NEW YORK — When the Fort Wadsworth cannon sounds on Nov. 4, propelling more than 47,000 marathon runners across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge for the New York City Marathon, Jack Hirschowitz’s first strides will be charged by the steady pulse of three white spheres, looping like electrons orbiting around an invisible core. “It’s mayhem at the start," said Hirschowitz, a psychiatrist. “Everyone is excited. People are taking pictures. Elbows are jostling."
So it’s no one’s fault, he explained, if his flying beanbags are bumped or even dropped.
“I carry two extra in my fanny pack just in case," he said, adding that other runners need not worry. “They flatten if they get stepped on."
Strangers may call him a showoff, but if he completes his fifth New York City Marathon, Hirschowitz, 67, will be the oldest person to joggle a marathon.
Yes, joggle. That’s juggling while jogging. Or is it jogging while juggling?
“Juggling came first for me," Hirschowitz said.
When he was an only child in rural Kalkfeld, Namibia, his mother taught him to juggle a three-ball cascade pattern. Soon he could do it while using a hula hoop.
“I was a natural," said Hirschowitz, who spent hours after school studying acrobats and clowns at a small traveling circus.
He started jogging as an adult to stay in shape. Not wanting to cut out his juggling time, he figured he would try both. “The treadmill is pretty boring," he said.
Now, he has an act of his own, and some refer to him as the Intellectual Joggler.
“I’m flattered to be called that," he said, “but I really don’t try to perform."
He does love the attention, he admitted, and during treadmill training at Equinox or loops through Central Park, Hirschowitz’s wide, toothy grin flashes as brightly as the white balls he juggles. Feedback is almost constant from passers-by (excluding the distracted multitaskers one might call wexters — walkers who text).
“People call me Joggle Man and cheer, ‘Go, juggler, go!’" he said, noting that in one race his daughter wore a shirt that said, “I’m with the Joggler."
Hirschowitz combined juggling and jogging in the early 1990s, thinking it was his own oddity. But he discovered that his activity had a name and a community.
Claiming the gold
The first official joggling event was at the 1981 International Jugglers’ Association festival. Championed by Bill Giduz, a longtime editor for Juggler’s World and the man who some say coined the term (as opposed to the slightly less serious ruggling), the World Joggling Competition soon picked up speed. In 1998 Hirschowitz attended his first IJA festival, in Primm, Nev., where jogglers were racing in events from 50 to 5,000 meters.
“There aren’t many people in the masters division," said Hirschowitz, who has competed at every distance, including sprints. “I come away with gold medals; I probably have 20 or 30 of them."
Albert Lucas, founder of the International Sport Juggling Federation, is trying to expand the sport by recording race results, archiving joggling history and standardizing guidelines.
“Many spectators expect you to show up with orange hair, a red nose and floppy shoes," said Lucas, who was invited by Fred Lebow to joggle the 1987 New York City Marathon after Lucas set the first official marathon joggling record in Los Angeles the same year.
Joggling, he explained, is not about doing tricks or showing off as cheap entertainment, which is why he prefers the term “sport juggling."
“At one point in my career I had to ask myself if I was an artist or an athlete," Lucas said. “But artists don’t set and break world records. That’s the domain of the athlete."
Michal Kapral of Canada, the world’s fastest marathon joggler with a time of 2 hours, 50 minutes, 12 seconds, described the activity as “a fringe sport for the odd lunatic."
“I thought the term joggling was hilarious," he said.
But when Kapral tried joggling as a charity benefit stunt, he was hooked. He soon began trading the record with his rival Zach Warren, a laughter researcher at Harvard, and was grateful for a reason to “still act like a little kid."
“It looks ridiculous, but just like running, joggling is addictive," Kapral said.
He added: “The motion of the juggling pattern syncs up perfectly with the swing of the arms during the running stride. I go into a sort of trance, not looking directly at the balls, but looking through them at the road ahead."
Joggling has two rules: a runner must juggle at least three balls every step of the way, and if a ball drops, the runner must return and resume from that point. Besides that, anything goes. Records have been set with five balls. Clubs are possible, but awkward. Knives are discouraged. Hurdling should be left to the experts.
Most jogglers choose palm-size beanbags stuffed with birdseed, light enough for long distances but heavy enough to withstand winds. On average, Hirschowitz said, he drops three or four balls throughout the 26.2 miles; most happen near the end.
“Mile 20 starts getting tough for me," said Hirschowitz, who has endured elbow tendinitis, sore thumb pads and occasional foot pain.
His office contains medals, framed marathon photos and juggling posters. For years he used juggling as a metaphor in a leadership workshop he taught for other doctors. Dropping balls, for instance, taught students to learn from their mistakes, and juggling with knives encouraged them to attempt cutting-edge skills.
“There’s the forest and the trees," Hirschowitz said. “You have to see the pattern in the air and at the same time you have to keep an eye on every ball so you can fix the pattern if something goes wrong."
During a weekly schedule that includes leading the New York chapter of the American Psychiatric Association, 10 hours of joggling, five hours of teaching and 40 hours of clinical work, Hirschowitz sometimes wears running clothes under his suit to facilitate a quick change. On Thursday nights he practices with the Carmine Street Jugglers, working on his butterfly, a move in which he rolls a clear acrylic sphere from arm to arm before balancing it on his forehead. He has been known to joggle throughout New York Road Runners’ midnight race on New Year’s Eve with blue, electrically charged balls.
Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist who joggles ultramarathons and writes a blog called Just Your Average Joggler, estimated that nearly 1,000 people joggle in the United States, but Hirschowitz may be the only one in this year’s New York marathon.
“That individuality is great; it adds to the mosaic that is the marathon," said Richard Finn, a spokesman for Road Runners, which has turned down marathon stunts proposed by Guinness World Records. “But we’re not the circus."
Romanowski’s blog encourages jogglers to practice good etiquette by running to the side and out of the way. “Other runners will hate you," he wrote, “especially if you are ahead of them."
Hirschowitz said that crowds usually cheer as he runs past, but remembered one year when he crossed the finish line with a young man who said: “What an embarrassment! What’s my wife going to think when she sees a juggler finishing at the same time as me?"
Hirschowitz said he hoped to cut his time to 4:30 after finishing last year’s marathon in 4:43.
“Most people think I would run a lot faster without juggling," he said, adding that his arms got stiff when he was not juggling while jogging.
“But to be honest, the hard part is the running."