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Juggling for 26.2 miles -- it 'joggles' the mind

Zach Warren, a record-setting joggler, trains in Cambridge for his Boston Marathon matchup with archrival Michal Kapral.
Zach Warren, a record-setting joggler, trains in Cambridge for his Boston Marathon matchup with archrival Michal Kapral. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)

Michal Kapral is the better runner. Pushing his 20-month-old daughter, Annika, in a stroller, he ran the Toronto marathon in 2 hours 49 minutes. With no baby in tow, his personal best is 2:32.

Zach Warren is the better juggler. Bowling pins, knives, and torches are all child's play to him. He can juggle while riding a unicycle; he can juggle while blindfolded.

On Marathon Monday, the two men will take their positions at the starting line in Hopkinton in what may prove to be one of the most curious showdowns in race history. Warren, a Harvard Divinity School student, is the current world record-holder in the obscure sport of marathon ''joggling," the official term for juggling while running. The man he stole the title from? That would be Kapral.

In the 20-odd-year history of joggling, two jogglers have never run the same marathon -- until now.

Warren, 24, and Kapral, 33, of Toronto, plan on running side by side, each juggling three bean-filled balls, for 20 or even 25 miles of the Boston race. From that point on, it'll be a sprint to the finish. May the best joggler win.

''It was a sort of a joke when I first started doing it," says Kapral, an editor for Westford-based Captivate Network, which operates electronic news boards found in elevators. ''But after doing it for hours and hours and miles and miles, I appreciate it as a truly beautiful sport. There's something poetic about it. When you get into a good groove and you see the balls flying in front of you, it really is poetry. You're a little moving circus."

''The way I figure," says Warren, a West Virginia native, ''if you're running a marathon, you're already in pain. Why not have a little fun while you're doing it? After all, laughter is an antidote."

Warren eclipsed Kapral's record by 41 seconds at the Philadelphia Marathon in November, finishing in 3:07:05. Competing head-to-head, the two hope to break three hours in Boston -- assuming Kapral doesn't lose a ball in the jostle at the starting line, or a bug doesn't fly into Warren's eye, as happened in his last race.

''It's not that people haven't joggled marathons before," says Bill Giduz, who helped coin the term ''joggling" in the early 1980s and is one of the sport's leading advocates. ''But these guys are the fastest yet. It would be wonderful if we have a photo finish. One could win by a ball."

The official story
According to joggling rules, Warren and Kapral can't take more than two steps without juggling. If someone drops a ball, he has to stop, go to the spot where he dropped it, and resume running from there.

About 800 runners in the United States identify themselves as jogglers, says Albert Lucas, co-founder of the Tampa-based International Sport Juggling Federation. Fewer than 100 of those runners are marathoners, Lucas says, making Monday's competition the most anticipated joggling event of the year.

''We'll have officials there," says Lucas, who himself holds the record for joggling the most marathons (12) without dropping a ball. ''Whoever crosses the finish line, we'll be able to certify them on the spot."

Jack Fleming, communications director for the Boston Athletic Association, says there are no rules against juggling during the race, just as there are no restrictions against running it backwards, in bare feet, wearing military gear, or dressed as Elvis.

''For some, the marathon is not enough," says Fleming. ''It needs to be more. 'How can we add a layer?' Some people might purely add that layer by trying to run as fast as possible. These guys are trying to add a layer by adding complexity."

While juggling and running may appear to have little in common, a juggler's arms sway back and forth almost exactly like a runner's. When throws are timed correctly, the motion is practically seamless, jogglers say.

''As long as you see where the ball peaks, you can usually position your hand to catch it; after a while it becomes natural," says Warren, who first tinkered with the sport in college, when he would relax before a big track meet by juggling on the sidelines.

Kapral, one of Canada's best marathoners, began joggling a little more than a year ago, after setting the Guinness world record for ''fastest marathon for pushing a baby in a stroller" in 2004.

''Everyone was asking me what I was going to do the next year," to top that," says Kapral. ''I'm not a juggler. I was dropping balls every three seconds at the beginning. Eventually, I could run an hour without dropping them. It's amazing what you can train yourself to do."

Kapral shattered the old world record by 13 minutes in the first marathon he ever joggled, the 2005 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Warren broke that record two months later while joggling his first marathon, the Philadelphia Marathon.

The challenge of Boston
The elements likely will play a large role in determining which man will take Boston. Kapral, the weaker juggler, says he struggled during the Toronto marathon because it was so humid.

''Toward the end of it, I was just covered in stickiness and was dropping the balls," he said ''Once I kicked it, too, by accident."

Kapral's juggling skills will also be tested while he fights his way through the sea of runners at the beginning of the race.

''When you're in a pack, you slow down because you're worried about dropping them," says Gil Pontius, 41, a Clark University professor who joggled the 1998 Boston Marathon in 4:35. ''I was in a close pack in the first 10 miles. I didn't want to lose a ball and have someone fall on it and trip and break an ankle."

But should Monday be a dry and windless day, the odds will favor the stronger runner, jogglers say. In this case, that is clearly Kapral, who won Toronto's marathon in 2002 and was the top Canadian finisher in the Boston Marathon that same year.

Warren, the local favorite, acknowledges that his competition will be stiff and that he is less prepared than he could be.

''I've been training for a unicycle record, not a running record," said the second-year graduate student, who two weeks ago attempted to ride the most miles on a unicycle in a single hour, only to fall short when a wheel bolt broke during his attempt in Fargo, N.D.

''We'll be running cooperatively for a certain period of time -- maybe 20 miles, maybe 25," Warren says. ''Then at some point, someone's going to turn on the fire. Mostly likely it's going to be him. So make sure you take your pictures before that point."

Kapral says it's anyone's race.

''Zach is incredibly talented, obviously," says Kapral. ''He broke my record. I'm certainly not going to brush him aside."

Beyond setting a world record, the two jogglers will be running to raise money for children's charities. Kapral is raising donations for the Toronto charity ''A Run For Liane," whose goal is to build a cancer research center, while Warren is trying to raise $10,000 for the Afghan Mobile Mini-Circus for Children, a Kabul-based group for which he volunteers as a juggling and unicycle instructor.

By sticking together most of the way, Kapral and Warren figure to attract twice as much attention to their causes.

They'll certainly turn twice as many heads.

''With joggling, I get a whole variety of reactions," says Warren. ''Complete laughter. Sometimes, like, absurd laughter. I hear people say, 'You know, if you drop one, you have to go back to the starting line.' Or 'Don't blink!' Some people say 'You're absurd,' or 'I wish I could do that.' And some say, 'Now, you're just showing off.' "

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