By Michal Kapral
Woo-eee, what a race it was! I mean, really, is there anything in the world more thrilling than an epic showdown between the world's top two marathon jogglers? Not in this reporter's unbiased opinion.
When Zach and I agreed to race each other in the Salt Lake City Marathon, each juggling three beanbags every step of the way, I knew we'd be in for a good match-up; I just didn't know how much of a true mental and physical battle this joggle-off would be.
Zach Warren of West Virginia is a joggling force to behold. When I first set the world record of 3 hours 7 minutes and 44 seconds for the "fastest marathon while juggling three objects" in 2005, he made quick work of it, running a 3:07:05 just two months later.
We both faced off in our first marathon joggling duel at last year's famed Boston Marathon, where Zach pummeled me in the Newton Hills and blasted to a new world record time of 2:58:23, as I stumbled in for a 3:06:45.
I knew 2:58 was within my grasp, so I made some adjustments to my training (namely, more joggling mileage) and got a hold of some lighter beanbags and reclaimed the world record at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon last September, joggling home in 2:57:44. But Zach stunned the joggling world again in Philly with a 2:52:15, and the stage was set for a joggling marathon rematch in Salt Lake City.
Salt Lake was a great venue for several reasons: Neither of us would be on "hometown turf" (although Zach would be in his home country), I had run the course as a pacer and knew it was both fast and scenic, the roads were nice and wide – good for joggling elbow room – and the race director was very supportive. There were some concerns about the altitude, but we decided to go ahead with it.
Race day on Saturday, April 21, produced picture-perfect conditions for a joggler: partly cloudy, about 7C and no wind. When I arrived at the start at 6:15 a.m. I met up with the CBC TV crew, who would be filming the event with a golf cart, and the Chump Change Productions documentary film crew, who had two golf carts. I gave a spare Sport Juggling Co. "JOGGLER" beanbag to one of the doc guys in case one of us lost one.
Zach showed up sometime after 6:30 and we both did some juggling to calm our nerves and to warm up. I joggled around a bit and got some applause from some of the 7,000 runners lined up at the start. After a final gulp of Gatorade, Zach and I made our way to the elite entry at the front. I got major butterflies in my stomach as I gazed ahead at the winding road ahead, and the beautiful mountain peaks beyond.
The starting horn blasted at 7 a.m. and we were off. Toss, toss, toss, toss, toss, toss – a clean beginning for both of us. Relief. The first mile was downhill and we hit the mark in 5:45. The race continued on a downgrade until mile 5 and Zach and I stayed elbow-to-elbow on a very quick pace.
A few miles into the race, Zach had the first drop. As the inferior juggler, this gave me a little twinge of satisfaction and I couldn't hold back a grin.
After the fifth mile we wound through a gorgeous park. The air was fresh and crisp, but Zach and I were both feeling the altitude. My lungs were tight and I couldn't seem to to get enough oxygen into me no matter how deep a breath I took. Nevertheless, we were flying.
Zach pushed the pace through the uphill section from miles five to 12, and around the 12-mile mark we bumped into each other where there was a fork in the road. Zach veered right, thinking the course went that way, while I kept going straight, which turned out to be the right direction. Our little collision resulted in my first drop of the race, and also left me in Zach's wake. I didn't want to burn myself out trying to catch him as he was still pushing a zippy pace.
On a long climb uphill, Zach continued to gain on me. I was gasping for air at the top of the hill and it looked like Zach had about 30 seconds on me. My legs were starting to ache already and it wasn't even halfway. I seriously considered giving up.
But the marathon being the marathon – a long enough race that you can die, rise to heaven and be born again – I caught a second wind at about mile 15. Zach stopped for water and I cruised past him.
Once I was in the lead, I started to feel really good. My confidence was back, my legs felt fresh again and my breathing steadied. It was just me, the open road and three stinky golf carts and camera crews.
Over the next few miles, spectators were saying, "Go juggler!" in the singular, so I knew I had a decent lead on Zach. He later told me it was about 40 seconds. I eased off a bit from 6:20 per mile to 6:30 to stay on 2:50 marathon pace, knowing the real race would start at 20 miles.
