Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Joggler Out: Spinning My 5-Ball Joggling Marathon Fail as a Success

I'm just going to throw this out there: Sometimes when you set ridiculously challenging goals for yourself, you will fail. That's exactly what happened to me at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon last Sunday. My goal was to set a new Guinness World Record for the fastest marathon while joggling five objects.

There was no current record, but the Guinness records-keepers decided through some calculus that 4 hours 40 minutes was the time to beat. This doesn't sound very quick, but here's the thing: running while simultaneously juggling five balls is exceedingly difficult. To a non-joggler, I might put it like this: joggling a marathon with three balls is like running a regular marathon, while joggling a marathon with five balls is like running a marathon hopping on your left foot only for the entire 42.2km. It's exponentially harder the further the distance.

422 drops to glory?

Leading up the race, my training had gone quite well. I practiced running 100m, 200m intervals joggling five balls, and worked my way up to being able to do some 400m joggles around the U of T Varsity track without dropping. But my average drop rate was still around every 100m, which is 422 drops for the marathon. I still thought it might be manageable, but knew based on timing my 100m joggles that a 4:40 marathon would be almost impossible.

Lucky for me, I had a chance do some training with five-ball joggling record-holder Matt Feldman, who is incredibly quick at the 400m, mile and 5K.

I also had lunch with five-ball joggling legend Barry Goldmeier, who regularly runs large portions of marathons while juggling five beanbags.

The week before the race, CTV News and CP24 ran stories about the record attempt.

I still can't stop laughing at the fact that I secured a sponsorship from the best cinnamon bun shop in Toronto. Thank you, Rosen's Cinnamon Buns for supporting my joggling dreams. A huge thank-you as well to Cheryl Sayers from Sport Juggling Company for the amazing Sportball beanbags.

Joggling jitters

Zach arrived from D.C. on Friday and we toured Toronto riding BikeShare bikes on Saturday, which was probably not the best thing to do the day before trying to set a world record. I hadn't seen Zach in 10 years, when we raced each other at the 2007 Salt Lake City Marathon. I discovered that he's still one of the greatest people you could ever meet.

Zach has worked as a circus performer, and is an expert juggler. The night before the marathon, we went out to practice some joggling to see how close he should follow during the race. Zach tried five-ball joggling and actually had some trouble with it. I realized that all my training had actually worked. I had developed a new skill (perhaps not the most useful skill in the world, but still...).

Race day. My nerves were joggling big-time, since I still didn't know if this record was even possible. It was very difficult to tell during my training how the race would play out, since I trained on a track, or on an empty stretch of road in my neighbourhood. Zach and I lined up in the slowest corral for marathon finish times of 4:30 and slower. I decided to start near the front of this group, thinking if I got a good clean start, I could stay up front in the clear and avoid the crowds. But just before the horn sounded for our corral's start, a bunch of runners shimmied in front of me and Zach, and I suddenly found myself squished in a large crowd.

I was immediately in a panic, trying to maintain the high tosses of the five-ball juggling pattern. I dropped several times right near the beginning, and scrambled to regroup right away so I didn't interfere with the runners behind me. This caused me to drop even more. I was exhausted almost right from the gun, and it just got worse from there. On the bright side, the spectators were loving it, and Zach shouted encouraging words to pull me out of my panicked state. It was still crowded up until about 3km, but by the time I had slowed enough to have some space to juggle, my energy was sapped. I felt like I had already run a marathon. I should've started at the very back and not worried about trying to run 4:40, but it was too late.

Give me a hand

My hand injury turned out to be a muscle tear.
In my frenzy, I somehow managed to injure my left hand, which began to hurt more and more with each toss. I hit 5K in 46 minutes, already 13 minutes behind schedule. Zach told me, based on my stride length and toss rate, that I would be making 130,000 tosses and catches for the marathon. It's going to be a long day, I thought. The next 5K took me 56 minutes. My hand was now in serious trouble, shooting pain up my forearm with each toss and catch. By the 13K turnaround on Lake Shore, I had entered survival mode. "We're going to finish this," Zach said. "My flight doesn't leave until tomorrow."

Close to my break point at about 15K, the race film crew showed up. Wonderful, I thought. Everyone can watch me fall apart. And they did. As I inched forward a few steps at a time, the camera crew remained. I thought about all the people who had donated to SickKids Foundation, I thought about the sick kids, and I thought about how lucky I was to be out there doing this.

The commentary on the race video is priceless. Canadian Running editor-in-chief Michael Doyle says it looks like a slow form of torture, and he was right!

Things were not going well at all.

I thought I could just will myself through the rest of the race, even if it took 15 or 20 hours. But just before the 17K marker, I knew my hand was too damaged to go on. I got the five-ball pattern going, joggled to the 17K sign, caught the balls, turned to Zach behind me, and declared, "Joggler out." At this point, we were in last place in the entire race of 18,000 people, followed by a line of police cars.

Zach said we should continue to run the rest of the marathon without juggling, and I agreed, though I secretly planned to bail at the half. A couple of kilometres later, we ran past three mounted police officers. Zach ran over to them and, employing his deft social skills from a decade of living and working in Afghanistan, he convinced them to gallop behind me on a final joggle. It was quite the scene. I ended up joggling at a good clip, as the clack of the hooves sounded altogether too close behind me.

Regular running

We continued on. Near the halfway point, we ran into my parents, my sister, Moira, and my niece, Kate. My mom reminded us that the course had a time limit of 6 hours. "A sub-2 half? We can do that!" Zach said, cheerfully. I put on my best smiley face, and off we went for another half marathon. We shared some good laughs with the walkers, and were ever grateful for the volunteers who remained at the scene to offer Gatorade and water to last runners and walkers. My entire body felt like it was falling apart, but somehow I found the strength to keep running. Zach hadn't run a marathon since our 2007 joggling duel in Salt Lake, and recently had back surgery, so he wasn't doing so well himself. But we chatted and laughed and joked our way through the rest of it.

I juggled for the last few metres across the finish line. Two of my beanbags hit the timing clock above the finish and thumped to the ground on the finish line. Seemed appropriate that these extra two balls fell at the end.


Joggling five balls every step of the way over long distances is very hard. Ludicrous, really. I knew this challenge had a good chance of failure. But I emerged from the experience with an odd sense of excitement. I tried. I gave it everything. I juggled to the last catch possible.

I had the privilege of running with Zach Warren for 5 hours and 40 minutes, a great way to catch up with a friend after 10 years. I got to see my wife Dianne and kids, Annika and Lauryn at the end. Lots of people donated to SickKids, raising nearly $2,000. Zach and I posted a negative split of 1 hour 56 minutes and 31 seconds, possibly the largest negative split ever in a marathon. I joggled five balls of the race for 17K, which is likely the furthest anyone has gone for every step, returning behind the drop point after each drop. Zach and I had a chance to experience what it's like to be in last place in an IAAF Gold Label marathon. We met so many amazing people along the route. I got to joggle with a mounted police escort.

There was some pretty entertaining media coverage after the race, from Canadian Running, Men's Journal, Sky Sports, and the Toronto Star. The Twitter Moment for it was even shared around the world by Twitter Moments and Twitter Sports.

As joggler Bob Evans said to me on Facebook after the race, "There is no story without conflict. Your 5-ball marathon quest just got a lot more compelling. Keep going!" In this case, I battled the record, and the record won. This was captured perfectly in this screenshot of race video of me looking like a dejected gorilla.

Joggler out, but not down.