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World's Unlikeliest Bestseller

Fifty years ago a brewer's bet spawned a compelling compendium of feats, stunts and trivia

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Record books note that the first man to break the four minute mile was England’s Roger Bannister. The same books list the current world record in the mile as 3:43.13 ( Hicham El Guerrouj, July 7, 1999). Yet no world-class miler has ever faced the hurdle that Ashrita Furman confronted last summer at New York’s JohnF.KennedyAirport.

“It’s a very tough record, even though it’s a silly event,” Furman says on a warm August morning as passengers hurry through the concourse of JFK’s Terminal 4. Furman, a 49-year old health food store manager from Queens, is about to attempt his own world-record mile. The time to beat (29 minutes) seems like a snail’s pace, except for one minor detail. For the entire mile Furman must push an orange . . . with his nose.

At first, Furman, who has set dozens of other world records, including Most Jumping Jacks (27,000 in 1979; 33,000 in 1982) and Longest Time Yodeling (27 hours), had no interest in the event. “But it was broken a couple of times,” he says, “and is now down to 29 minutes. So it’s a challenge.”

The Orange Nose Push does not begin with a starting gun. Furman merely sets an orange—hard and green for better rolling—on the terminal’s tiled floor, kneels over it, and with a great “oomph!” shoves it with his sizable snout. The race is on. The orange rolls 30 feet. Furman jogs after it, crouches again, shoves. Passengers smile warily. Then a guard halts cross traffic. “Stand back!” he warns. “This guy’s doing a Guinness record.” And suddenly everyone understands. Guinness, a name that used to stand only for frothy dark beer, is now known the world over for zany world records.

This year the Guinness book celebrates its 50th anniversary. Since 1955, the company’s exacting scribes have chronicled the earth’s extremes: Tallest Building (Taipei Financial Building, Taiwan). Largest Atoll (Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands). Driest Place (Chile’s Atacama Desert). Heaviest Human (Jon Brower, Minnoch, U.S.A., 1,399 pounds). Most Venomous Mollusk (the blue-ringed octopus). Now it also sanctions some of the world’s silliest stunts. Most Clothespins Clipped on a Face (159). Most Straws Stuffed in the Mouth (258). Largest Group Hug (5,117 people). The list goes on, making each annual Guinness edition a compendium of timeless trivia, genuine feats and shameless publicity stunts. And readers around the world have made it a record setter in its own right. Under bestselling books, the 2005 golden anniversary edition states: “Excluding noncopyright works such as the Bible and the Koran, the world’s all-time best-selling book is Guinness World Records,” with sales exceeding 100 million copies.

Charting the world’s superlatives is painstaking work. Whether it’s the largest galaxy or the lightest subatomic particle, the single clearinghouse for all Guinness records is an eighth-floor suite of offices in an ultramodern glass building on Euston Road in central London. Here nine full-time researchers monitor current records, witness new attempts and handle 60,000 inquiries a year from would-be record setters, more than half from the United States.

Only 15 percent of all new proposed attempts get the Guinness go-ahead. Many are too specific. Most People Crammed into a ’63 Chevy? Sorry, but Guinness accepts carcramming records only for “iconic” cars such as the Volkswagen Beetle. Oldest Pit Bull? Guinness does not categorize pet records by breed. “People often try to claim a record by complicating it,” says Guinness’ Keeper of the Records, Stewart “The Oracle” Newport: “They’ll say they have the record for Longest Standing on the Corner of Such and Such a Street While Playing a Banjo.”

Each workday morning, Guinness researcher Hein Le Roux, a former journalist from South Africa, reviews his most recent inquiries. From Nigeria: “My daughter has traveled so many times with me by air and road since she was six-weeks old. . . . ” Most Traveled Child? Not “Guinnessy,” says the 30-year-old Le Roux. From Texas, a proposal for the largest motorcycle parade. A possibility, but since there is no existing record, he sets a minimum of 10,000 cycles.

All sanctioned attempts must meet Guinness’ rigorous guidelines. Endurance artists attempting the Longest Tuba Marathon or Longest Ironing Marathon are given breaks every hour or every eight hours, depending on the length of their ordeals. Gluttons are instructed to eat the most meatballs, etc., within one-, three- or five-minute periods. Karate experts must break the same-sized brick. And each record attempt requires two witnesses and press coverage. If rules are violated, no record, no matter how amazing, can be certified. Guinness once revoked the achievement of a man who swam 1,864 miles along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers because he wore swim fins.

Even if all criteria are met and an existing record is broken, there is no guarantee that it will make the book; lest the annual edition run to 3,000 pages, only about 10 percent get into print. Guinness editor Craig Glenday favors records that are unique, interesting and appeal to a wide audience. “When we realize there are all sorts of people vying for a record,” he says, “we start to think there must be something in it and put it in the book.”

Only about half of the world records, however, are set by humans. To keep abreast of achievements in science, politics, nature and dozens of other fields, researchers consult university professors as well as experts in various global organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank. Whenever possible, Guinness staffers are sent into the field. On one office wall hangs a world map with red dots indicating records witnessed around the world: in China (Largest Golf Club), in India (Longest Dance Party) and in Mexico (Largest Burrito). In all, some 3,000 new records are set in an average year.

As he grunts down the JFK concourse, Ashrita Furman keeps his eyes on the orange. “Almost a minute ahead of schedule!” an assistant calls out as Furman heads for his second lap. He gasps for air. He crouches more slowly, aims more deliberately.

