Pogo Stick Marathon – Morocco

An extract from the book – Sports the Olympics Forgot.

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The modern pogo stick was invented just after World War I, although there is some debate as to whether it was first created in America or Germany. The German inventors were Hans Pohlig and Ernst Gottschall and the first two letters of their surnames do make the word POGO. A German patent was registered in Hanover in March 1920.

Pogo stick racing has been gaining in popularity in recent years, but the longest race for pogo stick competitors was started in 1970 by a group of backpackers in Essaouira in Morocco. They started pogo sticking along the Atlantic coast in the late 1960s and even tried reaching Marrakech but the wear and tear on their sticks was too great. In April 1969, one of the backpackers Kevin Duffner of Great Britain pogo sticked all the way to Ounagha, a distance of around 25 kilometres, without stopping, other than for a drinks break

The pogo stickers sent out word that the first world championship of pogo stick racing would take place on April 6th, 1970 from Ounagha, down to the coast at Essaouira. Around 200 competitors duly arrived for the event and were transported to the start of the race in camper vans. At 7am the starter shouted “Yeah, you can start now, if you want” and the contestants headed towards the coast at a speed of roughly 2.5 miles per hour.

Ahead of the racers a VW van crawled along the road looking out for stray sheep or donkeys and making sure they didn’t interfere with the race. Interested Moroccan bystanders watched the progress of the racers with some incredulity but didn’t get in anyone’s way. Another VW van brought up the rear and acted as a drinks van and ambulance for those who couldn’t continue. A dozen volunteers also walked along by the side of the racers and gave them drinks if they were thirsty.

The winner of the first race was Herbie Jones from Adelaide in Australia in a time of 5 hours and 49 minutes; he was one of only eighteen finishers as most people found the physical effort too much and decided to walk to Essaouira instead. Jones was surprised to win: “Yeah, for sure it was a surprise, especially as I didn’t practice that much, but I am a fit guy – I run marathons and halfs – so I have the endurance and this isn’t as tough on your legs as running, but the jarring on your back can be bad, so I think between now and next year’s race I will be doing some core work to make me stronger.”

After this first race, the organisers decided to introduce a rule that people couldn’t get off their stick and either walk or run a certain distance before getting back on their stick. From 1971 onwards, anyone who started to walk or run had their stick confiscated and took no further part in the race.

Herbie Jones conditioning for the 1971 race obviously worked as he won again in 5 hours and 46 minutes. 350 people entered the race and 39 finished despite a small crash on the outskirts of Ounagha when a contestant landed on a small rock and was pitched sideways into four other racers; despite their bruises they all continued with the race.

The biggest accident was in 1976 when a donkey carrying firewood saw another donkey on the other side of the road and headed towards it to attack; the donkey knocked over a dozen people with its firewood, three of whom had to go to hospital for concussion-related injuries.

There have been considerable improvements in the construction of pogo sticks in recent years, which has meant that the winning time for the race has come down by nearly thirty minutes since 1970. The record time is now 5 hours 18 minutes, set by Henry Morganeau in 2012, his third victory in the race. He celebrated by jumping 10 feet on his stick and clearing the banner at the finishing line. Of the 782 entrants in 2013, all but five finished the race, showing how fitness levels have improved.

Kevin Duffner has seen every race since 1970 and is amazed at how fitness levels have improved and how professional every racer is. “It shows how the race has changed; in this year’s race not one person was smoking weed before, during, or after the race. In 1970 everyone was on the wacky baccy during the race and I miss that, the smell as you head towards the Atlantic – it used to keep me going.” The winning trophy, the Duffner Cup, is named in Kevin’s honour.

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