Monday, October 8, 2007

3 beanbags, 3 sticks of gum, one joggling world record

A few minutes before the race start, on the morning of the most important day of my career as a marathon joggler, I got some distressing news.

"You can't go through here," the race official told me. "Elites only. You have to go around."

"But," I protested, "I'm The Joggler!"

"Sorry. Go around," the woman said, unmoved.

So around I ran, sprinting a full city block to the entrance for the "sub-elites," and made it into the corral just before the 7 a.m. start time of the 2007 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.

I had just enough time to pop three sticks of gum into my mouth, catch my breath from the pre-race sprint, shake my arms out and start juggling the three white Sportballs in my hands. The horn sounded and off we went, into the Toronto dawn – 9,000 runners and one joggler.

It was a beautiful morning for a marathon. Before the start of the race, we heard that Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie had broken the world record for the marathon in Berlin earlier that day, lowering the mark to 2:04:26. I took this as a sign; I had to set a world record on the same day as my hero Haile.

Running this marathon felt like coming home to an old friend. This was my fourth year in a row racing the Waterfront and I had set Guinness World Records each the past three times, one for the fastest marathon while pushing a baby in a stroller and twice for the fastest three-ball "joggling" marathon.

This year, I was once again trying to reclaim my joggling world record from my American joggler rival, Zach Warren, who had run a sizzling 2:52:15 in Philadelphia in November 2006.

Earlier this year, Zach and I duked it out at the Salt Lake City Marathon. I won the joggling battle by four minutes over Zach, but fell just over a minute short of the world record. 'CBC News: Sunday' documented the duel with a jogglingly stunning 15-minute report that led off the show on national TV in Canada. The piece was funny and moving, but it also forced me to watch myself come to a dead stop twice near the end of the race, as the world record slipped away. I yelled at my TV: "Don't just stand there, you idiot!" But it was no use.

After the Salt Lake disappointment, I announced my retirement from the sport of joggling. I felt it was time to do something "important," like help save the planet, or maybe feed my family and do some gardening. But the lure of record-breaking was too much to resist. As I said in the documentary Breaking and Entering, "I don't want to say I'm the second-best joggler in the world. It's like, how many are there, two?" Knowing my obsession, my wife Dianne told me: "Give it one more shot in Toronto." A few weeks later, I came out of retirement for one more shot at joggling glory.

Juggling two jobs and two kids, I fit in my training whenever and wherever I could, usually joggling home from work in downtown Toronto. It was the most fun I've ever had training for a marathon. I did tricks and bounced beanbags off street signs and walls. People along my route learned who I was and said things like, "Get that record back."

I had also decided to add a new twist: I would run the whole thing while chewing gum. When people saw me joggling, I heard a lot of comments like, "Yeah, but can you chew gum while you do that?" I started to chew gum in training, for my own personal amusement, and so I could tell those people, "Yes, in fact, I can chew gum while running and juggling." I tried, for real, to get a chewing gum sponsorship from Wrigley, but they advised me that running while chewing their product was a potentially dangerous activity.

Every day, I ran past a bus shelter with the Reebok Run Easy ad that said "Run to the beat of your own drummer." I always got a good smile out of that one. The folks at Reebok saw the connection too, and put together a joggling ad campaign based on the tag line.

About 5K into the marathon, I was joined by the documentary film crew that has been following the joggling saga for the past year. They filmed the rest of the race from a golf cart.

The lightweight Sportballs felt easy to toss and I focused on staying relaxed and on pace. I hit 10K in 39:30 with no drops. The gum was still bursting with flavour. I had planned to cycle through three or four sets of gum, with the first switch time at the one-hour mark. But at one hour, the gum still tasted good, and I was on a roll at 2:49 marathon pace, so I just kept chewing and joggling.

The cheering sections were insanely loud. I wasted precious energy laughing through the noise. I stopped a couple of times for Gatorade to prevent a glycogen crash in the later stages of the race.

The halfway point went by in a drop-free 1:24.

At 25.5K, I finally had my first drop. I don't know what happened. I just reached for the ball and it wasn't there. Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to go back to the start of the race if you drop; you just start again from behind where the ball fell.

The next 10K started to get very tough, but I had saved enough energy to push through it and stay focused. With about 5K to go, I hit that point in the marathon where your body tells your brain that it would be really nice to stop for a while. Before the start of the race, Dianne told me, "Michal, don't stop. Whatever happens, no matter how much it hurts, don't stop."

These words echoed in my head in those final few kilometres. I repeated them over and over. Don't stop, don't stop, don't stop. I would not stop. I could feel myself slowing down, but I did not want a repeat of Salt Lake. Don't stop, don't stop, don't stop.

At 40K, I wanted to spit the gum out because it had finally lost most of its flavour, but I couldn't do it. That gum was coming along with me to the finish line, I decided. It was going to be part of the record.

On the last 400m straightaway, I didn't know if I was under the record time or not. My friend George came running alongside me and gave me the good news: I was going to do it. Relief. Elation.

In the final sprint to the end I saw the clock at 2:49:51 and in a mad dash to crack 2:50, I dropped for the second time. After a quick regrouping, I joggled in at 2:50:12, a new Guinness World Record. I was literally leaping for joy as I crossed the line.

NDP Leader Jack Layton presented me with an arrangement of flowers, which I gave to Dianne for supporting her insane husband in his kooky endeavours ... and especially for telling me not to stop.


Jennifer said...

I just finished the Runningmania version of this report, but this one is better. :)

I want to know if you're really going to retire, Michal...

Perry said...

Great report Michal, and congratulations on being the fastest marathoning juggler in the world.

The Joggler said...

This time I'm not retiring, but I don't think I'll joggle another marathon unless someone breaks my record. I still want that 5,000m record, though. And I think I'll be doing some backwards training to see how fast I can go in reverse.

M@ said...

That was a fun read. Thanks for sharing it first hand. I don't need to hear any other version. I applaud your craziness... I completed a marathon last year - hardest thing I've done - and your story motivates me to maybe try another one.


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