Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Without a Drop: Joggling the Chicago Marathon

At the halfway point of the 2016 Bank of America Chicago Marathon, my joggling world record of 2:50:12 was still within my grasp. I glanced over at the clock to see 1:25:24, making sure to keep the tosses and catches in a perfect three-ball cascade. It would be possible run a slight negative split for a sub-2:50, but I could already feel an ache in my legs that I knew would turn into agony in the final miles.

The night before the race, my wife Dianne and I heard Meb Keflezighi speak at the marathon expo. He had a lot of motivating things to say, but I remembered one thing he said about backing off slightly to avoid a massive bonk in the last three miles. I've run 33 marathons and have a good idea what my limits are and I felt I was on course for a crash. I decided to follow Meb's advice and edge off my pace slightly to focus on not falling apart. Finishing a marathon is hard enough. Trying to maintain a 6:29-per-mile pace while juggling is quite another.
Even though the pace was a little too hot, I felt ecstatic about the first half of the marathon. Joggling a big marathon is always nerve-racking at the start. You're jammed in a big crowd of anxious runners. There's excitement, nerves and usually lots of jostling. And jostling is a joggler's enemy. But I managed to get off to a clean start, running off to the right side of the road. The first mile cruised by with no drops, despite a badly watering left eye that not only caused blurred vision but also double and distorted vision - also a joggler's enemy. I didn't want to stop and wipe my eye since it was still quite crowded, so I just pressed on, trying to blink out a tear to clear it up. The blur continued for miles, and was soon compounded by a torturous itch under my nose. The inability to scratch an itch or wipe an eye is one of the overlooked challenges of marathon joggling. My joggling rival Zach Warren said he once ran the final eight miles of a joggling marathon with a bug in his eye.

There were other more welcome distractions. Right from the start, the spectators went absolutely berserk as I joggled past. Because of this, I had a huge grin plastered on my face. Sometimes I laughed out loud. There were cries of "There's the juggler!" and "Go juggling guy!" But by far the most common refrain was: "It's the guy from the commercial!" or "Go Fairfield guy!" I literally heard this every 10 or 20 seconds throughout the marathon. Fairfield Inn and Suites had sponsored me to joggle Chicago and I was keen to prove that the "fastest marathon juggler" - as I'm billed in the campaign - was a real person, and that joggling was a real thing.

My main goal was break my 2:50 record, but I had a somewhat secret secondary goal of joggling a marathon without a drop in under 3 hours. I didn't want to put too much pressure on myself to pull off the feat since it's far too easy to let it slip between your fingertips, especially with the crowds and distractions of a major marathon like Chicago. But when I joggled past 30K still without a drop and still on sub-3-hour pace, I knew I had a shot at my decade-long dream of a drop-less sub-3.

Along the way, I stopped maybe six times to refuel at the aid stations. As long as I come to a complete stop, the official joggling rules allow you to stop juggling as you eat or drink - you just need to be juggling every step of the way forward for the entire 26.2 miles. I drank two cups of Gatorade with each stop and one time ate a gel with two cups of water. I also stopped twice to wipe my watery eyes. I have allergies, so my eyes tend to water a lot. Just my luck.

At 23 miles, my arms began to hurt badly. I use lightweight joggling beanbags for racing (extra-small size Sportballs by Sport Juggling Company), but after about 45,000 tosses and catches of a 50,000-toss race, the pain kicks in regardless of beanbag weight. My legs were not functioning very well, either. The cardio felt great but I was entering survival mode, just focusing on every stride, every toss, every catch, and every breath. "In the pocket," I told myself over and over, referring to the perfect landing spot for every throw - just in front of the hip, exactly where the open palm of my hand ends up at the front of the arm swing during my running stride.

A few gusts of wind nearly derailed my no-drop goal. Once I caught an errant ball between thumb for forefinger, mere millimetres off a sure drop. Another time a wind gust blew my pattern out of whack and I joggled wildly for five or six strides trying to get the juggling cascade re-synced with my running. Somehow, I held it together.

With 400 metres to go, I flew into an absolute panic that I would drop near the finish, as I did when I set the world record in Toronto in 2007. Normally, I look through the balls and just trust my peripheral vision to catch them, but with so much up in the air, I decided to stare at every toss. I told myself repeated, "You cannot drop. There is nothing in the world more important than not dropping a ball right now." It worked. I did manage to smile in the final stretch and crossed the line smiling, elated and drop-less. I yelled a huge "YES!" raising the three beanbags in a triumphal arch above my head. "I can't believe I just did that," I said out loud, to no one.

It was a 2:55:25 and the fastest joggling marathon ever completed without a drop. Against all odds, the dream had come true.

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