• Ben Jacoby

The Fastest Man On Stilts




The fastest man on stilts


It seems like an obscure goal: Being the fastest man on stilts.


But for me, it is part of changing the world. Leaving a mark. Making a statement.


Like most things that have never been done before, beating the 100 meter sprint on spring loaded stilts was logistically a hard thing to pull off. It’s also surprisingly bureaucratic.


It almost didn’t happen before it got started.


In the 11th hour, I was knocking on doors looking for a land surveyor. Why did I need a surveyor to break the100 meter sprint record on spring loaded stilts?


Let me back up.


The idea


I bought my spring-loaded stilts for a kangaroo Halloween costume, more out of a motivation to be funny than with any larger goals. They fit the part.


In 2014, my best friend and I traveled to Australia, and they seemed like a good thing to have on board.


We bought a bus and traveled the country with DJ equipment, stopping to put on shows at festivals. Pretty soon they became a part of our act. They became a novelty that caught people’s attention.


Something else dawned on me: I can run pretty fast in these. I started wondering if there was a world record for sprinting on spring-loaded stilts. Turns out there was, so I decided to train to beat it.


In 2015 after I returned to the states, I got busy with work and business and let the goal go for a bit. But in 2018, I started thinking about it again and began more serious training.


I spent 3 months on a track with a trainer and Doctor of Physical Therapy, Melvin Tann, breaking the distance into thirds, and then halfs. Over time, I got faster.


The current record was 14.3 seconds and I was timing in at 14.5 at my best attempts.


I knew that beating the record wasn’t just about being fast. It was about getting into a flow while operating under pressure. It was about biomechanics and being efficient. Fourteen seconds is not a lot of time, so every step has to be near perfect.


I knew then that I was going to do it. It was just a matter of when.


Burning Man 2018 seemed like the perfect place to break the record.


I go to Burning Man every year and have built a community of Israeli expats called the Flying Falafels. Sure, most people think of Burning Man as a large party for hippies. But it really is a place of expression, where art is created without borders and people come together in a unique community. For me, it’s a time to reset each year and shed my outer shell.


I show up each year as a character called Bam Bam, with a reverse mohawk dyed red and a romper. I knew I would have a good crowd of people who could help get me pumped up.


On the practical side, the ground is flat and I would have a team with me to help pull it off.


I set the date and ramped up my training as it grew closer.


The bureaucracy


To break the world record, Guinness requires two sports officials or laser timed gates, two local officials, two videographers, one photographer, and a surveyor to measure the distance and make sure the track is flat.


The laser gates were easy to find. They meant that I would have a way to measure my time accurately.


I found two city officials who agreed to show up. I have friends who are videographers and photographers who were already going to be at Burning Man and wanted to come along for the ride.


The land surveyor was the tricky part.


I found Ryan on a Facebook group for Theme Camp Organizers at Burning Man. He leads one of the largest camps every year, which offered him some credibility. He was also a land surveyor.


I contacted him and he offered to do the job.


The Accident


About a week before, I was merging onto the freeway and looking back at traffic to find my spoto in line. Suddenly, I felt a car hit mine from behind. I walked away from the accident with whiplash and a displaced vertebrae.


The injuries weren’t serious, but I was in pain and they left me questioning if continuing to train would cause further or even permanent damage. But I was on a mission and didn’t want to give up.


My first time back on the track a few days later shook my confidence. My speeds were down. My back and neck were aching. I fell during training, which didn’t help matters.


What if I had just spent the past year training for nothing?



Burning Man


In 2018, I arrived in character a couple days early but with a goal: to break the record. I had everything I needed in place.


Or so I thought.


In the days before I was to attempt it, I checked out the turf to make sure things were in order. I checked in with the officials at Burning Man to make sure we were good to go. All seemed squared away.


Then I began rallying the troops together. The photographers and videographer were with me. The officials confirmed they were onboard.


