Lately, I’ve had a run of bad prizes.  First there was the 25,000 airline miles ‘negative prize’ at the DC Race for the Cure. And now no one at the DC Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon will return my emails about the fact that I haven’t yet received my $500 cash prize (or the trophy they were supposed to mail).  So in honor of my current state of prize grumpiness, I’m going to take a trip down memory lane to highlight the best and worst of my running prizes over the years.  Note that the quality of a prize is not necessarily an absolute, but often a function of the delta between the expected prize and the actual prize.



  1.   25,000 taxable American Airline miles, Suman G. Komen Global Race for the Cure (2016).  I’ve had my share of disappointing race prizes, as I’ll be enumerating below.  But no prize where I’ve actually have a net negative cash flow.  Paying upfront income taxes for airline miles I’ll never use has to be the #1 worst prize in my 20+ years of competitive running.
  2. 'So, is this wood like a token I redeem somewhere for the real prize?'

    ‘So, this shit piece of wood is just like a token I go redeem somewhere for the real prize, right?’

    Coaster, Fool’s Gold 50mi (2014).  Alex P. stopped by the bar one night after WUS to promote his new race in Montana, with 100-mile, 50-mile and 50-km options.  Aaron and I signed up for the 50-mile race, which offered $300 in prize money to the winner.  As we came to discover, weather in Montana in August is wildly unpredictable, and it snowed 8 inches the night before the race.  At the second aid station, Alex instructed all the 50-milers to turn around and do the 50-km course, because the snow storm had made the high elevation pass too dangerous.  It was raining and windy and the coldest I’ve ever been in a race, my teeth chattering for hours.  But I couldn’t drop, not with $300 of prize money on the line.  At the award’s ceremony, I didn’t get an envelope of cash.  I got a small wooden coaster in the shape of Montana that said 50k winner.  Gary K. tried to take my picture standing with the RD for the VHTRC Facebook page.  I was able to tolerate standing up there for the moment Gary needed to snap the picture, but my smile barely conceals how I felt about my coaster prize.

  3. Zip, Fire on the Mountain 50k (2011).  Aaron and I both won the Fire on the Mountain 50k in 2011.  After the race, the RD told us he didn’t have our prizes on hand, but he’d put them in the mail.  Six months later, nothing ever came.  We emailed him and got no response.  The following April we just happened to run into him again at the Race for the Birds.  I cornered him at packet pick-up, and was not shy in my request for a FOM prize status update.  He said if I won the Race for the Birds that day too, I’d get double prize.  I won the Race for the Birds as well, but no prize ever materialized.
  4. Gift Certificate to a Running Store That was Closed, Charlottesville Marathon (2011).  In 2011, most of State College’s CVIM Boston Marathon team didn’t register in time.  It was the crazy year where the race sold out in hours, that brought about the new waved registration that lets faster times sign up earlier.  So we all decided to go to Charlottesville instead.  I won the marathon and a bunch of my friends got age group awards.  But we soon discovered that the gift certificates were to a Charlottesville running store that wasn’t even open that day.  We were heading home that afternoon.  I guess only locals could use the prizes.
  5. rough race for the marmot at the 2011 whm

    i might have won the race, but eliza (aka 8-pack girl) went home with the bladder

    Bladder-less camelback, WHM (2011).  I have a long history with the WHM, but the most memorable race for me by far was the 2011 show-down with Eliza.  It was the only time I ever looked (and felt) really vulnerable during the WHM.  It was my slowest time ever on the course.  I felt terrible.  I ran terrible.  And it didn’t help having 8-pack girl battling it out with me.  I managed to eke out the win.  As a prize I won a lovely camelback, something I didn’t actually have and needed desperately.  But it turned out that the bladder had been accidentally placed in Eliza’s pack.  There were numerous efforts to reach out to Eliza to obtain my bladder and have it delivered to me.  Fortunately, the bladder-less pack is still very useful for when I occasionally bike to work and need to put some clothes/snacks/phone/money/keys/badge in it.

  6. Bonus miles, 5th grade mile, Chevy Chase Elementary School (1991).  I ran my first timed race ever in 5th grade.  I won the girl’s mile race in 6:58.  I was 3rd overall.  I didn’t get an official prize from the school, no ribbon or anything.  But it was the kind of thing where my parents could have taken me out for ice cream or something to celebrate.  The actual Nelson family response?  There seemed to be an overwhelming and immediate need to to find out whether I was actually fast.  So my brother, father, and I raced another mile on the spot.  And yes, they both beat me.  Demoralized, I never raced again until high school.
  7. (Honorable Mention) All-America Award, NCAA Div III Cross Country (2001).  This gets an honorable mention because the award itself was lovely, a large calligraphed parchment for finishing All-America at Nationals in xc.  But the award makes the list because my college coach Ned offered to get my name professionally calligraphed.  A couple weeks later we had a falling out when I told him I was going to study abroad the next semester in Australia and miss the indoor and outdoor track seasons.  Every time I visited his office for that awkward conversation about where my award was, he shrugged and said he hadn’t seen it recently.  It’s likely still lying somewhere in a file cabinet in his office.