Although he has never attempted a record nosing an orange through an airport before, Furman is hardly a stranger to Guinness staffers, who know him as “Mr. Versatility.” Since 1979, when he did those numbing 27,000 jumping jacks, he has set numerous records. In Paris, he did 8,555 abdominal crunches. In Indonesia, he jumped rope for two hours. He’s carried a nine-pound brick 85 miles, and he’s somersaulted a dozen miles along the path of Paul Revere’s famous ride. Why? “I do it for the challenge, the fun and the spiritual transcendence of pushing myself further,” Furman says. He has set no fewer than 93 official Guinness Word Records, itself a record. “To push yourself,” he reflects, “to be better, to be the best—it’s something instinctive in human beings.”

In the world according to Guinness, superlatives have existed since the big bang—the Universe’s Greatest Explosion. But it took a brewer and a bet to turn them into literature. One day in 1951, Sir Hugh Beaver, managing director of the Guinness brewery in London, was hunting game birds at an estate in Ireland when a spirited debate broke out. Which bird was the fastest? Sir Hugh said the plover. Fellow hunters bet on the grouse. But their host’s library failed to yield an answer. When the issue arose again in 1954, Sir Hugh decided there ought to be a book to settle such disputes, especially any that might break out in a pub over a pint of Guinness. He then got in touch with two local sportswriters, twins Norris and Ross McWhirter, young men infatuated with facts. (Their father, an editor at the London Daily Mail, brought home 150 newspapers a week.) As boys, the pair had charted the deepest lakes, the longest tunnels and the tallest buildings. As adults, they had started an agency to supply sports trivia to British newspapers. Accepting Sir Hugh’s challenge, the pair spent several months consulting specialists about the world’s highest, lowest, smallest, etc.—“getting the ‘ests’ from the ‘ists,’ ” as Norris once put it—and proceeded to compile the first Guinness Book of Records in just 16 weeks. Published in August 1955, the volume ranged from the world’s tallest man—the nearly nine-foot-tall Robert Wadlow—to the fastest game bird—neither the grouse nor the plover, as it turned out, but the wood pigeon.

Sir Hugh lost his bet, but his brainchild went right to the top of England’s bestseller list. (The book was published in the United States in 1956.) While those old Guinness books included some truly stomach-churning feats—Most Raw Eggs Eaten in Two Minutes (56)—few involved the risk of life, limb or even dignity. But by 1972, when BBC TV debuted the Guinness show “Record Breakers,” that had changed. “Complete nutters would drop in on us constantly,” Norris McWhirter told Newsweek in 1979. One man brought in an animal he thought was a small horse. “It turned out to be the world’s largest dog,” said McWhirter, “a Great Dane.”

As for the twins, they leveraged their newfound fame, running for Parliament (unsuccessfully) and championing conservative causes (opposing the abuse of trade union power and supporting the rise of Margaret Thatcher). In 1975, Ross McWhirter offered a reward for the apprehension of Irish Republican Army terrorists. Three weeks later, he was gunned down on his London doorstep.Ashaken and grieving Norris vowed to “soldier on.” (The men responsible were arrested two weeks later, sentenced to life and freed after 22 years, as part of a peace agreement for Northern Ireland.)

At first, Norris later allowed, he was “rather chary” of stunts staged just to get in the book. “One has to continually preserve the purity of records,” he said in a 1979 Sports Illustrated interview. “To qualify, something has to be universally competitive, peculiar, or unique.” But gradually he began to include such records as eating a bicycle ground into metal filings and the longest time spent in a bathtub with live rattlesnakes. (This past June, soft-drink maker Snapple’s attempt to install the world’s largest popsicle in Lower Manhattan failed spectacularly when its 17.5-ton, 25-foot-long frozen pink treat began to melt in the summer sun, sending pedestrians scurrying.) Norris worked as the book’s editor, and later as an adviser. He died in April 2004 at age 78.

Today, the book no longer accepts many records it once sanctioned. Lest anyone force-feed a poodle or ride a horse 10,000 miles, extreme pet records have been discontinued. To discourage parents from claiming the Youngest Child to Ride a Motorcycle or Swim the English Channel, an aspirant must be either age 14 with parental consent, or 18 without, to attempt the record for Longest Elvis Singing (25 hours 33 minutes 30 seconds) or any other marathon. Heeding medical advice, the company rejects claims for headstands, handstands, hunger strikes or sleep deprivation. Then there are the attempts that, even for Guinness, are just too inane. “We get claims from people who have worn a pair of socks for the longest, or have had a glass of milk in their fridge for seven years,” says researcher Stuart Claxton.

Staggering through his last lap on the JFK concourse, Ashrita Furman gets a second wind. Now each jerk of his head sends the orange a little farther. Oomph! Past cheering passengers. Oomph! Past lines of airport security guards, grinning, shaking their heads, pondering why a grown man might want to move a spheroid with his schnoz. Furman gives the orange a last nudge, and it zips past the finish. His time—24 minutes 36 seconds! A . . . new . . . world . . . record! Then, after sipping some orange juice, he begins hopping down the concourse to prepare for his next record attempt—hopping a mile.

What began with a brewer’s bet has spawned a worldwide enterprise. Guinness World Records now has museums in tourist meccas from Niagara Falls to Los Angeles. Guinness television programs air in more than 85 countries. Its Web site handles 14 million hits a month, and the latest edition of Guinness World Records has sold 3 million copies in 23 languages. And there’s no letup in sight. “We put records in the book to encourage people,” says Stewart Newport. “I’d like to think that every record we have can be broken.”

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