Ryan, the land surveyor, ran a huge camp at Burning man. I found him lying on the top of a trailer in his camp. I asked him if he was ready, and he looked up at me and said, “I am way too fucked up.”


I asked him about his partner who was with him.


Man, I haven’t seen him in two weeks,” he said.


I had 14 hours to find a land surveyor.


There is a saying at Burning man that goes, “playa provides,” which means the universe provides. I was really counting on the universe at this point.


I went back to the rest of the group and told them. So we went on a search, biking around Burning Man for hours, asking hundreds of people if they knew a landscape architect or land surveyor. We had the radio make an announcement.


During my search, someone suggested I should look for Coyote. The name seemed like it held promise. Finding him required more searching, but eventually people directed me to a camp where we found a pergola and two people sitting next to a fire.


As I walked up to them, I felt like I was entering the scene of a Quinton Terantino movie. One of the guys had a cowboy hat and a handkerchief. The other had long hair and a beard - He looked like he could be a coyote.


I asked for Coyote, and the guy with long hair began asking me what I needed him for.


He pointed to the guy in a cowboy hat and said, “Maybe he can help out.

He shook my hand and introduced himself as Coyote.

He told me he wasn’t a land surveyor, but that he had been building in the city of Burning Man for 21 years. Turns out he was the best fit for the job possible.


“Whatever your planning to do tomorrow morning is worth changing my plans,” he said. “Come pick me up.”


The morning of, he spent two hours setting up the track, only to find out we needed to move it. We spent more time getting the new location dialed in, and I was ready to go.


Standing at the starting line, I took some deep breaths and stretched. This was it. This is what I had worked for for the past year.


I crouched down to get ready and then began sprinting, letting the cheers of the crowd fuel me.


When I crossed the finish line, I looked back at the team.


Did I do it?” I asked them.


They looked back tentatively. Turns out the timing gates didn’t work.


I told myself it didn’t matter. I didn’t break the record that time, I was sure of it. I would try again.


When you run a 100 meter sprint, there is no room for error. You have little time to correct for anything that goes wrong.


By this time, it was warming up. The track material gets sticky when it’s warm, so I felt myself getting caught on it as I warmed up for a second try.


But I wasn’t quitting now. We had it all ready for a second attempt, so I went for it.


This time as I sprinted I could feel the momentum carrying me. Somewhere in my mind, I knew I had done it.


When I crossed the finish line, I slowed down and walked tensely back toward the track, my heart pounding. My friend raised up the clock in his hand: it said 13.5 seconds - .8 seconds faster than the record. We raised our arms in victory and hugged in celebration.


When I got back to my camp, I realized that there was a piece of evidence missing. It was the final measurement of the track. I couldn’t get ahold of Coyote to confirm he had done this.


There was a chance that the evidence we got at Burning Man may not satisfy Guinness World Record, I told myself that I could not leave the smallest chance for this not to make it into the book, so I concocted a Plan B.


Boulder


Two months later I flew to Boulder, CO, where my friends were, and attempted it again at a local high school.


We assembled a team once more and made another attempt.


This time, my time was 13.4 seconds, breaking my own record at Burning Man, by 0.1 seconds :)


Soon after, I was at a bar talking to a person and I mentioned I was the fastest man on stilts. “You’re not the fastest man. You’re the fastest sprinter,” he told me.


Challenge accepted.


So now, I am training to run the 2021 London Marathon on stilts for charity. No one has attempted a half marathon on stilts, let alone a full one, which would make it another record if I can pull it off. It’s an ambitious goal, absurd maybe. But every record broken at one point seemed crazy.


The reasons why


People ask me a lot why I did it.


Why spend all this time and energy working toward something that really only results in having my name on paper?


I don’t view it like that.


Breaking a world record is a chance to leave something behind. It is a way to push not only my own boundaries but others’. I had to get over my own fears and walk up to the starting line. There was no second place.


I went all in.


Not breaking the record wasn’t really ever a possibility in my mind.


It was another challenge I was determined to master.