On a frigid, blustery afternoon just outside the gate to the St. John' University outdoor track in Queens, a lithe but fit-looking middle-aged man climbs out of a battered sedan. He's wearing a fleece jacket and sweatpants. He places a gym bag on the ground and unzips it, revealing an odd assortment of items: a well-used pair of running shoes, two bowed metal objects that are eventually revealed to be stilts, a baseball bat, two golf clubs (left-handed and right-handed pitching wedges), some golf balls and two empty tuna fish cans.
He clambers over to the track, a good portion of which is still covered with the snow deposited by a recent storm, and begins to stretch and loosen up.
The man's name is Ashrita Furman, and he has the distinction of being the official Guinness World Record holder for holding the most world records. He's at the St. John's track on this icy winter day for one final round of practice before he will attempt to break the record for running the fastest mile with empty aluminum cans strapped to the soles of his shoes and held in place by string looped through holes in the cans. He has held this record before, but last year someone else broke it and now he wants it back.
Furman, 56, is not quite sure how many world records he holds right now. It could be 123, possibly 124 or even 125. It's hard to keep track of because old ones are sometimes broken long before he learns of it.
He set his first world record in 1979 by doing 27,000 consecutive jumping jacks. Since then, he has established approximately 350 new records that are recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records.
His achievements include the fastest mile while hula-hopping, which he set in the Australian outback, chin-balancing the tallest pole (Turkey), the fastest mile bouncing on a yoga ball (on the Great Wall of China), farthest distance while balancing a pool cue (by the Great Pyramids in Egypt), farthest distance rolling over head over heels (along the path of Paul Revere's ride in Boston), jumping rope on a pogo stick (Cambodia), and eggs balanced on end (888, in New York).
But the record of which he is perhaps proudest is running the fastest mile in a sack -- which he accomplished in Mongolia while racing a yak -- a competitor added into the mix just for fun.
"When I heard they had yaks in Mongolia, I said that would be the most exciting thing, to have a race against a yak," Furman said.
He set the record and narrowly defeated the yak in a race which generated considerable betting interest among some of the local Mongolian farmers who supplied the yak, or yaks -- plural. To this day, Furman is convinced the local tribesmen switched a young, healthy yak for the aged yak he agreed to race.
Of course, the question he is asked and always answers with surprising alacrity is: why? Why does he devote so much of his life and energy to setting new world records?
When posed the question, he laughed, then paused as if it were the first time he had ever considered it, and said: "You know what? The point is joy. The point is the challenge. It's something silly but you're the best in the world at it."
"Usually a person breaks one record and they're satisfied," he elaborated. "But for me this is actually part of my spiritual quest."
Furman grew up in Queens not far from St. John's, the son of lawyers. When he was in school, he says he was a "nerd" who shunned sports for being insufficiently mind-nourishing.
"I believed sports were a waste of time," he says.
He was much more excited by intellectual rigor than athletics. But his intellectual curiosity included an obsession with the Guinness Book of World Records.
"As a kid, I was always a fan of the Guinness book," he says. "I mean, I might say a fanatic. I used to carry that book around like my Bible. There was something about it that just appealed to me. I don't know what it was."
In his 20's, he got into meditation, became a follower of the guru Sri Chimnoy, shed his birth name Keith and took the name Ashrita ("Ashrita means 'protected by God," he explains). Chimnoy convinced him that the body required nourished and challenged just as much as the mind.
When he heard about a 450-mile24-hour bicycling event, he entered it without doing any training. He says he finished third by applying the mental determination and concentration he had learned from meditating.
"I realized at that moment that using meditation, I could break a Guinness record," Furman says. "But I decided to break a record to tell people about meditation, not to get my name in the book. My philosophy is this; other human beings have broken those records. I'm a human being. I know how to meditate: why can't I break that record?"
He then embarked on his remarkable mission to break as many records as he could. He decides which one to tackle next by cracking open the Guinness book (or website these days) and seeing what looks interesting or which of his old records has since been broken.
"I'm addicted," he says. "I get this tremendous fulfillment. The process. The training. Overcoming the obstacle. Finding creative ways around a problem."
Furman does have a day job. He manages a health food store in Queens and slips in his world record breaking when he isn't working. He gets paid nothing for setting a new record. He has no sponsors. And while he concedes this off-beat avocation is an obsession, he makes no apologies for it.
"You're in the moment," he said of the feeling in the midst of trying to set a new record. "Nothing else exists except for you and whatever you're doing and I love that experience. It's what I live for basically."
In Ottawa, Canada, a few days after we spoke, Furman set the new record for running on cans. A week later, he was on his way to Bali for a meditation retreat. While there, he says he will attempt to set at least three new records: for skip-jumping without a rope, most forward rolls in one minute and farthest distance bouncing a golf ball on a golf club.