Ben Jacoby is known for being the fastest man on stilts. After breaking the 100m record, he's now in training for the London Marathon. We find out more.
On his website, 30-year-old Ben Jacoby describes himself as an adventure seeker, risk taker and entrepreneur.
“I’ve made my life a bit of an experiment, trying to find the best way to live it to the fullest” he says. “I want to push boundaries and test my own human limits. Learn from challenges. And grow. I hope to inspire others who want to do the same.”
His colourful life began in Chicago, was relocated to Jerusalem when he was just three, and has since taken him around the world.
Currently based in LA, California, we manage to catch Ben just before he heads to Atlanta for a weekend of indoor skydiving with friends. We took a closer look into the life of the man best-known for running the fastest 100 metre sprint on stilts.
You were born in Chicago? Moving to Israel must have been quite a significant culture shift.
Yeah, we moved to Israel, I was there aged 3 through 21. Have you been to Israel?
No, I haven’t. Did you make the move because of family?
I come from a Jewish background and though parents weren’t especially religious, they do believe in Judaism. So for them, it was a good place to raise their kids.
It was a huge culture change. But both my parents had lived in Israel when they were younger. So they kinda knew what they were getting into. Israel is this beautiful Mediterranean, Middle-East hybrid. Especially when you venture outside of the major cities.
But it was definitely a big change. For me - I don’t think I was too aware of the difference because I was so young. We would visit the USA every year and that’s when I saw the differences. The people around me saw America as the dream, and when I ended up here (in the US), that’s where I also felt a lot more welcome, it felt a lot more natural to me.
When you were in your late teens you enrolled in the Israeli military. Is that mandatory?
Yeah, it’s mandatory for men for three years, and for women two years. I think it’s one of the best things that happened to me, especially because it’s such a big part of society in Israel. Everyone aged 18 to 21 goes through this experience. It’s just the way it works.
In Western countries, you go to uni during that age period, and that’s what people have in common. But for us, it’s the military. Anyone I see walking down the street who was part of the military, we have a commonality.
Thinking about it in terms of the pandemic: it’s something everyone has gone through. Everyone in the world has something in common following 2020.
Military training is something we’re used to, having a command, we all have that unity. You want to give more - to your country, your surroundings, your community. You start to realise you’re part of something bigger, you’re not on your own.
Was it at that point that you decided to head to southeast Asia?
So I had to have surgery, and during my recovery time, I started my first business which was locksmithing. I took the military equivalent of exams, so if I wanted to pursue higher education I could. Somehow in that time, I started skydiving.
That sounds like great recovery for your shoulder.
Yeah, after four or five months in recovery I started travelling - which was kind of an accident. My brother was planning on being in Bali. And I was like, well if I’m heading to the US, maybe I’ll stop by Bali. It started off as a month in Bali on a family holiday, but things just started rolling.
It was a total of five and a half months backpacking in southeast Asia, starting in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, back to Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, then China and Korea.
I had a friend - we weren’t close, but we were both done with the military. Out of our group of friends, we were the only ones who had left. Both of us were in Asia. You know how it is when you’re backpacking, it’s like - oh, you’re in the same country as me? We should link up.
So this girl was like, I’m going to Laos tomorrow so I was like cool, I’ll join. We met up over there and it was amazing.
Was it your first time travelling like that?
It wasn’t my first time backpacking. Two weeks before we enrolled in the military, I backpacked with a group of my best friends when I was 18. But I think that was way too early. I didn’t really appreciate it.
But I had this ‘nothing will stop me’ approach. I said to my parents: I know where my passport is, I have the money. I’m doing it.
Thanks to my background, I was already quite well travelled. I went to America every year, my dad travelled a lot with work - he’s been to India 198 times. So for us hopping on a flight was second nature. It was always so accessible.
As soon as I arrived in southeast Asia I felt totally at ease. One of the best things about backpacking or travelling alone, especially later on in life. Last year I did Japan alone and it just strikes me that when you travel alone and introduce yourself to new people, that’s when you learn who you are. A new me, in a new place, and these people who are going to be a mirror of however they perceive me.
Backpacking is such a survival mode way of travelling. I’ve spoken to nomadic travellers before who have said if you’re not earning money you don’t have money. At what point did all of this record breaking come into your travels?
Okay so, 2013 I come across these stilts. Have you seen them?
They literally look like my worst nightmare.
