trophy” I keep out in sight. It is a plaque, really, with two silver medals inside a plastic case. That trophy was for placing second place as a team in the Division III national meet. That trophy means a lot because it represents a whole bunch of different facets of training, mental preparation and teamwork coming together.
Softball and other arenas
Since then there have been a few other “trophies” along the way for accomplishments in business and civic activities. The human race motors along on a tide of effort and recognition. Our trophies mark past accomplishments and ostensibly, motivate future efforts.
But I think about what one player from the opposite team said when our softball team had won the league championship for the 7th straight year. We were purposefully a ragtag team without uniforms. Half the team was former college players and several had 90 mph arms at one time. So we were tough to beat, and it was a fun way to spend Sunday afternoons, denying advancing age.
The trophy was a small baseball glove facing upward, like it was set to catch something falling from heaven. As each player stepped up to get his trophy, one of the opposing players joked, “Congratulations. That’ll be good at collecting dust over the years,” he laughed.
And he was right. It has. Yet what I remember from that game was the last out, because I got to make it. The sky was gunmetal gray because the season had been delayed several weeks into September due to late summer rains. The popup rose high into the sky and I centered myself under the tail end of its arc. The white ball shone like a bright stone against the clouds. It grew bigger as it fell and my teammates yelled “two hands!” and “clutch it” as it dropped from the sky.
There are similar memories from running trophies, if I pick them up and look at them. The Run for the Money was my breakout race in road running, bursting through the 32:00 mark for 10K on a course the locals said was a little long.
The vicarious effect
The 3rd place trophy for a 25K I ran in 1:25 reminds me of the fact that I got to escort Bill Rodgers around that day. I knew the race director who lent me a Volkswagon to pick Bill up at his hotel. He opened the door in his underwear and laughed, “Is it time to go already?”
We drove up to the race and people flocked to the car, seeking autographs and advice. One runner leaned in the window and said, “Bill, what advice do you have for a 4-hour marathoner?”
Rodgers eyes went wide and he said, “You can run for 4 hours?
I got so inspired hanging out with Rodgers that I decided to jump into the race at the last minute. This despite the fact that I had trained 15 miles at 6:00 pace on Thursday, and ran a 10 miler again at 6:00 pace on Friday. I was so fit that it would have been a great weekend to run a marathon had I put one on the schedule.
So I ran. And the race went great. I placed third and got a trophy. But at 14 miles something went “twinge” in my hamstring and following the race, back in the company of Bill Rodgers, it was hard to mask my growing concern about the possibility of injury. He could read my body language and my mood, astutely noting that throwing a race onto the schedule at the last minute can be risky.
Lessons from a master
He had cancelled his own racing effort that day due to general fatigue. In fact he’d lent me his actual big number and during the race people cheered me on, think I was the great Bill Rodgers himself.
Like he’d have finished in third place against a bunch of locals. Or cared about the trophy that came with that place.
One can only imagine what the trophy case of a Bill Rodgers might look like. Or a Galen Rupp. Or whoever. Yet, it’s true. Olympic Medals and New York Marathon trophies (Rodgers won 4 times) gather dust just like the rest of the trophies in the world. So they must mean something else, other than being symbols of triumph.
But we can imagine what the work it takes to get to that level and stay there is really like. All our efforts feel the same, even if we do not run the same speed. While Rodgers once labelled the pace of slower runners “graceless striving” he later amended that take in having seen how much significance people place on the doing, rather than the awards.
And that, if anything, is what trophies really represent. But most of them are invisible, except to our own discerning minds. Whether you run or ride, may you have the good fortune to earn a few trophies of your own in 2013.