GLOUCESTER — I was making small talk at the chiropractor one day, as you would when you’re dealing with the awkwardness of someone trying to deep-tissue massage the oldness out of your gluteus, when Dr. Joe DeMarco casually mentioned that he was training to break the world record for most pushups in 12 hours.
“How many do you have to do?” I asked, because “Are you insane?” seemed impolite.
“A little over 20,000,” he said with the same relaxed tone he uses when he asks: “Do you stretch? Like ever?”
As we broke it down a little further, he said he was planning to do 36 per minute for the first “four or five hours,” then “slow down” to 30 to 33 a minute for the next few hours, just to give himself plenty of cushion and the chance to take a five-minute break every few hours. (To break the record of 20,085, held by an Australian man, he would need to average nearly 28 pushups per minute for the 720 minutes.)
Also, while he broke that record, he figured he’d also break the record for most pushups in eight hours, which was “only” 14,444. You know, while he was there.
He announced his plan with such casual confidence that I went around the world casually bragging that my chiropractor was going to demolish the 12-hour pushup world record, because I already knew the 57-year-old vegan was an athletic freak.
DeMarco, who grew up in Revere and now lives in Ipswich, has at various points been a competitive gymnast, bodybuilder, and power lifter, and though he’s only 5-feet 5-inches tall and 143 pounds, my gluteus maximus can assure you that he’s crazy strong.
But still,… Twelve straight hours of pushups? It felt a little absurd, and that was the vibe Dr. Joe was giving off as he paced around in a little roped-off area at MAC Fitness in Gloucester on Wednesday morning, getting ready to start his warmup before the record attempt.
“I had nightmares all night,” he told me. “I just kept doing pushups, but I kept forgetting to start the cameras” (as required by Guinness World Records to validate the attempt).
His son Joey was there making sure the cameras were, in fact, working, as was the livestream on his Youtube channel, OcraMed Health. And with nothing left to do but go for it, DeMarco got down on his knees just after 8 a.m., spent a few moments taking deep breaths, and then did his first set of 18 pushups. He then got back to his knees, took some more deep breaths in through his nose, and knocked out another 18.
That was minute one. Then also minute two. And three. And on.
A quick word about what we mean by “pushup,” because what Dr. Joe banged out would not meet anyone’s definition of a “proper pushup,” and he would be the first one to tell you that. His chest did not hit the ground. His arms did not lock out at the top. And no personal trainer, gym teacher, or drill sergeant would have given him credit for even a single pushup.
Instead, as with the person whose record he was trying to break, DeMarco did the minimum movement Guinness will accept as a pushup — arms bend to 90 degrees, body remains straight, then push up. That’s all … 20,085 times.
I left DeMarco to his pushups and continued about my day, marveling at just how much I got accomplished while he was just doing pushups. I popped in every couple of hours to confirm that he was still alive and still doing sets, brought my 9-year-old son by for the moment when he broke the 8-hour record with no problem (he did 15,261), and then returned for the final 90 minutes to see how he was doing on his quest for 20,000. The answer was: not great.
“I was hallucinating,” he told me later (he’d asked me not to talk to him during his attempt). “My body was shutting down. I kept hitting these walls, and I was completely zoned out for whole stretches. At hour 9, I was in so much pain I thought I was done.”
But he did not quit. And he did not stop doing pushups, crediting a simple strategy. “I just tried to stay in that rep, in that second, and not think about how much longer I had to go.”
Eventually, incredibly, he hit the 20,000 mark, 11 hours and 24 minutes into his attempt. Then he kept on pushing, announcing he wanted to get 21,000 (just in case the Guinness judges threw out any reps), hitting 21,008 with less than a minute to go and a crowd of a dozen family and friends cheering him on.
As the clock ticked down, he staggered to his feet, looking more than a bit like a stumbling drunk. He gave a thumbs-up with his heavily blistered left hand — he couldn’t raise his arms for some reason — and his son Jack came onto the floor, threw a proud arm around his dad, and sounded an air horn to mark 12 hours.
“I hope you enjoyed that because I’m never doing that again,” he told a laughing crowd.
He’ll still need to wait for Guinness to verify the record, but he raised more than $5,000 for Cape Ann Animal Aid and earned the vegan pizza his wife had waiting back at the house.
And after that … “I’m already thinking I should make an attempt to break the 1-hour world record,” he told me.
It’s “only” 3,100 pushups.