LAST UPDATED: 4 December 2023
Custom Race Medals: A Buyer's Guide
Need help choosing, designing and ordering your dream race medal? Here's everything you need to know before you buy.
When it comes to races, race medals are the quintessential swag. You can choose to offer a finisher shirt or other, more novel items to your race finishers, but you'll be risking certain disappointment from many if you choose to leave out the medal.
Like so many other race supplies, though, ordering medals can be a tricky business. First, there's figuring out what type of medal to go for - not an easy decision when there's so many different styles to choose from these days.
And, then, there's designing the medal, figuring out the right quantity to order, the right time to order, and making sure the finished product gets shipped on time for race day.
In the rest of this article, we'll be looking at all these aspects of the medal-buying process to help you avoid some common mistakes, and get you the awesome bling your race deserves and your racers will love.
So, let's get started!
Types of race medals
It seems that with each passing year, and with the introduction of new and novel materials and techniques for making medals, the choice of medals available for race directors only gets bigger and bigger.
Nowadays, there's a huge range of materials, styles, finishes and functionality to choose from for your race medal - some better suited for some types of races than others. So let's look at the most common types of race medals currently being handed out in races.
Die struck medals
Die struck medals (also known as die stamped medals) are medals produced through the age old process of using a die to stamp a design onto a metal sheet. It's how coins have been made for thousands of years - and still the gold standard for producing accurate, crisp medal designs with amazing levels of detail.
Because of the nature of the striking/stamping process, die struck medals are a great fit for round medal designs, but can't be used to produce more elaborate designs with lots of raised surfaces, the type you get in so true 3D medals - that's what die cast medals are for, which we'll get to next.
Also because of the nature of the metal sheets used in the stamping process (usually made of steel or iron), die struck medals are typically heavier than die cast medals of the same size, and, when stamped with a solid, classic design, can lend an air of timeless quality to a medal.
Die struck medals come in a range of thicknesses from 3mm all the way to 12mm for the heavier options (1/10 - 1/2in) and can go all the way up to 90mm in diameter (3.5in), with prices varying accordingly.
Die cast medals
Die cast medals (sometimes also known as 3D medals) take a different approach to their die struck cousins: instead of stamping a design on a sheet of medal using dies, custom molds are used to create medals of any shape, by injecting the casting molds with a molten zinc alloy.
If you've ever seen a medal with an unusual shape (e.g. shaped like a shoe or a building or any arbitrary object) or lots of folding detail with lots of height and depth variation, that medal was made using the die casting technique.
Die cast medals can be equally stunning as die struck medals, and have the ability to go beyond the classic round design of die struck medals. As a result, die casting is the technique often used for novel and functional medals with bottle openers and other features that we'll look at in more details later in this section.
Besides metal, there's other materials that can be used in the production of race medals. Two fairly popular options are acrylic medals and PVC medals.
Both acrylic and PVC medals are quite good options as a lower-budget alternative for events like fun runs, run/walks and kids runs. They are also both suited for producing medals that can be used as key chains or decorative items.
But that's where the similarities end. Because acrylic medals are made by laser-cutting sheets of acrylic and printing graphics on them, acrylic medals can have a relatively low setup cost and can be manufactured quite easily even by local manufacturers, making them great options for last-minute orders.
In contrast to that, PVC medals still need to be cast into shape, so, although the final PVC medal can be significantly cheaper that die struck or die cast medals, producing PVC medals still requires a considerable lead time and comes with a molding cost, just like die medals do.
Wooden medals have become an increasingly popular choice for races - particularly trail races - because of their low environmental footprint and low production cost.
Wooden medals are not only cheaper to produce, but also very cheap to ship, because of their low weight, and, like acrylic medals, require no casting molds, which make them a good choice for last-minute orders.
That said, wooden medals' low weight can also be perceived as a disadvantage, with many race directors sharing reports of disappointed participants when they're being handed a lighter wooden medal compared to a traditional die cast or die struck medal.
