A strange love of medals

As I sit here writing this I’ve been staring across the room at a wooden post that marks the top of the stairs. There’s nothing particularly exciting about the post itself, in fact it is, relatively speaking, a fairly boring post. However hanging from that almost sub-standard post are a number of medals, twenty-one medals to be exact, all marking races that I’ve taken part in this year. Normally after I finish a race and come home the first thing I do is wander up to that post and put the medal on  it. Then I smile to myself. I smile because for some reason I’m proud. I never think to myself where that pride comes from, I can’t recall ever actually thinking anything save for the simple notion that there’s another medal on there.

The other thing is that they’re only finishers medals. They don’t actually mean anything apart from the fact I ran somewhere for a bit. I never actually won any of the races, well, apart from a charity 5k where most of the participants were in fancy dress, so I don’t count that, I didn’t even get a trophy anyway (I did wait at the end for one, just in case).

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I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot lately, largely because I’ve been taking part in a video campaign for Sony on the subject. Fitness has a strange ability to immerse you so much that you become swept away. Yes it’s addictive, but it is, for the most part, a positive addiction. As you train harder or run more races you don’t feel guilty, you don’t think about quitting like most other addictions. The addiction actually improves you, it makes better in so many ways. Because of that there’s nothing from stopping you doing it more. The only notable negative associated with it is if you stop for any reason. We’ve all heard about the runners high but there’s a runners low too. That feeling when you can’t run for some reason, where you can sense yourself losing your hard-earned fitness. It’s an awful feeling.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about why I care about fitness so much. Seven years ago I wasn’t what you’d class as a fit person. I ate what I wanted, I smoked, I drank whenever I fancied. I had no interest in fitness whatsoever – or sport. Absolutely nothing.

Then one new year I decided to stop smoking. I started eating salads and going to the gym. Compared to what I do today it was very little. I went to lift weights three times a week with a vague idea about what I was doing. I would run a kilometre or two in the park occasionally and by the end I was coughing at the side of the road. I still drank but not the same as before. I lost a little bit of weight but not so much that people noticed. It was a start. But I didn’t enjoy it. At that point, I was just doing it because I made myself.

If I was to pinpoint a time that truly changed my mindset on fitness it was my first 5k. The company I worked at had organised a team to take part in a corporate race near St Paul’s. It was a distance I’d never done before, it sounded like a ridiculously long way. I hadn’t taken part in a competitive sporting event since school and my memories of those were largely based on trying to avoid them in any way I could. I was actually nervous about it.

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The majority of the team were in the same boat. All none fitness people that had signed up as a result of male bravado in the pub. I was talking myself up but really all I wanted to do was finish and get it over with. I didn’t have a time I expected to get, I just didn’t want to be the worst one there.

I trained a bit for it. Not a lot by any stretch of the imagination but enough to know I could just about finish. I asked for advice from people about what food to eat and what clothing to wear. It was a pretty big deal.

I remember my nerves on the day vividly as I stood at the start line waiting for the gun to sound. I remember thinking at one kilometre that I was already in pain, another four felt almost impossible. My lungs hurt, my legs hurt. It was nothing like a training run where I’d slow down or stop for a few minutes. There were spectators here, people were running with me. I couldn’t stop.

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And then I finished. I stepped over the finish line, my lungs burning as I coughed heavily. I don’t remember any thoughts going through my mind at that point save for the relief that I’d finished. I wasn’t proud, I didn’t suddenly want to do one again. I hated it. It was just something that wasn’t nice.

I looked at my time on the clock, 23 minutes. I had no idea if that was good. I didn’t really care in fact. I’d finished, I could go home. I wandered to meet the rest of the team where we’d arranged to, expecting them all to be there waiting. However when I turned up there were only two of them, where were the rest? I thought. They looked at me surprised and asked what time I got. “You got 23 minutes?” asked one of them. “That’s really good. You’ve beaten everyone else.”

I think it was that point where something in my head changed. Maybe not overtly, maybe not a conscious decision to suddenly care about fitness. But something clicked. Probably for the first time in my life I felt positive about my abilities, I felt like I wasn’t just the kid who was crap at fitness. I was actually part of it. I could do fitness. It was like a whole new thing had just opened up to me.

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People ask me about my obsession with medals. Up until now I’ve never really thought about it, I’ve just collected them. But I think a medal to me is more than just a nice souvenir. They’re like a constant reminder of a person that I’ve become, one that I want to keep being. If the medals stop then I may lose whatever it was I gained back in that first 5k. And whatever that thing I gained back then has been a catalyst for the years that followed. In fitness, I’ve gone on to do six marathons. I run a sub 20 5k and a 1.30 half marathon. I can lift weights that I couldn’t have imagined lifting seven years ago. I can even swim. Not well, but enough to do a triathlon.

It didn’t just make me fitter though. It made me think differently about the rest of my life. I may never have thought I could win anything, but before that meant I wouldn’t bother doing it. Why bother taking part in something if you can’t be the best? Would be my thought process. But now I don’t care about winning, now I just want to experience things. I want to feel what it’s like to do things even if I’m rubbish at them. Sure, I may not like them, but sometimes I will. Sometimes I find that I’m actually good at them. And every time it happens a new part of the world opens up.