It's a ritual that every runner looks forward to at the end of every race. As we cross the finish line and hit the button on our stopwatch, a Race Official drapes a Finisher's Medal around your neck.
At some races, especially the bigger ones that attract more than 10,000 runners, there is no ceremony at the finish line. Instead, you walk to nearby tents then fall in line to claim your metal.
The finisher's medal is more than just proof that you busted your ass on a Sunday morning. It symbolizes an achievement. A milestone. Over the seven or so years that I've been active in races, I've collected my fair share of medals.
But there was one thing that I secretly wanted yet had an aversion to. For me, it was THE mark of real runners. It was better than a medal, I thought to myself. It was the mark of a runner who was willing to endure and ignore the pain til the finish line.
That thing was a dead toenail.
With more than 3 dozen races on road and trail under my belt, I had never suffered from one. I would see elite-level runners in flip-flops at the finish line and most of them had toenails busted up so badly, it made me cringe just looking at them. But it also made the runners look bad-ass. While I was pleasantly happy that I didn't suffer from one, in the back of my mind, I wondered what it felt like.
The answer to my question would come after a gruelling 24-kilometer trail run at the Tagaytay Highlands last March. I started at a faster-than-usual pace so I could stick with the lead pack heading into the single track which was a kilometer or so after the starting line. But being in Tagaytay meant that we would only be going one of two directions: up or down. This meant the feet and legs would take a beating because of the terrain.
The halfway point of the race sat on a ridge overlooking the rest of the course. To get there, we had to clamber up on all fours or use ropes to climb really steep trails. But this also meant that on the way back, we had to negotiate the same trail, but downhill this time.
With my toes constantly jamming against the toebox as I half-slid, half-ran downhill, I had a feeling that I would cross the line with at least one dead nail. Remember the saying, "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it?" Well, I was about to get my dreaded wish.
My feet were in pain as I made the final descent to the finish line. As soon as I collected my medal, I set off for my hotel room to assess the damage.
I slowly took off my shoes. It wasn't a pretty sight. The ends of my socks were soaked in blood. I entered the shower with my socks on. I figured the water would make it easier to pry the socks off any open wounds or blisters. Then I counted two five peso-sized blisters and two dead toenails. I couldn't believe it!
The nails were dark from the blood coagulating underneath and painful to the touch. No question about it, they were on their deathbed.
I spent the next few days obsessing with the nails. I drained the blood. I tried moving them. I pried them loose. Staring at the dark spots left behind by the nails, I only had one thing in mind--I wanted my nails to grow back! Sure, losing the nails gave me a slight feeling of bad-assedness. (I just ran, hiked, climbed, shuffled and walked 12 kilometers in pain, damn it!) But the sight of dead toe nails was still something that made me squeamish, especially because it was one of my own!
Three months after their passing, the toenails are growing back. Each day I looked down at my feet brings me back to that race. The gruelling climbs. The punishing descents. The unforgiving terrain. Yes, damn it, I conquered all that and my feet lived to tell (show) the tale.
So, I asked myself, are they better than medals?
Hell no. Give me a medal any day!