The reality is that, like so many other things, you get what you pay for. Many wooden medals on offer on the low-budget end of the market are indeed just flat wooden cutouts with simple graphics laser-engraved onto the wood.
On the other hand, there's more elaborate wooden medals produced by painstakingly putting together different layers of expertly designed cutouts that are a real beauty to behold and will make your race stand out. These types of wooden medals will cost a lot more than your cheaper versions, but you're getting something really special for it.
Glow-in-the-dark medals are medals (usually die cast medals) that make use of fluorescent enamel colors to produce a glow-in-the-dark effect.
Glow-in-the-dark medals are quite popular for events like night or Halloween runs, but can also be used for other kinds of races when you want to inject a little bit of fun into your medal design.
Interlocking medals are medals which are meant to be collected and combined into a larger design. Usually, medals of this kind work fine as a standalone medal, but include interlocking bits that fit with other similar medals to form a larger pattern.
Interlocking medals are usually offered as part of a race series or as part of a medals collection. A good example of this is Spartan Race's Trifecta medal which you slowly build up by collecting the medals from a Spartan Sprint, Super and Beast race over the course of a single year.
Besides making for a pretty impressive and smart design, interlocking or series medals offer a great incentive for participants to "collect them all", potentially driving up demand for subsequent events. So much so, that when Mexico City Marathon rolled out their M-E-X-I-C-O medal series for the 2013-2018 races, the urge to complete the medal collection was so strong that it may have led to some people banditing or cheating to complete the entire collection.
If your race concept can accommodate this type of medal, it's well worth thinking about offering an interlocking medal option. One thing's for sure: people are gonna love it and keep coming back until they get they full set!
Last, but not least, there's belt buckles.
You may wonder what belt buckles have to do with race medals. But you'll be surprised - the relationship between medals and belt buckles goes back a long way to the very first ultramarathons.
Back in the day, a good number of what we currently know as the most prestigious ultramarathons, like the Western States 100, acrually started out as horse races. Horse races used to offer belt buckles to the winners. So when those races transitioned to footraces, the belt buckle stuck.
Nowadays, it's very customary for most self-respecting 100K+ ultras to offer belt buckles instead of medals. And these belt buckles can look pretty special!
Knowing how to design a solid belt buckle takes some specialist knowledge, so if you're thinking of offering one in your event, make sure to find a vendor who's got some experience in the field. You'd still get your belt buckle from a medals vendor, just make sure they've done this kind of thing before.
In terms of wearing and displaying the belt buckle, you can still design your belt buckle so it can also be worn as a medal (ask your vendor for options), or you can include a nice presentation case with it. These people had to run a lot for it, so go the extra mile. :)
Before we take a look at how much each of these medals could cost, there's one not-so-small detail about your medal that's worth discussing separately: the ribbon.
The design on your medal ribbon can often be very important to the overall look and feel of your medal. So it's a good idea to put at least some thought into the size, feel and graphics on your medal ribbon.
The rule of thumb in all this is to choose a ribbon is a good match for your medal. You don't want to offer a cheap, stock ribbon with an amazing custom 3D cast medal, nor would it make sense to waste a super-fancy, fully sublimated ribbon on a cheaper medal.
The design on the ribbon should also match the theme and character of your medal. For classic, uncolored die stamped medal designs you should choose a plain ribbon in a single color that you can stamp with the race name and year. For a more fun medal with multiple colors, you should think of carrying over that feel to the ribbon with an equally fun, sublimated design.
Whatever you do, think of the ribbon as an integral part of the award you're handing out, and make sure the two match in both theme and feel.
So how much is it going to cost to produce your dream medal, and have it delivered to your door? That all depends on a few key factors.
Type of medal
The type of medal you choose will be main driver behind the price you pay for your medal.
Metallic medals are generally going to be the most expensive, not only on a per-item basis, but also because both die cast and die struck medals come with setup costs associated with the production of dies and/or molds unique to your medal design.
At the other end of the pricing spectrum, acrylic and simple wooden medals will be the cheapest, because of the material used and the lack of any upfront costs for molds.
