CAINE ECKSTEIN: Pull Up or Go Home

Wednesday, 22 October 2014 19:09 | Written by 
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"Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember" -- Seneca, advisor to Emperor Nero, as seen on Caine Eckstein's Face book page, Monday Oct. 6 "Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember" -- Seneca, advisor to Emperor Nero, as seen on Caine Eckstein's Face book page, Monday Oct. 6

The first guard directed me to another guard across the lobby who sent me downstairs to the main dressing room but, wait, the walkie-talkie wielding guard said that Caine Eckstein was in the upstairs Green Room, just past the spacious kitchen set where co-anchor Matt Lauer, his nose freshly powdered, read a teaser on the Ebola scare in the U.S, followed by a look at rocker Billy Idol's wild partying past and a preview of Pierce Brosnan's latest film How to Make Love Like an Englishman.

At 8:50 AM co-anchor Tamron Hall, dreamy in her snug, sleeveless peach-colored dress tiptoed over the slew of TV wires in her perilously spiky heels towards "the pull up guy".

QUIET! We're live in 5-4-3-2-1...

Flashing her 100-watt smile, she informed her 4.5 million daily viewers: "I'm standing next to a shirtless Caine Eckstein, the Australian Ironman attempting to set a Guinness World Record for most pull ups in 24 hours here on the set of the Today Show!"    

Cool, But Why?

In 2012, a year after the best racing season of his life (and fresh off an appearance on Australia's Dancing with the Stars), Eckstein Googled World Records + Pull ups. He pondered the one-hour, 12-hour, and 24-hour records – 1,009, 4,002, and 4,025 pull-ups, respectively -- and thought I'd like to have a crack at one of those.  Or maybe two.

About two years later, while visiting in New York this past May, Caine told me he’d like to try for the hour record and thought it would be cool to attempt it on one of the morning shows in New York. I happened to have a friend at NBC Entertainment -- Jim Hoffman, a large, effervescent man with a gravelly voice and serious paddling problem – and I pitched the idea to him. Jim got the nod from the Today Show producer and it was game on.

In June, I read a piece online about a 28-year-old middle school math teacher from New Jersey, who had just broken the world record for most pull-ups in 24 hours by doing 4,182 in 15 hours. I forwarded the article to Caine. That’s when I learned he'd had changed his mind. Instead of going for the one-hour record, he'd set his sights on the 24-hour mark – now 157 pull-ups higher than it had been the day before.  

I mentioned that the 24-hour record required about 3,000 reps more than the hour record.

"No worries!" he replied.  Applying the (twisted) logic of someone both fit and mad enough to consider going mano-a-mano against that most loathsome combination of gravity and lactic acid, he said: "I can always have a crack at the hour record later."

Ten weeks before his date with destiny on the Today Show, Eckstein, who was already training four to five hours a day for the 42K Coolangatta Gold Ocean Ironman, began adding 200-300 pull-ups to this three weekly gym sessions. Two weeks later, however, he tweaked his left deltoid. Monitoring the gimpy wing with weekly MRI exams, he carried on with his Ironman training but eliminated weight work -- and pull-ups. Not that he would let that interfere with his plans.

Caine Eckstein, Coolangata Gold

Caine at the Coolangatta Gold - 5 wins in 5 starts

The Coolangatta Gold is roughly a four-hour event (if your last name is Eckstein) -- a 23K ski leg, 3.5K swim, 6.1K board, and two runs totaling 10K.  Racing side-by-side against other top pros, fitness and raw aggression have served Eckstein well: he's won the race five times in five starts. But the pull-up record attempt presented a type of challenge he'd not previously known. There was no one to beat, no competitor to fuel his aggression. To break the record, the 1.75 m, 73 kg (5'9" 160 lbs) Ironman would have to recalibrate: Anger and aggression were out; stamina, focus and calm were in. 

8:54 AM start: The journey of 4,082 pull ups starts with a single pull

At 8:54, Eckstein, clad in baggy black shorts with his name over his derriere, stepped to the bar in the crowded corner room overlooking the skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza and pumped out six tidy pull-ups.