Zach caught back up to me when I made my first pit stop of the race – for Gatorade – at about 19 miles. I was actually really happy to see him as it meant I would have someone to run with. A couple of times I tucked in behind him to draft, because a bit of a wind had picked up. We stayed neck-and-neck for the next three miles, neither of us saying much. We were both starting to get seriously frazzled and our pace was slowing down.
As we approached mile 22, Zach started babbling to me about needing to stop for water and I knew this was my chance to make a break. At the next aid station, Zach pulled aside like an F1 driver desperately needing a top-up and I zoomed on.
For some reason, I started bobbing my head around like Paula Radcliffe and found that it helped me keep in a trance; the head-bobbing made me forgot the agony in my shoulders and legs and I surged for the next two miles. My body was full of endorphins and the world record was still within my grasp.
By mile 24, the endorphins were exhausted and so was The Joggler. The real world began to recede and everything started to go blurry. My arms were juggling and my legs were running but I wasn't even paying attention to them. All I could think about was the pain and the urge to just stop, toss my beanbags into the nearest ditch and sit down at the side of the road for a good long cry.
And so it was that after 24 miles of intense joggling, I skidded abruptly to a halt in the middle of a wide, empty road. I heard the squeal of the golf carts' breaks. I needed a break. I needed to rest my arms and catch my breath. And I needed to think about how to do this, how to go on.
What propels a marathon joggler to carry on through those final miles of agony? It's the fear of being in limbo. Stopping before the finish line doesn't give you any closure. There's nowhere to go. You're in the middle of a road. You're nowhere. You're nothing. You can't just give up when you're nowhere and nothing. Moving forward is the only way to be somewhere and something.
After a deep, oxygen-deprived breath, I began juggling. Right toss, left toss, right toss, left. Now the legs, right foot, left foot, right foot, left. I started to recite "The Foot Book" by Dr. Seuss, which I had been reading to Annika at bedtime recently:
Up feet, down feet,
Here come clown feet
Small feet, big feet,
Here come pig feet
Everything remained a blur, but I was moving forward and that was the important thing. I concentrated on not passing out. The spectators became more numerous in the final mile and their cheering helped. With one mile to go, I knew the record was out of reach. I needed to run a sub-6:00 mile. No way. I was in survival mode.
Dianne, the kids and our friend Annette were screaming my name at this point but I didn't even remember. I thought I heard them but my brain wasn't able to make the right connections. And I ran. And I juggled.
I had another drop – my third, I think – sometime after mile 25. I remembered saying out loud, "Let's do this!" before I set out for the finish. As the road narrowed into the fantastic finale in downtown Salt Lake, when I knew I would miss the record, I did a few high tosses for the crowd and missed a ball for my fourth drop of the marathon. About 35,000 catches and four drops – not bad.
A quick sprint to the end brought me in at 2 hours, 53 minutes and 28 seconds – a personal best, the best I could have done, but one minute and 13 seconds shy of the record that I so desperately wanted.
For a fraction of a second when I crossed the line, I didn't know whether to smash the balls down on ground in frustration or to celebrate a race well raced and a joggling battle well won. But a final high toss and a low catch left me jubilant. I won. I raced it as I would have the Olympic marathon. I joggled my heart and lungs and arms and legs out.
Just over 3 1/2 minutes later, Zach came across the line, looking probably much the same way I did when I finished: like burnt toast. I read later that the famous juggler Steven Ragatz talked to Zach after the finish and asked him how he felt. Zach told him it was "like he had just drunk 10 cheap beers," at which point Steven told him he should have just stuck to drinking the beer and taken a pass on the whole marathon running thing.
Steven's words gave me a good laugh, but I wouldn't have traded this joggling battle for anything. I've been following marathon running races for almost a decade now and I think this was one of the most exciting duels there has ever been in the history of marathon racing ... in this reporter's unbiased opinion.