Ashrita Furman was juggling hand axes in his back yard when I arrived. The hatchets were sharp, and weighed more than two kilos each, as Guinness regulations require. To break the world record, he would need to catch one hundred and ninety-seven in a row, but he could hardly get started. His forearms were tired from all the practice, he explained, a condition that was also complicating his attempts to walk half a mile while bouncing a golf ball between two clubs.
There was a scale on the porch and a tightrope on which he recently balanced for a minute while slicing thirty-six bananas in mid-air with a samurai sword, but otherwise little indication that the garden is a place where peerless feats are commonplace. Furman has broken ten times as many world records as Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson combined. If all of his pending records are ratified at Guinness headquarters in London, he will have broken five hundred. He currently holds one hundred and sixty-seven, including the record for the most records.
It didn’t take him long to break another. After summoning two friends to document the attempt with stopwatches and video recorders, Furman picked up the lawnmower and balanced it on his chin. It was an unseasonally hot autumn day and about three minutes in, when the sun came out, he staggered. His breathing grew heavy and his feet shuffled on the grass as he adjusted his centre of gravity. When his assistant called “five minutes” Furman lowered the machine to the ground, rubbed his neck, exhaled loudly and broke into a grin. “I’m like in another world,” he said.
The lawnmower had to be weighed on video. “The scale’s a bit off,” Furman said, laughing, prompting his friend, Vinaya Lebenson, to demand another take. In 1978, Lebenson registered Furman’s first ever record attempt, counting as Furman bounced more than 130,000 times on a pogo stick in Central Park. The experience taught them that Guinness is a stickler for the rules: because his rest periods were slightly too long, the record wasn’t valid. Undeterred, Furman picked a new mark and did 27,000 star jumps in a seven hour stretch. He had found his vocation.
Furman has lived in the same house for the last forty years, in a section of Queens populated by followers of the Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy. At the end of his block there is a row of shops, the fronts painted light blue, owned by the meditation centre. On the cafe walls there are framed photographs of Chinmoy posing with the great and good: Nelson Mandela, Sugar Ray Leonard, Coretta Scott King, Quincy Jones, Carl Lewis. When he’s not training or meditating, Furman manages the health food store.
As a kid named Keith, Furman had a copy of the Guinness Book of Records, but didn’t seriously consider breaking them until he began to study with Chinmoy, who preached self-transcendence through meditation and physical endurance. In May 1978, he encouraged his followers to enter a twenty-four hour bicycle race in Central Park and set Furman a goal of four hundred miles. The name Chinmoy had given him, Ashrita, meant “protected by God,” but Furman thought he might die on the track, so he wrote a will.
During the race, he told himself the pain in his legs was a divine gift. He imagined breathing in light and breathing out his exhaustion, exhibiting the uncommon focus and stamina that has helped him through the pain barrier so many times. Although he had barely trained, he finished third and met his target. “I’ve had some profound spiritual experiences doing ultra events,” he told me. “Many of my friends have swum the English Channel. A marathon for us is – I’m not bragging or anything – a marathon is not much of a challenge.”
Furman is fifty-nine. Although he looks his age, due to his grey hair, wire spectacles and the wrinkles that bunch up in concentric circles on his neck, he is exceedingly limber and strong. He is always in training, usually for multiple records at once, but no longer lifts weights or runs to stay fit. Juggling hand axes is “a great upper body workout,” he offered. He meditates twice a day, in the morning and evening, for around half an hour.
He is celibate, has never driven a car, and although he tries to keep up with the news, avoids watching television because it makes him unhappy. “There’s nothing else in my life, really. The meditation and the records is pretty fully encompassing,” he told me. When I asked him who he’s closest to, he thought for a second and replied “my immediate answer is God,” before settling on his dad as his favourite human being.
After he took up with Chinmoy, his father stopped speaking to him, but soon came around. “He’s an attorney. He sees how many unhappy people there are in the world and he saw how happy I was,” Furman said. “Even though it didn’t fit in with his belief system he couldn’t deny it.” Furman is, outwardly at least, entirely contented, with an optimistic outlook and a natural smile that withstands being asked to pose for the same photograph over and over again, while bouncing down the street on a shovel.
I offered to help him train. He emerged from the house carrying a pogo stick, a sword, a football scarf and a bag of apples, with a Meyer’s Parrot perched on his shoulder. He introduced her: “Shanti. It means peace.” Furman sometimes give inspirational talks at schools and once took Shanti along, to add a kid-friendly element to the record he was planning to attempt, but after thirty seconds perched on the stepladder he was balancing on his chin, she flew into the audience. He broke the record anyway.
