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Marko Baloh Understands Pain.
By Staff
Date: 2/24/2009
Marko Baloh Understands Pain.
The Race Across America


Marko Baloh on RAAM                                     by  Jamie Baynes

Marko Baloh understands pain.

Outside Magazine once rated RAAM “the world’s toughest sporting event”.  After 4 attempts, Baloh is an authority. In comparison, you’d think the World 24 hour distance record would be a piece of cake.  As it happens, Baloh’s an authority on that too. He set the record – 553 miles - in October. He says every fiber of his body hurt for a week afterwards.

If one considers the pain Baloh has experienced in RAAM, it’s hard to imagine many of his fibers were troubled by 553 miles. In 2003, he cycled 2500 miles before pulling out just a day from the finish line, with blood clots entering his lungs and threatening his life. In 2005, he rode the better part of 1800 miles – with pneumonia.

But ask Baloh about the toughness of RAAM, and he dismisses the physical pain as mere inconvenience. “The real agony”, he says, “is mental”.  “Mentally, RAAM is something else entirely. The questions begin looming months before the start. Can I get ready? Can I get a crew? Can I get the money and sponsorship? After 2006 [finishing 2nd in the RAAM Enduro category], I said that was it. No more. But as I rode the next 2 years, and felt stronger each year, it began to haunt me again, and I found myself back at RAAM ’08. Now I am haunted by RAAM day and night. I can’t help but wonder what I would be capable of in RAAM if everything clicked together. But I don’t know if I can even make the start line this year. ”

For the record, Baloh – known in RAAM circles as ‘Tweety Bird’ - has set 7 world records, and been Slovenia’s national champion 5 times. No mean feat when you consider Slovenia is also home to 4 times RAAM Champion - Jure Robic. Ask Baloh about Robic and there is no hesitation. “Jure is number one. He is great.” In fact, ask Baloh about any of his RAAM competitors, and he declines to offer comparisons or predictions, preferring simply to give heartfelt compliments and admiration.

Perry Stone, a long time member of the RAAM community, says Baloh is famous for just this kind of sportsmanship and humility. “I think of him as Rocky with brains. Marko is modest in the extreme. He always downplays his hand. He’s the kindest, politest guy with a huge heart.  He’s the guy in the race that everyone likes and respects. He’s the kind of guy that would get off his bike to help an old lady cross the road. He’s all about integrity and goodwill. But don’t underestimate him. He’s a phenomenal competitor and he knows when to deliver the punches.” 

His integrity has earned him plenty of goodwill in return. In 2005 - unable to race himself - 2003 RAAM winner Allen Larsen offered his crew vehicle to Baloh, and with his wife Teresa, stepped in as crew chief.  Baloh calls the ‘05 crew his dream team. “05’ was a blast. At one point, when I was slowing with pneumonia, Allen and Teresa painted Irma and the children’s names on the road to keep me going.  I was so sorry for the guys when I had to stop. It still kills me when I remember the tears in Allen and Teresa’s eyes.”

Baloh calls RAAM his family. He describes the awesome commitment of a crew “that would do everything for me, for 10 days, making my dream a reality.” So it’s no surprise that Baloh names his wife, Irma, as his number one crew chief. And when Baloh describes his regular training routine, it becomes clear that for Baloh, RAAM is a family show. “A typical weekday starts at 3 or 4am with 2-3 hours on the trainer before work. I get home between  5 and 6pm, spend time with the children, eat, get them to bed, read a bedtime story, try to sort some things concerning the crew and finances, spend time with  Irma, and go to bed between 10-11pm. Weekends we drive to the coast and I ride 6-7 hours. Of course this is just the start. If the weather stays good, and barring any accidents, I will pick up the intensity in the months before RAAM.”

It was daughter Ana who picked the name ‘Tweety Bird’ as Baloh’s totem name for the ‘04 FC508 RAAM qualifier. Just months after withdrawing from RAAM ’03 with the blood clots, Baloh went on to win the race in record time while fighting brutal headwinds. The name has stuck and Baloh says ‘Tweety’ remains his good luck charm.

Flashing a little of the competitive spirit he usually hides, Baloh credits his family with some of his motivation. “I cannot prepare for RAAM like Jure or Gulewicz do, because of my work and family commitments, but on the other hand this gives a different kind of motivation – to show them that I can duel it out even if I am working a full time job and taking care of the kids.”

Asked who he considers his main competition for RAAM ‘09, Baloh doesn’t want to name names. Instead he nominates the clock. “The only thing that will matter to me when I race RAAM again is the time. If I can prepare as I did for the world record in 2008, I should take close to 24 hours off my ‘06 time. Maybe – maybe - I can reel in the leaders and get into the final mix for a victory. Anything is possible, but it is all still a dream at this stage.”

It may be a dream, but as his 24 hour record demonstrates, Baloh knows a thing or two about racing against the clock. However, if Baloh is to be believed (watch for the modesty), the extended time frame and zombie effect of the RAAM clock may well prove Baloh’s biggest challenge. By his estimate, he requires much more sleep than other top riders. “I will probably aim for 3 hours per night like Danny Chew did. I’ll ride my own race and then hope that I can pick up the pace in the second half of the race. If you consider that adds up to 14 hours more sleep than the others, I would have to be madly fast to make up the time.”

With less than four months to RAAM 2009, the clock has already started for Baloh, but lacking a major sponsor, he sees finances as a major obstacle.

 “Grandma is helping with the kids tonight, so we have some more time” he offers.

“If your children want to compete in RAAM in 20 years, what advice will you give them?” I ask, pitching a curve ball.

“UFFF” he groans, and then smiles. “Well, I would volunteer to be their crew chief.  I always try to teach by example, so I would have no choice but to support them fully. I would be worried sick of course, just as my mother always is. It is possible, too, I suppose. I guess only time will tell.”

In the meantime, Baloh has a few other things to worry about. And the clock is ticking.

All going to plan, Marko Baloh will be in Oceanside, California, on June 17th for the start of RAAM 2009. If he beats the clock, he’ll arrive in Annapolis City, Maryland, 3000 miles and 9 days later.

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