When Andy Bartelsmeyer stepped to the start line of the Dusk 2 Dawn Night Trail Run in 2017, held under the stars at Indian Camp Creek in St. Charles County, he hadn’t really considered that he might win.

“One of my friends looked at me and said, ‘You know that you’re probably the top person to take this race.’ I was like, ‘Well, OK then.’”

As it turned out, the 33-year-old computer programmer completed the most 10k loops during the six hours from midnight to 6 a.m., meaning that he, in fact, did win. In recognition, he took home a nice, big, wooden plaque.

That sort of finish was not typical for Bartelsmeyer, who says he first started taking running seriously in 2015 when he was “a bit heavier.” Now he does ultramarathons. Along the way, he’s gained a greater appreciation for what it takes to complete a race. And he understands why people often treasure the medals they earn.

He keeps his on metal racks in his cubicle at work.

“I have plaques for overall finishes, and those are great, but you have to remember a lot of people are signing up for a trail race or a 5k and that’s their first race ever. So, for them, that’s a huge accomplishment. It’s nice they get something to commemorate that,” he said.

Bartelsmeyer admits he’s signed up for races “specifically for the crazy, big, goofy medals” that the events offer. He did the Gasparilla Half Marathon in Tampa, Florida, and earned a “huge, two-piece, skull-and-crossbones medal.” In January, he did the Bandera 100K race — his longest race — in the Texas Hill Country. At the last minute, the organizer had to change the venue because of flooding and freezing rain, and the new course ended up being much rockier.

“It was a much harder course than we expected, and it was really hot,” said Bartelsmeyer. A couple days later, he was wearing the Bandera belt buckle featuring a coiled snake because “it’s awesome,” he said. “It’s a physical reminder of the experience you had.”

The MO’ Cowbell race “tends to attract a lot of first timers,” said Amanda Schaub, who directs the race, which launched in 2011 and offers a variety of distances through St. Charles County each October.

“We see a lot of different emotions: from someone who is crying because they finished their first race and didn’t think they could, to relief from those who are more trained or seasoned,” said Schaub. “We want to make sure everyone is validated in the end and feels accomplished.”

In 2017, the race organizers launched a new idea: for each of the next four years, finishers would earn a medal portraying a different band member from the “Saturday Night Live” more cowbell skit. (Hence, the name of the race.) By 2020, repeat finishers will have the entire band.

MO' Cowbell medals

MO’ Cowbell medals join to create a band

“There are always these lulls in runs, and we thought this would be a great way to continue our streak of having a great amount of participation,” said Schaub.

Rich Adams of MSE Racing, producer of the St. Louis Triathlon and a growing list of other races, has spoken with people who “kind of eyeroll at finisher medals.”

“The most common complaint is, ‘Oh, I’ve got lots of finisher medals,’ and to those people, I’m very happy for them. But I think that, as a race director, you have to recognize that not everyone has a lot of them,” said Adams.

He also hears people who describe them as a “participation award.” To that, he counters, “You have to finish, see it all the way through to the bitter end, lost toenails and water-filled lungs and all.”

Patrick McNulty estimates he has done nearly 100 races and once had shoeboxes filled with medals. Some time ago — he’s not sure when — the 65-year-old gardener read about Medals4Meddle, an organization that connects runners with children battling cancer or other serious illnesses to whom they can donate their medals. McNulty was moved by the mission and delivered the medals to patients at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and Shriner’s Hospital for Children.

“I found that way more rewarding than boxes in the closet. I’ve never had a happier moment than actually giving a medal to a kid who’s undergoing chemo or confined to a wheelchair,” said McNulty.

Still, he hung onto his medal from the 2014 Boston Marathon.

“I gave away a lot of great ones, but I didn’t give away Boston,” he said. “That one was too personal.”