Eckstein's plan, simple but spectacularly demanding, was to do six pulls every minute for 12 hours: That would bring the 28-year-old Ironman to 2,100 in six hours -- more than halfway to the 24-hour record. If he kept going at that pace, and that was Plan A, he'd break the 12-hour record and 24-hour record in just 12 hours. 

Team Eckstein consisted of Caine's mom, Donna, and his aunt Anne; handler Taddy McDowell, a 22-year-old Ironman mate; cameraman Ben Maher, and me. For the first two hours Alex Angert, the Guinness World Record adjudicator clad in a tidy blue blazer with a Guinness inscription over the breast pocket, recorded each rep with his silver hand-held Guinness clicker. Meanwhile, one of the 13 witnesses that I had lined up (Guinness requires two at all times) recorded the reps on an IPod that was hooked up to a large screen to the right of Caine's sturdy Alphafit pull-up apparatus. Maher, who was also shooting for Australia TV, had two Go Pro cameras recording each rep for Guinness to check as part of their validation process. And if you knew Caine, or had precious little to do, you could follow along on the Today's Show live streaming feed.

Here we go...

Here we go...

10:00 AM (396 pull ups): Kathy Lee & The silver clicker

Shorty before 10 AM, co-hosts Kathy Lee Gifford and Hota Kotb set up shop next to us for the last hour of the Today Show. Pro wrestling bad boy John "The Prototype" Cena showed up for a chat. The Guinness guy left, handing his official clicker to a witness. The scene was delightfully bizarre: two smooth-as-merlot TV personalities schmoozing a ski-length away from a half-naked man with chalk-covered hands and a bird of prey tattooed across his ripped, broad back. Regardless of the live-TV mayhem, Caine never took his attention off the big round clock behind the bar. Every time the second hand swept towards 12, he walked back to the bar and got settled, adjusted his grip and knocked out another six pull ups -- 360 every hour.            


Yet another set... 

10:25 AM (500 pull ups): Whacky, Weird, Whoa

The Guinness Book of World Records is now in its 59th year.  When I was a kid everyone owned a copy. For the record, the Guinness Book holds a record as the best-selling copyrighted book of all time -- and for the book most frequently stolen from U.S. public libraries. A curious collection of amazing, amazingly weird, and oddly disturbing feats of human excess, the book, especially in the pre-internet days, served an important social function. Open the book at any slow social gathering and ask, "Guess what the record is for the World's Longest Fingernails" and you're the star of the show (8.65 m, or over 28 feet).

Of the 40,000 records listed, there are the goofy/spoofy records like the World's Tallest Mohawk (114.2 cm/3-feet, 8.6-inches), Most People Simultaneously Hula Hooping (4,483), or Most Watermelons Chopped on Someone's Stomach in One Minute (25). There are the naturally unnatural records, for example, the World's Smallest Man (54.6 cm/21.5 inches), Oldest Woman (122) and Shortest Living Domesticated Cat (13.34 cm/5.25 inches from the floor to shoulders). There are the semi-impossible but idiotic fitness records -- Fastest 100 meters Hurdles with Swim Fins (14.82 secs); Fastest Time to Burst Three Water Bottles (1 min., 8 secs), and, since we're talking about mad Aussies, Fastest 100 meters with a Can of Soda Balanced on Head (2 min. 55 secs), held by an Australian sheep dog named Sweet Pea.

And then there are the pull up records – simple but brutal. In 90 minutes Caine reached 500 pull ups in 83.3 sets of six -- but, blank me, he still had 3,683 more pull ups if he wanted to break the record. But the supreme stamina required is precisely what appealed to Eckstein: "Anyone who's ever been in a gym has done pull ups. It's one of the testing points of fitness."

