Before sunrise last Friday, Oz Pearlman relaxed outside the Engineers’ Gate, one of the entrances to Central Park. He rubbed Vaseline on his thighs and armpits, then took off his socks and smeared his feet. It wouldn’t be your typical weekday morning jaunt to Manhattan’s favorite and most legendary racetrack.
Dressed in Ukraine’s national colors and wearing two GPS watches to record distance and time, Pearlman put on his Day-Glo sneakers and stood in the middle of East Drive, in front of a Ukrainian flag, with a handful of spectators. He planned to run all day and all night as he tried to break the record for most loops of Central Park completed in a single day, while raising money to help Ukrainian children displaced by the invasion of the country by Russia.
Pearlman, 39, who lives in Brooklyn, is better known by his stage name, Oz the Mentalist. (Oz rhymes with “clothes.”) He finished third on season 10 of “America’s Got Talent” in 2015, and appeared on “Today,” “Live With Kelly and Ryan” and “Ellen.” His long run would be yet another show of mind over matter.
The record Pearlman hoped to break was set in 2021 by Robbie Balenger, an ultrarunner who rose to prominence by clearing multi-day ultradistance challenges. In 2019, Balenger crossed the continental United States. Last summer, he completed what he called the Colorado Crush: 1,176 miles of racing and over 300,000 feet of elevation gain in 63 days, capped off by the 100-mile Leadville Trail run.
According to Fastest Known Time, the digital platform that collects and certifies “FKTs” on both well-known — like the Seven Summits — and obscure terrains, Pearlman should do more than just run a mile longer than Balenger. He would need to complete another full loop.
Although the park itself was established in 1858, the first known fastest time in Central Park was set in 2020 by Aaron Zellhoefer, who completed 11 loops in just over 14 hours. It was one of thousands of FKTs established during the pandemic when races were canceled and runners sought new challenges. Many of these records are regional and relatively unimportant, but this one counts for a lot. Central Park is a global running destination and hosts more than two dozen races each year. This is where the New York City Marathon ends.
To prepare for the Central Park Loop Challenge, Pearlman completed several 20-mile runs, usually on the road before or between shows. When he’s at home in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and three kids, he literally runs errands, sweating through school departures and pickups. He trained in Central Park for nearly 20 years and memorized every bend in the road, every hill, and right away. “This is my home,” he said. “This six-mile loop is my comfort zone.”
But there would be a countdown. Central Park is open from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. and runners are not allowed on the roads until five minutes after opening. They must be out of the park five minutes before closing time. This gave Pearlman 18 hours 50 minutes to set a record.
At 6:05 a.m. sharp, it took off hot. He ran downtown, counterclockwise, at a rate of less than 7:30 a mile. Mike Halovatch, a staple of the New York ultrarunning scene, was his only leader for the first loop, which he completed in less than 45 minutes. It would have been quicker if not for the last minute advice from a stranger who insisted on hiking the two big hills.
Pearlman has won the New Jersey Marathon four times and the Hamptons Marathon three times. His personal best in the marathon distance puts him just outside the range of men invited to the Olympic trials.
“Oz is a real thoroughbred,” Halovatch said. Referring to Pearlman’s personal best time at the Philadelphia Marathon in 2014, he said, “You run a 2:23 marathon, that’s running.”
Pearlman hasn’t always been very fast. He was the lowest-ranked runner on his high school cross-country team, but by then he was already doing restaurant magic shows. After a divorce left his parents in financial limbo, he said, he leaned into the magic of going through the University of Michigan. After college, he was a junior analyst for Merrill Lynch and moonlighted as a magician.
He worked in restaurants on the Upper East Side, did bar mitzvahs and wowed his colleagues at happy hour. His worlds collided during his career in investment banking when he was hired to host an event honoring a Merrill executive. When Pearlman turned a $1 bill into several Benjamins with the snap of his fingers, the boss was impressed, until he discovered that Pearlman was working for him.
“He said, ‘What the hell are you doing working here?’ And I was like, ‘What am I doing working here?’ Pearlman announced a few weeks later, shortly after running his first marathon.
He gradually moved from standard magic to mentalism. “It’s a bit more cerebral,” he says. “It’s about trying to decipher and reverse the way people think. Basically, I’m trying to plant an idea in your head or get an impossible thought out of your head.
He asked me to think of the name of my first crush, which happened to be someone I hadn’t seen, heard or even thought about in decades. He succeeded. While he was running. At Mile 80.
After completing each loop on Friday, he answered a question sent in by his 812,000 Instagram followers. One asked, “Does running help your mentalism?”
“Mentalism helps me run,” he replied. “If I can get into your brain, I can get into my own brain when I’m in pain, dig deep, and keep running.”
The sun broke through the clouds on its third loop, and its pace held as the skies cleared and the miles piled up, much to the chagrin of Halovatch and his wife, Kate Pallardy, a elite runner and triathlete. They have learned from experience that a slower pace at the start usually yields a better result in this type of event. Pallardy ran 18 miles with Pearlman at noon, just five weeks after giving birth to her third child.
In total, around forty runners came out to give him the rhythm. In typical New York fashion, many of them stumbled upon Oz and joined in. He chatted casually and did his best to entertain them all. “It’s the performer in me,” he said. But like Pallardy and Halovatch, he knew the pain would start at some point, and just before Mile 50 it hit hard.
“Your mind is playing tricks on you,” he said as he completed his eighth loop. “You start thinking about how much time you still have and how much time you have, and doubts creep in. They gnaw at you. It’s your mind telling you to stop.
Twenty miles later, during his 12th loop, his digestion weakened. He had only consumed gels (he sniffed two or three per turn), caffeinated gummies and orange Gatorade. Maybe it took its toll. Or it could have been that he had worked late the night before and managed to sleep only four hours.
He vomited twice and had to find a toilet. His pace went from eight minutes per mile to over 12. The color faded from his face. He felt blisters forming under his feet. His right shin started throbbing. His team filled his hat with ice cream, which he threw over his head to wake up. Once his stomach calmed down, he popped more caffeinated gummies to keep humming.
As is often the case with the ultra, this period of pain and deep exhaustion was followed by a prolonged state of flux. Towards the end of his 13th lap, he shifts into high gear. Rocking out to playlists he had curated for the occasion, he sang out loud as he ran. His 91st mile was his fastest: 6:43.
Pearlman completed his 16th loop and 98 miles, around 8:20 p.m., to equal Balenger’s distance record. He ran about four hours faster than Balenger. Two miles later, he hit 100 miles with a time of 14 hours 36 minutes, beating his own 100 mile record by two hours.
When he completed his 17th round at 9:15 p.m. to set the Central Park Loop Challenge FKT, he stopped to hug his wife and celebrate with friends who confirmed he had also exceeded his fundraising goal by more of $100,000. But he hadn’t finished. His pacers, some of whom were seasoned ultrarunners, wouldn’t let him go home. They insisted he tack a few more laps to the new Central Park Loop Challenge FKT. A few minutes later, he was running up town again.
By his 18th lap, he relished the slower pace and the hills because they allowed him to walk. It was obvious from his expression that his right shin was getting worse. He took ibuprofen to reduce swelling and pain, and kept moving.
His 19th and final loop was his lap of honour. “I told the guys, we’re going to finish like we started: strong. And I just went for that.
He ran at full speed, often with his eyes closed. It was up to his leaders to make sure he stayed the course, and they did. When he reached the engineers gate for the last time just before midnight on Friday, having covered a total of 19 loops and 116 miles, he fell to the ground, elated but exhausted.
“I had a spectacular day,” he said. “There’s just no other way to describe it.”
Hilary Swift contributed report.