Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
In the hustle and bustle of moving, Andrea Abel, a resident of San Diego’s Pacific Beach neighborhood, set down a rubber bin by her car Tuesday morning, then marched upstairs to retrieve the bin’s top.
In the couple of minutes that she was gone, the bin was stolen. Among the box’s contents: more than 100 running and triathlon medals.
Describing the feeling when she returned downstairs in her San Diego beach community and discovered the bin had vanished, the 33-year-old Abel said, “It’s disbelief, frustration, disappointment, horror. I mean, it’s every runner’s worst nightmare.”
Every medal tells a story. Every medal is wrapped in sentiment. Abel’s father died of bladder cancer in 2002. Her grandfather died of cancer eight years later. She had started running to redefine her body before her grandfather passed, but rededicated herself after his death.
“Since I lost my father and particularly since I lost my grandpa, those medals really do represent a journey,” said Abel.
Abel posted signs in the neighborhood about her lost medals. She taped one to the back of her car window.
“I was almost a mobile advertisement for these missing medals,” she said.
She even scoured garbage cans. “I never thought I would spend so much timing dumpster diving, but it’s worth it to me,” she said.
Come Wednesday afternoon, barely 24 hours since the medals went missing, Abel received a call from a man. He had seen one of Abel’s signs, then heard a jingling sound, turned around and spotted a man with about 15 medals hanging around his neck.
“I know where those medals are from,” said the man. The man carrying the medals said he found them in an ally.
At least 16 of Abel’s medals were earned at Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series events. She has run eight marathons and more than 40 half marathons. Upon hearing of Abel’s loss on local TV station NBC San Diego, Competitor Group Inc. employees wondered what they could do for Abel. Employees dug through the company archives and found medals from 14 of the events Abel raced. On top of that, they gifted her one of those coveted medal racks to hang them on.
“We know what those medals mean to runners,” said Dan Cruz, vice president of communications for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series. “We were able to give her those medals and showcase the power of the running community.”
Abel is still missing about 70 or her medals, but she’s optimistic.
“I’m so overwhelmed and appreciative that the running community would take the time to dig through a warehouse and find these old medals,” she said. “It absolutely shows how special this sport is.”
One the most important medals to Abel—the heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll—is one awarded to runners who participate in a race on a charity team. Abel participated in the American Cancer Society’s DetermiNation program to raise money and run for cancer research. Rock ‘n’ Roll was able to replace this special token, one that reminded Abel of why she ran—for her father and grandpa.