11:40 AM (1,000 pull ups): Ham 'n Swiss on a Roll

As lunch hour grew near, Caine neared 1,000 pull ups. While he snacked on energy bars and carbo replacement drinks, his five loyal supporters were growing ever more peckish. Caine's mother had assumed control of the record-keeping that Guinness demands. Taddy, who was in charge of taping and re-tapping Caine's hands, was also our DJ. Cameraman Ben worked the cameras. So Anne, Caine's world- traveling aunt, headed into the midday crowd and returned with a bag of sandwiches, not a moment too soon for the seriously depleted crew.

12:52 AM (1,440 pull ups): Dancing like a Star 

I met Caine in 2008 in South Africa at the four-day Southern Shamaal. He was on the Aussie Team, I was on Team Yank. Though he uttered roughly 11 words a day on that trip, it was obvious that the lad was a tough nut with a world-class engine. In 2011 he won his first Nutri-Grain Ironman Series title -- a big deal for an "endurance animal" thought to be a tad too slow in the shorter around-the-can races. Two months later he won a record fifth Gold.

OwenM 081209 PE-EL4 024

Caine Eckstein and Jeremy Cotter lead the the Aussie team to victory in the 2008 PE2EL Challenge Team Event

Having stepped out from beneath the considerable shadow of his big brother, Shannon, the country’s most decorated Ironmen and one of the best of all-time, Caine felt ready for anything.  So he took a stab on Dancing with the Stars -- a bold move for a shy kid with no hoofing experience. For three months he and his professional partner danced five hours a day. The duo acquitted themselves well, lasting to week four. In 2012, he switched gears yet again and entered the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon where he posted the fastest swim time among the pros but fractured his foot on the run and had to withdraw.

Fitness is one weapon -- his resting heart rate, at 30 bpm, is roughly the same as an iguana on Quaaludes.  His attitude is another: quietly cocky, ambitious but chilled, he's edgy on the water and ever-keen for a challenge. Watching him win the Gold or a Nutri-Grain event, he tends to assault the finishing tape as if it had insulted his mother. But what impressed me most as I watched him approach the 1,500 mark in this vertical dance was his Zen-like focus, probably the weapon he needed most for this particular battle.

2:54 PM: (2,160 pull ups) Six Down, Six to Go

About eight weeks before the record attempt, Eckstein did 1,400 pulls in four hours. Six weeks out, he did 1,000 in 2 hours. Two weeks later, he did six per minute for six hours, a total of 2,100. Three banner workouts, for sure, but after the last effort his hands were wrecked.

Bleeding Hands

This day, the tape job he'd settled on worked well for the first six hours. But, with roughly 2,200 pull ups in the bank, blood began to ooze through the tape on his right hand and his fingertips puffed up like tiny loafs of bread. At 1,500 I had started doing five pulls every time Caine finished another 100.  Now, every time I let go of the bar more of Caine's blood appeared on my hands.

Around the seven-hour mark, Caine shed his shoes and socks to lighten the load. Half an hour later, he was in trouble.

5:00 PM: (2,680 pull ups) Hour Eight Ain't Great

As hour eight approached, Caine felt pressure under in his right biceps that radiated into his armpit. For most of his 50-second breaks, Donna Eckstein and Taddy took turns massaging the offending area. Over the next two hours, the pain, which forced him to pull harder on his left side, grew worse. Eckstein retreated into himself, barely saying a word. With roughly four hours to go, he turned to Taddy and whispered, "This is pretty bad."

"I never felt pain like that before," he told me afterwards. "About nine hours into it I was getting dizzy after each set. I started getting scared."

5:54 PM: (3,240 pull ups) Capture or Slip, Yo?

Throughout the day, the music that filled the room emanated from Taddy’s iPod -- a predictable mix to Top 40 tunes that this graybeard reporter found soulless, uninspired or just plain lame.