  1.  $300, Shepherdstown Library 5K (2008).  This gets top bill because it is the one and only time that a prize has been so generous that in good conscience I had to give some of it back.  This was a dinky 100-or-so person 5k race in Shepherdstown, WV to benefit the local library.  Sure, it was a killer course that ended on the toughest hill I’ve ever had in a 5k.  And I had to come from behind to win.  But I gave $100 of it back.  It just wasn’t proportional to the size of the field or the level of effort.
  2. Ceramic vessel, Uwharrie (2011).  When I won the Uwharrie 20-mile race, I was so delusional that when they handed me my prize I thought it was a bucket to puke in.  Only when I regained brain function did I discover that the prizes at Uwharrie are beautiful.  The region in North Carolina where the race is held is famous for pottery, and the prizes are vessels made by local potters with local clay. The piece I won at Uwharrie was soda-fired, one of my favorite firing methods.  It fits my aesthetic perfectly.  There aren’t many races where you come away with a prize that’s meaningful and one of the most treasured items in your home.
  3. Sashimi plate at Suski-Ko

    Sashimi plate at Suski-Ko

    Dinner for 2 at Suski-Ko, Ellen’s Run 5k (2015).  In previous Ellen’s Runs, I had always won $100 in cash.  Last year, instead I won a gift certificate for dinner (up to $100) at a fancy sushi restaurant in DC.  I had a debate with my father, the economist, who vehemently rejected my claim that the gift certificate was a superior gift to the cash because it would make me have an enjoyable experience that I wouldn’t otherwise have (I’d otherwise just spend the $100 on a new pair of running shoes).  Fortunately, WUS has behavioral economist Julian J. on its payroll, who could confirm the validity of my opinion.  A memorable dinner with my mom, brother, and Aaron entirely trumps a new pair of sneakers.

  4. Best prize Ever.

    Best prize. Ever.

    Handmade plaque, Teton Crest Trail (2015).  Jack K. made us the coolest prize ever for our completion of the ~35 mile Teton Crest Trail in Jackson, WY.  The prize got triple bonus points for (a) Jack having mad woodworking skills, and (b) the fact that it wasn’t a race and we had no expectation of getting a prize.  Still, it was one of the best days I’ve ever had on the trail, and it’s wonderful to have such a beautiful token to commemorate it with.

  5. Flowers, WHM (multiple years).  I’ve done everything I can to alleviate WHM RD Tracy’s concerns that a bouquet of flowers is an overly-girly prize.  Tracy has amazing taste in flowers, and long after the flowers dry out, I still keep them in my Uwharrie vessel as permanent home decoration.  My cat Leda loves them.  She purrs and rubs her cheek on the dried flowers, and sometimes her whole body.  What prize could possibly be better than one that makes my kitty happy?
  6. Patagonia Refugio backpack, Holiday Lake 50k (2015).  Everyone knows Horton gives out great swag, and I’ve gotten a lot of sweet clothes over the years, some that I practically live in.  But the Patagonia backpack makes the list because it was life-changing.  At the time I already owned a backpack with a pouch for a laptop, and it seemed pointless to receive another one.  But I had no idea how comfortable a backpack could be until I tried the Refugio.  I travel a lot, and hauling my computer long distances had always hurt my back and shoulders.  The Refugio distributed the weight in a way that the computer felt weightless.  Sometimes I’d have a fleeting panic attack that I’d left my computer at the security line because my pack felt too light.  I used to have to plan my life around minimizing time with my laptop in tow — e.g., dropping it at home before going out for dinner..  Now I hardly notice it.

7 Responses to Horrible Prizes

  1. Sean says:

    I’ve been pretty lucky with awards, but the worst I got was the rock at the Superior Sawtooth 100 that airport security wouldn’t let me take through because they couldn’t see what was inside.

    My favorite prize was at the Crown King Scramble, which ended in an old mining town, where I won a giant pick axe. But once again they wouldn’t let me take it on the plane. By the third time I won that race I’d wised up and started checking a bag in case I won another pick axe.

  2. Annie says:

    Martha – you and I have not had the chance to get to know one another, so I don’t know whether you are being serious or fully tongue-in-cheek. And though I respect your right to express your opinions, I do hope you will take a moment to listen to mine. All I can say after reading the post is: Get over yourself and let that negative energy GO! This takes first world problems to a new level. Please spend some time with people who are truly suffering. Put your energy into making the world better for them, and then maybe…just maybe…you will start to get a healthy perspective on just how fortunate you are.

    • martha says:

      Oh I could write a whole blog on human suffering. Try being best friends with Sean….

  3. martha says:

    DISCLAIMER: No tears were shed from the receipt of any Horrible Prizes. With the possible exception of the 5th grade bonus miles.

  4. I now feel much better about not winning any prizes other than little medals at tiny local races.

    Susan G. Komen Foundation is THE WORST. If only I had known how little of the money those race entry fees and donations go to fund research.

  5. martha says:

    You hit the nail on the head, Kirstin. We tend to glorify winning, but sometimes it’s just a distraction.

    And yes, I’ll keep running R4C for Momma Jill, but I know it’s a scam:

    “Nancy G. Brinker promised her dying sister, Susan G. Komen, she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer forever.”

    I guess that includes taking $480,784 in salary from the Foundation.

    A little-known secret is that you can donate directly to a research organization like the NIH:

  6. phyllis says:

    I love this post! There are plenty of races in NC that give out pottery as prizes and clay medal as finishers award. I love them, too.

    I ran Terrapin for the first time this year and I almost felt like I didn’t have to run it because they handed out the pottery mug at packet pick-up.

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