My best friend from the military who I ended up travelling to Australia with, in Judaism we have a holiday called Purim which is like Halloween and basically you dress up. I see these stilts and I’m like, wow, this would be a crazy costume. We say in Hebrew, ‘without looking left or right’ - I order two pairs. These are nearly 400 euros each and I didn’t even end up wearing them.
But then my friend and I went to live and travel in Australia. He was a photographer and videographer, but we both learnt how to DJ while we were out there. I’m literally performing on these stilts.
We’re in this travelling community in Australia and start gaining a name for ourselves, start producing street parties. People thought it was my job, my career. That’s when I realised there could be more to this - people are just looking at you and it makes their day.
So when we come back from Australia, I go every year to Burning Man. I’ve been going every year since 2012 and it seemed like the perfect environment for this kind of thing.
I realised I needed to take it seriously so I started training for it. I took out an Olympic coach, I started befriending a load of gold medalists from the past, and everyone thought I was some sort of athlete. There was one person, a coach who has been training Olympic athletes for 40 years. So I spent two and a half months training with him. He taught me everything I know, diet, fitness. Then we took it to Burning Man as an official event in 2018.
And now you’re training for a marathon? It’s a big step up from a 100 metre sprint.
I ran into someone in a bar who I told about my record and he said, “you’re not the best runner, you’re the best sprinter”. So I was like, okay now I need to do a marathon. I signed up to the LA marathon, went way too fast and ended up injured. I did some research and discovered the Virgin London Marathon collaborates with Guinness World Records, so now I’m aiming for that.
This October (2021) I’m supposed to run the London Marathon on stilts. I think the real craziness with my first challenge is that it was a sprint. We’re talking about tenths of a second here - it all falls on that. If you’re giving your real 100 per cent, it’s a sprint and 30 minutes rest and that’s it, you’re done for the day.
It’s a real biting point moment. The pressure of it being a sprint, being on stilts, me producing this whole event. The elements: wind, sun people, the runway I laid out, they all add up. Multiplying that by the fact that there’s less than a one second window for air - it was very intense.
It’s like any race - where you’re just running off adrenaline. It’s like that times a million.
Yeah, so it’s also balance on the stilts. I can’t even stand still on them. And actually, two months later I broke the record again by .1 seconds.
What’s the deal with Burning Man?
Burning Man operates year-long, worldwide. The biggest and original is in Black Rock City, Nevada. It’s this festival where there is no such thing as money. Everyone is self-dependent, co-dependent and efficient. Everyone is there to participate, not to spectate.
There are 10 rules that basically create an environment where giving and accepting is the commodity. I think you find people at their most developed selves because you can express yourself however you want. But really you’re responsible for everything - bringing your water your food, your electricity.
One year, I started a camp called ‘Flying Falafels’, and for several years we had a huge Judasic dome, and we would bring a falafel party. We made thousands of falafel balls and people would come and take some falafel. It’s probably the messiest thing we could have chosen to make out there. But that’s the whole thing when it comes to Burning Man, people don’t expect to come to the middle of the desert and get warm falafel for free.
One of the 10 guidelines is ‘leave no trace’. You go in there and literally every last thing has to be gone when you leave. The tiniest thing can be considered a matter out of place.
Outside of the record breaking - you have three businesses. Is that how you fund your travels?
Yeah, so I started out my career as a locksmith. Independence is the core value that leads me in life. so long as I can do what I want to do I’m happy, it’s where I thrive.
Throughout time I started up another business. A marketing friend of mine and I started a garage door business. We were doing this whole start-up thing, I was running around the US states fixing doors in -20 degrees. One thing led to another, then later down the line we decided to split up and I kept all the operations on the field. Now I’m running a regional-level garage door company.
Ben, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, and good luck in the London marathon! One final piece of advice: what would you say to someone who has an unusual life goal?
I really believe in investing in myself. I didn’t go to uni, I don’t have any higher education but I did read probably 100 books when it comes to business, self-improvement, self-development.
Every year I try to do one kind of course that helps me achieve this. I’m a certified hypnotist, I’ve studied neuro-linguistic programming, I put into myself a lot.
That and travelling, having these different experiences I think builds you as an individual. I’m not really materialistic. I would always rather spend what I earn on experiences. Living in Hollywood, everything here is big and consumption culture is so present But I believe in having an abundant life that I’m happy with.
So yeah. Invest in yourself first.
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