Jockey Juarez tackles 48-hour challenge for charity

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Nik Juarez goes for runs near Monmouth Park racetrack all the time, but this one – at 3 in the morning – was different.

“What are you doing?” hollered a security guard.

“I’m running.”

“It’s 2 o’clock in the morning.”

“No, it’s 3 o’clock.”

“We’re closed.”

“I know. Can I just run around the parking lot?”

The guard was skeptical of a trespasser so Juarez, a jockey at the New Jersey racetrack and other tracks in the Mid-Atlantic who lives in nearby Oceanport, did a loop of the lot across the street and headed home – another 3.13 miles in the book. The overnight training in late February, he also ran at 11 p.m., went well and was a test for something far bigger.

Starting at 11 tonight, Juarez will take part in the 4x4x48 Worldwide Running Challenge by running 4 miles, every 4 hours for 48 hours.

Read that again if you want.

Organized by ultramarathoner David Goggins, the event encourages runners to tackle the challenge and run 48 miles in 48 hours – at the same time, all over the world – while raising money for charity. Juarez signed on, as a way to raise money and awareness for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund and Team Foster which provides service dogs for injured and disabled veterans. You can lend your support via a GoFundMe page.

Juarez has long been an athlete, wrestling at Winter’s Mill High in Maryland and becoming a jockey (like his father Calixto) with a handful of rides in 2013 and hundreds in every year since. He won two graded stakes aboard Valid, captured Pimlico’s Black-Eyed Susan on Actress in 2017 and has won 890 races.

But Juarez is fairly new to running, and credits a tumultuous last two years with putting him on the path to this weekend’s challenge. Start with the Covid-19 pandemic and its uncertainty. Add in that Juarez’s wife Melissa has been in her native Sweden since September 2020 trying to sort out permanent United States residency. She gave birth to their son Nicholas in January. Oh, and they’re expecting a daughter in June. The family has been together for “four months and three weeks,” as Juarez tried to balance riding races with stints in Sweden. Consequently, Juarez rode fewer than 900 races in 2020 and 2021 combined after passing that number in each of the previous three seasons individually.

“I needed to find my own balance,” he said. “My wife left and couldn’t get back. Then racing stopped for me and I felt like I was losing my identity as a jockey a little bit. I went for a long run one day and just kept at it, kept consistent, kept listening to podcasts. I was in a funk, mentally.”

And now he sounds like he’s not, though he’ll be happier when Melissa and Nicholas get back to New Jersey. Attorneys tell him the process is “at the sixteenth pole,” and he expects to ride full-time when the Monmouth meet opens in May while picking up mounts when he can at Parx. Running helped, so did short visits to Sweden and walks with the family’s two Rottweilers. Goggins’ motivational messages fit in there too. The former Navy Seal is the author of “Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds.”

“It all ties back into mental health,” Juarez said. “My wife left and couldn’t get back, racing kind of stopped for me, it’s been hard mentally to deal with that. You have to pursue this job as hard as you can and that’s hard to do when your wife and son are out of the country. Sometimes it just takes going out for a good run, being with other people and having that camaraderie. It’s like active mediation.”

He prepared for the 4x4x48 with those test runs, and plenty of other miles, but he also mapped out a detailed plan for eating, drinking, sleeping (napping) and what clothes to wear. He was doing some cryotherapy this week and will use a Normatec sleeve on his legs between runs to help with recovery, plus get some moral support from running friends from the Fort Athletic Club.

The charity angles provide inspiration too. The PDJF provides financial support for Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse jockeys who have sustained catastrophic on-track injuries and Juarez is honored to help the cause.

“Those guys are dealing with a lot,” he said. “I can’t imagine what they’re going through. I remember how inspiring it was running the Stockholm Marathon and there was a guy doing a handheld wheelchair up an incline in Stockholm. I remember thinking ‘I’ve got nothing to complain about.’ ”

Juarez starts running at 11 tonight, will be back out on the roads at 3 a.m. Saturday, then 7 a.m., 11 a.m., 3 p.m., 7 p.m., 11 p.m. and so on. The last run starts at 7 p.m. Sunday.

Somebody tell that security guard.

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For more, you can follow along with Nik on Twitter via @NikJuarez.

And don’t forget to make a donation if you can.