We set off down the street, to a friend’s house with a cement courtyard better suited for pogo-ing. We hadn’t gone far when we met two more members of the meditation centre. Homagni Baptista, an Australian who devoted himself to the Chinmoy’s teachings eighteen years ago, asked Furman when he was planning to practice on the underwater unicycle he had designed.
Breaking records is a labour intensive business, and an expensive one. Companies occasionally ask Furman to endorse a product (Burger King recently wanted him to advertise a new salad dressing) but he decided long ago that taking money would “ruin the purity of it”. Instead, he relies on fellow Chinmoy followers for support. Baptista made the world’s heaviest shoes, the world’s largest pencil and the world’s biggest lollipop, as well as a customised bicycle for the underwater distance record. “We filled the inner tubes with water, tied on weights, created a few aerodynamic shapes to attach,” he told me. It took Furman more than three hours to cycle less than two miles.
The first Guinness Book of Records was printed in 1954. Conceived as a way of settling pub arguments by Guinness Breweries director Sir Hugh Beaver, it was initially given away free, but has since become the world’s most sold copyrighted book. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke earned a place in the first commercial edition by drinking two and a half pints of ale from a pewter pot in eleven seconds. In his memoirs, he wrote: “This feat was to endear me to some of my fellow Australians more than anything else I ever achieved.”
In 1986, Furman tried to break the forward rolls record, which stood at 10.1 miles. Not long after starting, he got stomach cramps, became dizzy and threw up repeatedly. Although the route was twelve miles long, he decided he would stop as soon as he set a new mark. One of the monitors called Chinmoy, who assured him that Furman could, in fact, complete the course. “The next roll, I started saying these words spontaneously: ‘I am not the body, I’m the soul. I am not the body, I’m the soul,’” Furman recalled. “That sums it up for me. I am doing these events to transcend my limitations.” He still holds the record.
Many of the feats Furman has performed are tests of endurance, such as walking the furthest distance carrying a brick, most sit-ups, most squats, fastest mile pushing a van, and so on, but most are challenges that he has invented himself: most marshmallows caught with chopsticks in a minute, most underwater rope jumps in an hour, fastest mile pushing an orange with your nose. When I asked him how he chooses a new event, or where to go for his next record attempt, he volunteered that “it usually just happens.”
Guinness is the arbiter of what constitutes a record. When Furman proposed a record for the fastest ten kilometres skipping, Guinness told him it would only accept a marathon. He designed a slippery sole for his sneakers to reduce friction and did it. When he suggested catching hard boiled eggs in his mouth, thrown from five metres away, Guinness made a few modifications: the distance could be shorter, but the eggs had to be raw and only the unbroken ones would count. “It was torture. It hits you in the lip and the teeth and within minutes, you’re bleeding.”
Furman has broken records on all seven continents. He has walked seven miles balancing a baseball bat in Mongolia, bounced on a pogo stick for almost four hours in the Amazon river, completed a marathon with a milk bottle on his head in Zurich and dribbled a basketball for eighty-three miles on Fiji. In 2003, he came to Australia with Chinmoy for a series of meditation workshops. At Uluru, he “felt a sacred power in the rock” and was inspired to attempt the fastest ever mile while hula-hooping. It was hot and windy, and there were thousands of flies, but he broke the record first time.
Sceptics may wonder how much spiritual peace can be gleaned from inflating balloons with your nose, sprinting in clogs or smashing walnuts with your head. Practitioners of Guinnessport, as the pursuit of world bests is sometimes known, are accustomed to being mocked. “I guess people think I’m a bit of a nut,” Furman admitted, cheerfully. Over the years, though, articles about him have become increasingly respectful and less likely to dismiss him as a headcase. He finds the “media hoopla” distracting and never seeks out publicity, but also rarely turns interviews down.
I asked him whether there were any records he set as a younger man that he couldn’t do now, and he claimed there were none. “I know that my body is getting older, no question, but so much of it is the inner side for me,” he said. What would make him stop? “If I wasn’t getting joy from it anymore. Right now, I’m still getting tremendous joy from it. I’m doing all these crazy things.”
We set to practicing. Furman bounced on his pogo stick and cleaved the apples that I threw at him with the sword. When the bag was empty, he set up a row of potatoes on the pavement, picked up a spade and stood on it. A builder on his lunch break, Brian Kahrs, had come up with a new event. Furman would need to chop forty in a minute with the blade of his shovel, hopping from one to the next, to break the record. He had been invited to take part in a meditation event in Ireland next month and was planning an attempt there.
“Part of our meditation practice is you should always try to remain a child. The records help me with that,” he said. Last year, a tattooed twenty-something in California, James Roumeliotis, bounced 23.2 miles on a pogo stick, breaking Furman’s record by a hundred yards. He was sure he could take it back.