20/20 Friday: The Guinness World Records Phenomenon

A man whose entire body is covered in tattoos. A woman who sailed around the world in 71 days.Twenty-two people who crammed themselves in a Mini Cooper. A dog who can balance a glass of water on her nose while climbing a flight of stairs.

What could they possibly have in common? They're all Guinness World Record holders. For the last 53 years, the Guinness World Records books have recorded feats and oddities from the ridiculous to the sublime. The book is matched only by the Bible for popularity. It has attracted people from every country in the world to attempt to set Guinness World Records.

What motivates these individuals? For some it's risking life and limb.

"They like to be on the edge. They like the adrenaline rush. They're addicted to showing themselves, to being exhibitionists," says Dr. Gail Saltz, assistant professor of psychiatry at Weill-Cornell School of Medicine. "And that kind of person is gonna do that kind of feat for Guinness [World Records]."

For others the thrill comes from being part of something bigger than themselves -- like the largest group hug or the longest bunny hop. For still others it's knowing that a genetic trait is celebrated by Guinness.

"It's a great psychological defense to take something where they may feel not that good, pretty ordinary, or maybe even have a defect, to take something like that and make yourself special," said Saltz.

Every year officials at Guinness World Records receive some 50,000 applications from ordinary people vying for a spot in the book. Some of them have broken existing records such as smashing concrete blocks, others petition for a new category to be added to the list of more than 40,000 records (the record for the youngest professional video gamer was added this year). Still others set out to break their own records. Jackie Bibby is the Guinness World Record holder for "Sharing a Bathtub with the Most Rattlesnakes." On November 5th, Bibby bested his own record of 75 by a dozen snakes bringing the number to 87. He works exclusively with Western Diamondback rattlesnakes which have a potentially fatal bite.

"I like pushing the envelope," said Bibby. "I'm a thrill seeker and, you know, there are those [of us] that are adrenaline junkies."

Guinness World Records gets its name from the Guinness Beer Brewery in Dublin, Ireland. Legend has it that the managing director of the brewery, Sir Hugh Beaver, got into an argument during a shooting party about which was the fastest game bird, the grouse or the golden plover. While searching for an answer, Beaver hit upon the idea of publishing a book with answers to many of the questions that might come up during a drinking session at an Irish pub. In essence, Guinness World Records was launched to help settle bar bets.

The first Guinness World Records was published in 1954 in a limited run of 1,000 copies. (It was originally called The Guinness Book of World Records). Today there are more the 100 million copies of the books in print. It is published in 28 languages and has spawned television shows around the world on which contestants attempt to set Guinness World Records.

At nearly 7 feet, 9 inches tall, it comes as no surprise that Bao Xishun draws attention everywhere he goes. A sheep herder from Inner Mongolia, Bao held the Guinness World Records title of the Tallest Man in the 2006 and 2007 books. He didn't shy away from the celebrity that came with his record; in fact, he embraced it. He started getting endorsement deals, received custom-made sneakers from sneaker companies and even called his long arms into service, rescuing a dolphin at an aquarium from choking on a rubber ball.

But Bao was in for a surprise this year, and so was 36-year-old Leonid Stadnik of Podoliantski, Ukraine, who is 8 inches taller than Bao. No one had ever heard of Stadnik before he was announced as the 2008 record holder in the tallest man category. "20/20" traveled half way around the world to see Stadnik and find out what things look like from his point of view.

While Guinness World Records is full of people who are born into their records -- like the world's tallest man or the person with the stretchiest skin -- there are two record holders who have chosen to manipulate their physical appearances to comic-book proportions. Guinness World Records are about extremes, and that's certainly the case for the women who hold the records for the smallest waist and the longest fingernails.

Cathie Jung, a 70-year-old grandmother from North Carolina has a 15-inch waist -- that's narrower than a family-size mayonnaise jar. And Lee Redmond, a 66-year-old great grandmother from Utah, has 35-inch fingernails dangling off the ends of each finger. Both women have been working on their unusual body modifications for over 20 years and have been asked the same questions for nearly as long.

The spunky Redmond is shockingly agile for a woman with an extra 27 feet of stiff protein hanging from her hands. She drives a car, uses a cell phone and the daily task of getting her mail is completed with the help of a spaghetti strainer. She says, "Where there's a will there's a way." Does she ever wake up and wish she didn't have those nails? "Every day. Every day," says Redmond.

Redmon last cut her nails in 1979, and aside from some accidental breaks they have not been trimmed since. She's been flown -- first class, so her nails could fit -- to London to help launch the Guinness Book of World Records, is featured on a New York Times Square billboard for Ripley's Believe It or Not and was asked the tough questions on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show". When asked how she goes to the bathroom, Redmond's answer drew laughs: "Very carefully," she said.

Jung grew up admiring the hourglass figures women had during the Victorian era. She noticed in the film "Gone with the Wind" that this look could be accomplished by wearing a corset. After raising her three children she started to feel a little "dumpy and frumpy" and began wearing a corset day and night, only removing it for showers. She has managed to reduce her average 26-inch waist down to 15 inches. For Jung, having such a small waist means eating many small meals a day and limiting the clothes she wears.

Holding a world record does require dedication, and no one knows that better than the person who holds the most records in the world. As a young boy flipping through the pages of the Guinness World Records, Ashrita Furman never imagined that he would one day be featured along side his childhood idols. He says achieving a Guinness World Record was just a dream. "There was no possibility as far as I saw it," Furman says. "Because the records that really impressed me were physical records, and I knew there was no way I could do it. I had that ideal of attaining a record, but I knew it was impossible."

But today, Furman has the honor of holding more Guinness World Records than any one else in the world. He currently has 69 records, but over the course of the past 25 years, he has broken close to 200 records, for feats ranging from somersaulting the longest continuous distance (over 12 miles in 10 and a half hours, stopping only to vomit), to playing 434 games of Hopscotch in 24 hours.

In fact, breaking Guinness records has become the focus and drive of Furman's life. How did the young boy obsessed with Guinness become a man known around the world for all his wacky records? We'll have his surprising story.

What if you've always wanted to get into the Guinness World Records, but you're not willing to let your beard grow past your knees, or the thought of eating 50 hot dogs in one sitting gives you the shakes? Here's another idea: gather up all your friends and family and all their friends and families and so on and so on, because group records are a huge part of today's book.

How about the record for the largest gathering of people with the same last name? The most champagne bottles being uncorked at the same time? Or the most most bikini-clad women gathered for a single photo shoot? These are but a few of the group records thousands of people have attempted in the past year.