Ron Marinucci, May 2014 Column: "Swag"

Ron Marinucci, May 2014 Column: "Swag"

Runners race for many reasons. They relish the competition, with others and with themselves. They like testing themselves—their bodies, their fitness, their training. They enjoy the social aspects, the camaraderie shared with others. And some like the swag.

Swag—I came across that word several times in recent weeks. Most often, it was in a running/racing context. But not always. “Swag,” I thought to myself, “is that even a real word?”

Indeed it is. My Webster’s New World Dictionary defines swag three ways, as a noun:
a swaying or buckling. a valance, garland, chain, etc. hanging decoratively in a loop or curve. stolen money or property.

“Stolen money or property?”

Another check, this time the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, confirmed this, “stolen property.” Hmmm……

Looking way down the list of definitions, though, I found a somewhat obscure meaning, “spoils; profit.” Synonyms included, “prize, catch, treasure.” Whew! That’s more like it.

For runners, swag means the free stuff or giveaways at races. These can include tee shirts (although I suppose, technically, if they come with the entry fees, without “no tee shirt” options, they aren’t free), food (I think?), and medals, trophies, plaques, and other awards. Some, such as runners Jillian Peck, Joe Burns, and Stu and Shiela Allen, refer to swag as “bling.”

And, just as runners race for different reasons, racers have different opinions about swag.

Ruth Thelen is enthusiastic about swag. “I like tee shirts, sweatshirts, gloves, and hats. Awards—I like them all!” Her “favorite item(s)” are sweatshirts.

Peggy Zeeb echoed that. “I love getting useful things like sweatshirts, if they fit!” But, she continued, “I have a couple of things that I’ve won that I have enjoyed over the years.” One of them is “a beautiful photograph of part of a race course in the fall with geese flying over. [It] is framed and in my living room. Probably my favorite prize was when I got to pick my favorite charity and they made a donation in my name.”

Regarding tee shirts, Zeeb was a bit more reserved. “I don’t very often wear cotton tee shirts and they usually don’t fit anyway. Race directors need to realize half of the people running are women and unisex tee shirts don’t fit most women right. Even if I get a small size, it hands down to my knees!” But she added, “When I ran the Ludington Half Marathon runners had a choice between tee shirts or beach towels. That was a nice change.”

Bruce Kittle, fresh from a tough half marathon he ran with his son Daniel in Washington state, chimed in, too. “I like the tee shirts, especially if it was a really enjoyable race. Every time I wear it after that, it brings back the good memories of the race…and a smile to my face.”

A couple of favorite pieces of swag (swags?) for Mike “Flagman” Bowen are “finishers’ coffee mugs from the Smoky Mountains Marathon and the long sleeve green shirt from my first Marine Corps Marathon.” He added, “I do have one medal I’m quite proud of from the 1992 Boston Marathon where I ran 2:50. It was just a rare perfect day. I ran a steady pace until I saw the Citgo sign and picked it up a bit.” Tee shirts he now gets “are given to my wife, Coach Patty.”

“My favorite ‘swag,’” said Jillian Peck, “has to be the wooden bling that I received for my first marathon on Grand Island. Dennis [her husband] ran and walked all 26.2 miles with me as a recovery run following his ankle repair. Having something hand-made from Michigan for this unique trail run was a bonus.” She also noted, “Next in line is the pottery mug given at the end of the Great Lakes Relay. Our first-time team had a blast last year and we are awaiting this year’s relay with some experience under our collective belts.”

With his tongue in his cheek, I hope, Gus La Ruffa admitted, “I always liked the medals. It was fun to hang [them] around your neck when you went out for dinner that night.”

Joe Burns confessed, “I am biased because of Medals 4 Mettle.” Burns is the head of the Detroit chapter of Medals 4 Mettle. It’s a charitable organization that gives distance running medals to people exhibiting their own mettle with fighting serious diseases and illness. “Medals are a big thing to me,” he said. He is also the race director of the Back-to-the-Beach Runs. “I try to make sure the Back-to-the-Beach medals are fun to receive, but also will bring a big smile in a hospital. So this is a big shout-out to keep making medals full of color. And continue that bling thing,” adding with a chuckle, “with things like spinner centers!”

Ian Forsyth has run “a lifetime of races.” To him, then, an “award has to be pretty cool to merit display. My favourite [He was born in Canada.], by far, is the tractor the overall winner and overall masters claim at Diemer [Brian Diemer Family of Races] each year. Fantastic!”

Also favoring something out of the ordinary is Stu Allen. “I liked the medal from Dances with Dirt last year that has a built-in bottle opener!” But he added, “I love races that offer the ‘no-shirt’ option for a lower entry fee. Hats are cool, but I have hundreds of those, too.” His wife, Shiela, though enjoys the medals, “the bling.”

