medal (n.) a small, flat piece of metal with a design or inscription stamped, made to commemorate some event or awarded for some distinguished action, merit, etc.

mettle (n.) quality of character; spirit; courage; ardor.

Those patients battling serious, often life-threatening illnesses face a much more arduous and difficult challenge than distance runners training for, say, a marathon. To reward their bravery and encourage their efforts, Indianapolis surgeon Steven Isenberg founded Medals4Mettle in 2005.

The day after finishing the Chicago Marathon, Isenberg stopped in to see a colleague who was fighting cancer. The gloom of the dark room only added to the gloom of the prognosis. Spontaneously, the doctor grabbed his marathon finisher’s medal from his briefcase and put it around the neck of his friend, later saying, “He deserved it more than me [sic].”

The emotional reaction of his friend caused Isenberg to give away more of his running medals to other seriously ill patients. Their appreciation and buoyed spirits led to the creation of Medals4Mettle. The non-profit organization gives distance running medals to those exhibiting their own mettle while battling their diseases.

With chapters of M4M in twenty-six states and several foreign countries, more than 13,000 medals have been distributing to worthy patients. Most of them have gone to children, although not exclusively. To date, M4M collects only medals from half marathons, marathons, ultras, and triathlons since they best represent the determination and courage of those combating their illnesses.

The Detroit chapter of M4M was begun by Joe Burns in April of 2009. “I started it when I read a Runner’s World article [about M4M]. Keith Hanson and Brian Sell were mentioned. I talked to them and Brian said, ‘It’s a great organization, a great program. If you’re interested in getting a chapter started, I can help out.’” Burns then added, “If a guy in the Olympics is willing to help, why not?”

He explained why, so far, only medals from the longer distances are accepted by M4M. “Training for a marathon takes five or six months. When a child is really sick, it takes a long while to get healthy. We’re running marathons with our feet. They’re running marathons from their beds.”

Burns had other motivation, too. His daughter, Carrie, is a good runner, with several marathons under her belt. But when she was in the 4th grade, she contracted the E. coli bacteria, a severe case. “We almost lost her,” recalled. “I now think how cool it would have been to have something like this [M4M] back then.”

He enthused, “We’ve had a lot of success. A lot of people have chipped in and helped out. And I’ve been at some expos.” He’s set up booths at several race expos, including the Brooksie, Free Press, Volkslaufe, and Dexter-Ann Arbor, and hopes to expand on that.
“We’ve distributed well over 600 medals so far. And I have about 200 more medals that I have to get ribbons for.” The medals’ original ribbons are replaced with “M4M charity ribbons, real nice silk ones.”

Following the lead of the other chapters, Burns has so far distributed most of the medals to children. He has visited Children’s Hospital in Detroit, the Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Royal Oak Beaumont Hospital’s Children’s Center, and the Miracle Network. And he has more visits planned.

“It’s really fun to go into a room with maybe 40 medals, tinkling like wind chimes, and watching the kids smile from ear to ear. Some of them put them [the medals] around their necks. Some put them on their IV poles like bling. It’s fun to see the parents react, too, when they see their kids light up. It makes it all worthwhile.”

But it’s not all kids. At the recent Run Thru Hell on Halloween, “I gave one to Dolores Hensley, this big heart-shaped medal.” She, too, beamed—like a kid.

No doubt it’s difficult for some runners to part with their medals, especially those earned after running a marathon and the grueling training leading up to the big race. But that’s the point. Giving up something so personal and so well-deserved makes the act more special, to both donor and donee.

Yet the running community is responding. Many of the running stores serve as “drop offs,” said Burns. He cited “the Hansons’ stores, Runnin’ Gear, and Running Fit, especially Tracy Cohen in Novi.” Running clubs have got into the act, too. “Ron Papke at the Chrysler Running Club has put the word out and I’ve got almost 70 medals from that club alone.” He mentioned the Stony Creek Running Club and the Infinite Triathlon Club. “They ask everyone at their meetings to drop in medals and cash at their club functions.” The money is needed to purchase the silk ribbons which cost almost $5 each. “One gal heard of my chapter on Facebook and sent me 18 Disney medals.” At Children’s Hospital in Detroit, several Detroit Lions players, including Roary the Lion, came to help pass out the hardware.

Burns and M4M are still looking for more medals and cash donations. You can drop them off at the above running stores. Burns has a M4M page on Facebook.

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