If, as most races do, you choose to go with a die cast or die struck medal, medal thickness and weight will be the next big factor to consider in the pricing.
Obviously, the thicker and heavier the medal, the more material goes into it, so the price you pay will be higher. But, it will also exude an air of quality. Most participants seem to value weight in a medal and often associate heavier medals with quality. So that's something to think about when deciding on your medals dimensions.
There's mainly two ways to color a medal, either by printing on it using UV colors or by adding a layer of colored enamel on the medal - or a combination of both.
Enamel is the pricier of the two options, but can lend a lot of vibrancy to your medal design. Some of the best medal designs out there use enamel for coloring, whether it's just a single accent color use sparingly to highlight parts of a medal, or a full set of colors to produce a more casual, fun look.
Enamel comes is two types: hard and soft, with soft being the option more commonly used on race medals. The basic difference between the two, in terms of look, is the finish. Hard enamel gives a smoother, more polished finish to your medal, and is also the more durable of the two options, being scratch-resistant. Soft enamel, on the other hand, is applied more thinly between recesses on the medal and leaves behind more texture on the finished product.
Besides the type of enamel you use, the second most important determining factor on cost will be the number of colors you use - the more colors you want to use, the higher the price you'll need to pay for your medal.
The ribbon you pick for your medal is also going to make a difference to the overall price.
Stock ribbons, which come in either single color or standard striped fabric, are the cheapest at around $0.50 or so per ribbon. Beyond that you can have ribbons screen-printed (pricier) or fully sublimated (priciest) with your design, both of which require a $50 or so setup cost (which can be waived for larger orders) with a $1.50 or so cost per ribbon on top of that.
Any special features you require on your medal, like moving parts, mixed-material details, glass, LED or other inserts, will also come at an extra cost. What that cost is will depend on exactly what features you choose to incorporate in your design, and is difficult to provide an estimate on.
Lastly, there's the cost of shipping. There's two things to think about here: 1) the weight of the medal you ship and 2) the shipping mode you choose.
Of the medals that are typically produced overseas, lighter medals, like PVC medals, will have the lowest cost of shipping. Of course, there's options like wooden or acrylic medals, which are generally produced locally which are both very light and ship domestically which will require a fraction of the cost to ship. For all other medals that ship from overseas, like die cast and die struck, the cost will depend on weight.
In terms of how your medals are shipped to you from overseas, the clear winner in cost is ocean freight. Air freight is an option, but at a meaningfully higher cost (around $1 per medal or so). As we will see later in the article, the best strategy for managing costs actually invoices a combination of these two options, with the bulk of your order bring shipped early on using ocean freight, and smaller top-up orders being shipped closer to race day using air freight.
Designing your medal
Designing your medal can be an exciting time, particularly if it's your first race or the first time you're ordering custom race medals. It can also be a scary time, as you get to commit to a specific design that will then go to become your race medal.
There's no need to worry. Most reputable medal vendors employ excellent in-house design teams that specialize in race medal design to help you arrive at a design you'll love.
What you need on your end going into this process are the following:
- Know your theme. Be prepared to share with your designer the general theme you want for your medal. Have you already decided on a style of medal? Is it going to be a classic-looking design or a more fun design? Do you have specific elements you'd like to incorporate into the design, like a beer opener or moving parts?
- Share your favorite medal designs. Often, trying to put what's on your mind in an email can be challenging. So it would help your medal designer a lot to provide them with examples of medal designs you like. This can also help better refine your own ideas about what your dream medal might look like. Just find a few race medals you like and tell your designer what bits you like from each one and why.
- Get your assets ready. That means your race logos, font preferences and Pantone or hex color codes. If you don't know these by heart, ask your website or logo designer to provide these for you.
After you've got your assets sent over to the medal designer and you've held a meeting to discuss your ideas and preferences, the design process will start in earnest. Arriving at the final design will take a few iterations between you and the vendor's design team.
If all goes well and both you and the designer have been responsive to each other's comments through the process, you should be able to have agreed on a final design within a week or so, although, if further revisions are required, this can drag on for longer.
