Netflix, no longer a stranger (pun intended) to original content (e.g. House of Cards, Luke Cage, The Crown), is entering the space that is currently dominated by American Ninja Warrior. Renewed for a sixth season on NBC and a ninth on Esquire, Warrior has become immensely popular. Adam Stotsky, President of E! and the Esquire Network, describes the significance of the show. “We are in constant awe of the extraordinary athletes on American Ninja Warrior who make the show as exhilarating to watch as it is to produce.” Aside from watching this cultural phenomenon, men and women are becoming increasingly eager to test their own physical abilities. According to a June 2016 Mental Floss article, 50,000 submissions were sent to producers for a spot on the show.
Enter Ultimate Beastmaster, another original Netflix show produced by the quintessential beast – Sylvester Stallone. Like American Ninja Warrior, competitors will “take their shot at running one of the most physically demanding obstacle courses ever created.” The trailer for Beastmaster is riveting – and exhausting. In the words of Esther Zuckerman of A.V. Club, “The first trailer for Netflix’s upcoming Ultimate Beastmaster is perfectly designed to make you feel out of shape, because there’s nothing like watching amazing feats of strength while parked in front of a computer.” Or parked on a couch.
After watching the trailer for the first time, I noticed a small caption beneath the show’s title. “No Trophies for Participation.” The premise for Beastmaster is abundantly clear: only one person will win. 108 athletes from around the globe will bring their very best to claim the coveted top spot. Only one champion will emerge though. Everyone else will go home. Empty-handed. I’ve started pondering this phrase, “No Trophies for Participation,” intently in the past few days. Does it have any merit in the context of road races?
There are supporters and dissenters alike when it comes to participation trophies, i.e. race medals. According to a July 2014 Runner’s World article, medals emanate coolness. In the words of author Kit Fox, “Runners have an unprecedented obsession with beribboned hunks of bling – and races are happy to satisfy.” The Texas Marathon medal, at 3 pounds, 3 ounces, is supposedly the biggest in the world from a size standpoint. Ragnar race medals have a built-in bottle opener. And then there’s the races at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Aside from being the “happiest place on earth,” I firmly believe that the finisher medals are what causes these races to sell out year after year. Finishers of the famed Dopey Challenge receive six medals after completing this epic feat. Six.
Detractors of race medals appear to be few in number, but they pose valid questions nonetheless. I visited a Let’s Run thread from January 2011, and the responses on this subject were spirited. Many respondents felt that a medal for a marathon is valid, but not so for a 5K or 10K. Still, as one person made clear, “I think it’s a sense of accomplishment that people want. Something tangible to hang on their wall.”
A tangible artifact. Maybe that’s the draw to road races across the United States and the world. Aside from finisher medals, I have received tee shirts, caps, plaques, and drink glasses. These keepsakes are nice, but they will likely go to Goodwill or the landfill one day. I didn’t pay for the medal, but for an experience, a series of memories to carry with me for a lifetime that can be shared with family and friends through the power of story. As Anthony De Mello puts it, “A lost coin is found by means of a candle; the deepest truth is found by means of a simple story.” Every race I undertake is a good story waiting to be told.
The competitors who will star on Ultimate Beastmaster are preparing their bodies for intense competition, but they are simultaneously preparing their minds for a narrative that will linger long after the lights fade and the obstacle course (“The Beast”) is dismantled and placed back inside the trailers for transport. Only one athlete will have a trophy and the corresponding prize money. But the money will be spent in good time, and that trophy will accumulate dust on a shelf somewhere.
I have acquired numerous trophies (medals) for participation in road races, but I pay them no mind. I know what I did, and the memory of those fleeting minutes or hours is enough. Consider the words of St. Paul. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize” (I Corinthians 9:24). I’m not that one, the one who gets the prize. I haven’t finished first in a race yet; maybe I never will. But I’m a runner, and runners run. When the medals corrode and the tees develop holes, runners run.