Every four hours, however, the music yielded to the stark raspy voice of 15-time NFL All Pro linebacker Ray Lewis. Initially, his hyperbolic rants seemed a bit much. But after more than nine hours of focused toil, Caine's face registering pain each time he pulled on the bar, Lewis' motivational words seemed all too appropriate. In a voice halfway between a drill sergeant and a preacher, he said:

I've always been told I'm too small, I'm not fast enough, I don't have what it takes to be the best...Effort, it's all I ever knew....There's no other man willing to give up what I'm willing to give up...There's no other blue print...The question is what are you going to do with your time. What drives you?....

Towards the end of his impassioned rant, Lewis' words struck a chord with me as well.

This moment is all we got, we don't realize that, it goes to fast. That's why we got to savor these moments...If tomorrow wasn't promised, what would you give for today?...We get one opportunity in life, one chance, to make whatever legacy you're going to leave!...

contemplating another 6

Contemplating six more...

In March I was diagnosed with cancer. When I started chemotherapy in April my oncologist prescribed four chemo sessions, which she hoped would be enough to shrink the tumor so that surgery was possible. That became eight, then 12.  Three days before Caine's record attempt, I completed my 11th session. Which explains why I arrived at 35 West 48th Street on October 6 feeling somewhere between blah and ugh.

But watching Caine chop down his iron tree, yakking with the steady stream of witnesses and visitors that dropped by in an atmosphere somewhere between a chilled party and a workout that would never end, I found many moments to savor. When I looked out from our second-floor window at the office workers scurrying home in the fading light I noted that my chemo morning blues were long since gone.

And then even the music got better.  Eminem filled the room: “Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity to size everything you ever wanted, one moment. Would you capture it, or just let it slip? Yo."  

7:54 PM: (3,900 pull ups). Coolangatta Epstein

Had I ever had the chops and the nerve to attempt such a record, probably the last two people I'd have welcomed into the room were my parents. My mother, who wouldn't have had a clue why I'd want to do something so inane and insane, would have been bored to death, and my father – well, let’s just say he would have been too much like himself. Conversely, Caine's mother, an accomplished paddler, was a palpable source of strength. "I know I won't quit when she's there," he told me afterwards.

More powerful still, his mother's presence ushered his father into the room. "She even sounds like him," he said, "so it's as if he was there." A hardcore surf lifesaver, Bill Eckstein competed in the original Coolangatta race in 1984, finishing seventh behind eventual two-time winner Guy Leach. In 2006, at the age of 54, he died of a heart attack on the beach. The initials W.E.P -- William Patrick Eckstein -- tattooed over Caine’s heart speak to his connection to the man who inspired him most. "He was an intense competitor," Caine told me, with pride. "The mongrel in me probably comes from him."

8:18 PM: (4,020 pull ups). Two for One

At the 10-hour mark Caine was on track to break the 12 and 24 hour records as planned, and he switched from sets of six per minute to sets of five. At 9:14 he cracked the 4,000 mark. Four minutes later -- 11 hours and 23 minutes into his personal marathon -- the number on the big screen read 4,021.  The 12 hour record was his. 

8:49 PM: (4,184).  Do the Math

At 8:49 PM Caine hoisted his stubbly upturned chin over the bar for his 4,184th rep. That's 600 sets of six and 116 sets of 5 in 11 hours and 55 minutes.

We offered low fives and a round of applause but Caine wasn't done. Over the next five minutes, he punched out 26 more reps, giving him a world record total of 4,210.

hug from mum 

Caine's mom reached him first. The rest of us surrounded him in an awkward group hug, trying not to touch his trashed hands or sore shoulders. Then it was time for a quick interview for the Australian audience. I said, "Your hands look like shit and your shoulder was a mess.  What kept you going?"

He said, "Doing the record on live TV in New York I put a lot of pressure on myself. It was almost as if I had to get it done. But when I'm fit, I back myself. And I came to New York very fit."

And then, before you could say "I didn't know that Kathy Lee Gifford's maiden name was Epstein" a case of Coronas appeared. I was halfway through the first beer I’d had in months when Ray Lewis' voice returned:   

What makes you grind every day. That's all I know, grinding is all I know....every man in this room has got what I got, it's just what you do with it.

Guinness World Record

And it's confirmed!


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