However long the process takes, and whatever pressure you might put on yourself to "wrap it up", do not rush this. Make sure you're 100% happy with the final design. The vendors will be happy to accommodate your requests, so keep working on it until you get it right.
One great way to crowdsource design ideas for your medal is to open up the design process to your audience via email and social media. Put up a post asking people to suggest designs for your race medal with the best design winning a couple of free race entries!
Once you're happy with your design and have approved it to the vendor, it's time to finalize your order and get the production process started.
There's a few things you'll need to keep in mind before placing your order, so let's go through them one by one.
Minimum order quantities (MOQs)
Because of the nature of the medal production process, and the upfront tooling and time required by the manufacturer to prepare for producing your unique design, vendors will usually require a minimum order from you for the whole thing to make economic sense. This minimum will be higher for die cast and die struck medals that require dies and molds to be prepared, and lower for "lighter" production setups like acrylic or wooden medals.
Typically, this minimum order quantity (MOQ) for race medals will be around 100 pieces. If you want to order fewer medals than that, it would still be possible, but that means that the fixed setup cost the manufacturer needs to charge will have to be spread over a smaller quantity of medals ordered - meaning your per-item cost can increase quite a bit.
If you are looking to place an order below a vendor's MOQ levels, you have three options available to you:
- Bite the bullet, go with the medal you love and pay more for it to cover the setup costs.
- Opt for a cheaper alternative that has lower setup costs, like laser-engraved wooden medals.
- Go with a quality stock medal, instead of a custom design. You'll still be able to customize bits of it, like stamping your race name on it, but you'll do that on a stock design - which is ok for a smaller event or a fun race in its first year.
The other big thing you want to think about before placing your order is lead times, particularly if your medal is being manufactured and shipped from overseas.
Die cast, die struck and PVC medals, all of which require the use of custom dies and molds, are (with very few exceptions) produced overseas - mostly in China. The production process for these medals from start to finish will take around 3-4 weeks.
Wood and acrylic medals, which can be manufactured locally, have shorter turnaround times of about 1-2 weeks, though, in the case of wooden medals, that heavily depends on the complexity of the design.
On top of that production time, comes the shipping time. Medals produced overseas won't only take longer to produce, but significantly longer to ship. By sea, which is likely how you'll be shipping the bulk of your order, ocean freight will add another 5-6 weeks to your medal delivery (domestically produced medals can ship in a week or so).
So, to summarize, if your order involves medals produced overseas (which is most medals) expect a total lead time of 8-10 weeks before delivery. If you're producing medals domestically, you're looking more at around 3-5 weeks.
Sizing up your order
Last thing, let's talk a bit about how you'd size up your order, which always gets a bit tricky, even for seasoned race directors.
When calculating how many medals you'll order, there's two competing interests you're trying to solve for:
- Making sure every finisher gets a medal, and
- Minimizing any leftover medals after the race.
You're never gonna get this 100% right. And (1) is much more important than (2), so you'd want to err on the side of caution and make sure everyone gets a medal, even if you're left with a few medals to spare at the end of the race (there's creative things to do with your leftover medals).
Here's a few time-honored race director tricks for optimizing your order size:
- Factor in a reasonable DNS rate (i.e. the "10% rule"). Not all your participants will show up on race day. Typical DNS (Did Not Start) rates for races vary by race distance and type, but 10% is a good rule of thumb. Try to figure out what this number should be for your race by looking at your own or similar race stats, and reduce your order accordingly.
- Don't add the race date on the medal. If you do, your medals will be unusable for next year's race. Instead, stamp the date on your medal ribbon. That way, there's a date somewhere on your design, and if you have leftover medals you can reuse your medal by substituting the cheaper ribbon for a newer one printed with next year's race date.