Bill Benton runs daily and has every day since April 22, 1977. (Yes, he’s a streaker!) Although he hasn’t raced in almost 20 years, he offered this. “I long for the day when a race was a race and entry fees were reasonable. Most road races should be just that—a road race with a ‘shirt/no-shirt’ option.” He qualified that with, “Events like Race for the Cure are OK since they are meant to be fund-raisers from the start,” adding, “sorry about the pun.” Then, “Except for events geared to young children, medals or ribbons should be for higher place finishers in reasonable age-groups.”

Dave Foley, former editor of Michigan Runner, has raced for decades and won a lot of swag. He recalled, “When I won my first medals, I was so proud. [But] as I grew older, they were less treasured.” He added, “I think we may have gone overboard with finisher-medals. Maybe in a marathon or down to a half-marathon—OK.” Always good for ideas, Foley said, “For smaller races, how about an option to check ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on an entry blank. A colored sticker on the race number could alert finish-line folks in the chutes who gets [a medal].” He went on, “But that said, let’s continue awards to leaders, perhaps three-deep, in age-groups in small races. [In] mega-races, maybe [go] five deep.”

Foley also said, “Tee shirts or other items of clothing could also be options you buy with your entry. The bottom line is entry fees are too high. I realize costs are greater than in the old days, but maybe cutting back on amenities and have optional check-offs on entry blanks could help bring down the costs.”

Tracey Cohen is also a runner and racer, winning her share of medals. But she has taken a somewhat different stance. “Personally,” she said, “I don’t care about swag and am sad to see race prices increase so much just to give more participation awards. I love winning ‘hardware’ as much as the next, but care more about ‘toeing the line’ and giving my all.” She further explained, “That being said, some of my favorite awards have been homemade, local to the area,” echoing Jillian Peck, “and gift certificates and gloves. But I’m grateful for whatever is given.” She again stressed, though, “I pay to race, not to guarantee that I take home ‘stuff.’”

A few years ago, at the Crim Expo, I talked with Bill Rodgers, marathon and running legend. Once discovering that we had attended rival Little Three colleges, (he Wesleyan, I Amherst) we had a pretty lengthy chat. I remember, in this theme, he spoke of some of those early road races he entered in New England, namely the swag that they had. I still chuckle when I recall him saying he won toasters and automobile tires, retrieving them from the car trunks of race directors.

Me? I’m conflicted. I don’t race very often any more. (And, yes, high entry fees chase me away. But the kids’ activities hinder racing, too.) If I happen to be lucky enough to win an age-group medal/award, I don’t keep it and haven’t for quite a few years. My grandkids, at least now the younger two, like to wear them around the house for a week or two. But then, if they are medals Joe Burns and Medals 4 Mettle can use, I donate them. (You can drop them off at many of your local specialty running stores.) A while back, I gave a bunch to the special education department at a local high school.

There are still two medals that I’ve kept, though. Karen was very thoughtful and made a framed award case for my 100th anniversary Boston Marathon finish—medal, certificate, and a faux Runner’s World cover with my photograph on it. The other is a Free Press Marathon medal, again framed by Karen, with a photo of me finishing inside Tiger Stadium. There may be others hiding around here in toy chests or wherever, but I don’t know about them.

I really like the idea of optional race tee shirts. Some races, for a lower entry fee, have used that option for quite a few years. I have plenty of tee shirts and have run out of storage room. Back in 2005, I boxed up more than 200 of them and shipped them off to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

I do enjoy getting things other than medals and tee shirts at races. There are plenty of coffee mugs with race logos in the house—and I don’t drink the stuff—so many that I have begun giving them away, too. The old Huron Valley Hospital Run was unique in giving out different age-group awards. Karen and our two sons, Mike and Matt, ran it with me for a number of years as a family outing. Awards, won by all four of us, ranged from towels and trivets to hats and key chains. Although the last HV Run was 15 or more years ago, we still have some of that swag around.

I still count food, the post-race goodies, as swag. It’s my favorite. The Riverbend Striders still hold the Great Pizza Challenge every August in Flint. Matt and I ran that several times—the first time he beat me when he was 13. Pizza from a number of area pizzerias greeted runners at after the 5K event. The West Bloomfield Rock and Road had pita sandwiches, Greek salads, and Coney Islands for post-race swag. And Run the Hills in Farmington Hills serves pizza at the finish area, too. I was able to convince some running friends to get to these races.

In 1991, Karen and I were in Buffalo, New York for a family wedding. My Aunt Dolly found me a race there, the morning of the wedding. It was a 4-miler at Hutch Technical High School (Gus La Ruffa’s alma mater, I later found out) in downtown Buffalo. In the school gym after the run was a bevy of baked goods, home-baked goods, from the moms of athletes at Hutch Tech. There were cookies, scones, cakes, brownies, pies—almost every baked good imaginable. Shame on me, but that’s still my favorite race swag.