- Place your bulk order early, then top up as you go. It's tempting to want to wait until the very last minute to place your order, thinking that will give you a better grasp on participant numbers. Don't do that. Place the bulk of your order early, and have it shipped by sea to minimize shipping costs. Then, as you get closer to race date, place additional smaller orders and have them shipped by air. Although your top-ups will be shipped at a higher cost per item, you would have shipped most of the medals using cheaper ocean freight, and you'll still be able to avoid costly leftovers by ordering just as many medals as you'll need (or very close to it).
Buying direct from the factory vs from a local vendor
It's not exactly a secret that most of the local medal vendors you'll approach will be shipping your order to overseas manufacturers in China and other places.
With the advent of Alibaba, and many Chinese factories reaching out to overseas customers direct (you may have been approached by some already), you may be wondering whether you need a vendor at all or whether it would make more sense to buy direct from the factory.
It's definitely a calculation you may have to make at some point. Vendors do add a charge for their service, so buying direct from China is going to come out cheaper. But vendors get paid for a reason, so going direct may have its risks.
In our opinion, you should only choose to go direct if you're an experienced race director, you know what you're doing, and you have the time, patience and risk-tolerance to add this additional stress factor to your race directing plate. If it's your first race (or races), have no experience dealing with product manufacturers or buying and importing supplies from overseas, or value your piece of mind above saving a few dollars, a vendor is a better choice for you.
If you do decide to make the leap and go directly to the manufacturer, here's a few things you need to keep in mind:
- Go with a recommendation. Vendors have factories they work with on a steady basis, that have been thoroughly vetted in person for quality and reliability. If you decide to go it alone, don't just go on Alibaba and pick any random manufacturer that looks good on the page. Ask other people who may have done this before to recommend someone they've worked with.
- Make sure everything is clearly agreed in advance. Placing an order with a manufacturer requires a lot of attention to detail. Everything that can be specified, in terms of the design, the medal specs, shipping arrangements and payment terms, should be clearly agreed upfront. Don't leave anything to chance lest you be disappointed with a "That was not part of what we discussed" on deliver day.
- Start early. When you go into a new relationship with a factory, you can't know what to expect. Communication with overseas factories can often still be a challenge. So start the process a little bit earlier than you normally would through a vendor, in case things happen to take longer.
- Mind the holidays! Chinese factories work on a different holiday schedule than most western countries, so you may face delays around certain times of the year. The Chinese New Year holiday is a particularly important week to keep in mind, where everything shuts down in China (and, like with Christmas, a soft shutdown may start even earlier). So if your order timeframe wraps around the Chinese New Year, make sure to give yourself a bit more time.
Choosing a vendor
If, like most race directors, you prefer to work with a local vendor for your medals order, we have the full list of race medal vendors in your region to choose from, all reviewed by other race directors like you.
Here's a few tips for choosing the right vendor for you, and a few questions to ask before you make a commitment:
- Check out the vendor's reviews. Our race medal vendor listings come with vetted race director reviews. But you can also turn to Trustpilot, Better Business Bureau and other sources to ascertain a vendor's reputability and level of service.
- Check out their past designs on their website. Do the styles you see there and the quality of work match your expectations? Do they offer the kind of medal you were thinking of ordering? Do they have a track record working with other races in your niche?
- Do they offer a free in-house design service. Most vendors nowadays do, but it's good to check. You definitely don't want to be charged extra for the design, and ideally you'd want to have the design done in-house for a smoother ordering process.
- What lead time should you expect? Are they going to be able to comfortably make delivery for your race day? If not, move on to someone who can.
- What payment terms do they offer? Vendors are usually happy to extend generous pay-later terms to races they've worked with in the past, but what are they prepared to offer a new customer like yourself? This shouldn't be a big deal, but if you're planning to put a bulk order early when most of registrations haven't come through, any help you can get with payment terms can be a bonus.
Making the most of your freshly arrived medals
Did we mention people love bling? Oh, yes we did!
One of the biggest days on the social media calendar for a race is medal reveal day. That's when you get to unveil your finished race medal to the public - and a great opportunity to stimulate registrations for your race.
So when your medal arrives in the mail, make sure to give it the full medal reveal treatment on social media, your website and your mailing list.