The Interview: Larry Olmsted on Getting into Guinness
In Getting Into Guinness: One Man's Longest, Fastest, Highest Journey Inside the World's Most Famous Record Book, writer Larry Olmsted not only chronicles the 50-year history of Guinness World Records. He explains in some detail how he managed to set two Guinness records of his own. The book is a fascinating look behind the scenes at a quirky and sometimes lunatic world where true obsessives devote massive amounts of time and energy to break into the hallowed pages of Guinness.
When did you first become obsessed with breaking Guinness Records?
I think all kids, especially guys, go through a fascinating period with the records when they're in the neighborhood of 8-10 years old, and I did too, and everyone I interview has the same remembered passion, but it usually passes. For me, the interest was reinvigorated by my book project, and I became obsessed with the Guinness Records themselves while doing research and interviewing all the crazy people whose lives, to varying degrees, revolve around record breaking.
I wouldn't say that I am personally obsessed with breaking records, but rather with the subject matter. I broke my first record as part of an assignment for Golf Magazine, and figured it would be a one-time thing. I did not know much about the process or what the results would be at that time, and I was shocked to find out how much interest my feat generated. I was Top 10 Play of the Day on ESPN Sportscenter, I got dozens of radio and newspaper interview requests, I was on Good Morning America.
That stuff does not happen to me a lot, and it was very gratifying. That definitely was an ego boost and inspired me to do it again, but after my second record and my second appearance on Sportscenter, the luster wore off pretty quickly and I never set any more records. It is a complicated and time-consuming process and at the end of the day you have a certificate and a memory, and I already have those. How many do you need? However there are a number of serial record breakers for whom the thrill never gets old. I think of them just like ski-bums or surf-bums except they get their high from record-breaking, and just like ski-bums orchestrate their lives and jobs around their passion. They are the ones I find fascinating.
Apart from the Richard Branson's of the world, it seems to me that many people going after Guinness records are, in fact, reasonably normal — except for one overriding obsession. Would you agree?
They're normal only in the sense that other than the billionaires and explorers, they are "average" people, and the average person is obsessed with fame and celebrity which is a real problem in our society and why magazines can pay literally millions of dollars for photos of some actresses' baby and then sell millions of copies at the supermarket check out line. It is that same obsession with pseudo-celebrity that drives the obsession these people have with breaking Guinness World Records.
So to that degree it is normal behavior, but I don't think normal is good. I talk to a lot of experts in my book, and a lot of record holders, and for most people who break records it comes down to the fact that it makes them feel self important or famous. They do it because they can't be movie stars or professional athletes, but they feel it puts them on that stage, and sorry to break the news, it does not.
That said, give us an example of some of the extreme attempts, successful or not, that people have made to get into Guinness. I must say it's hard to beat Michel Lotito, the Frenchman who ate bicycles, shopping carts and a pair of skis when it comes to defining the word "extreme."
Michael Lotito, nicknamed Monsieur Mangetout, French for "Mr. Eat Everything," is certainly one of the most unbelievable examples of extreme behavior in the history of the book. I mean, he ate an entire airplane, a Cessna propeller plane, by grinding the metal into pieces and drinking it one cup at a time. It does not get more extreme than that. But there are a number of other real wackos. There is a guy who has records for towing vehicles with chins attached to hooks stuck thorough the skin at the small of his back. I cannot help but wonder how you even discover that you have a gift for that?
There's another guy who pulls vehicles with chains attached to his eyelids. There's a guy who lifts things like kegs of beer and live women with his beard. There's a guy who runs through multiple panes of glass. A guy who snorts fish through his nose and out his mouth. A guy who stood on one leg for 76 hours. A team of guys drove a Suzuki Samurai SUV to the base of the CN Tower in Toronto, the world's tallest structure, took it completely apart and carried it up the stairs, over 100 flights, in pieces, including the engine block, then reassembled it on the roof and started it, all in under three hours. Presumably they had to take it back down afterwards. Then there are the stunts Guinness World Records refused to approve, like the guy who tried to spend the longest time in a chamber filled with tear gas or the one who wanted the record for falling down the most flights of stairs. You cannot make this stuff up, but you might notice that the crazy ones are almost all guys, not gals. Go figure.
In 2004, you broke a Guinness record for the "Greatest Distance Traveled Between Two Rounds of Golf Played on the Same Day" by playing in Australia and California, a distance of 7,496 miles. What was the hardest part of that challenge?
I hate to admit it, but that record was not that hard. The biggest challenge was the logistics, just figuring the whole thing out in advance. I needed a really long non-stop flight but it had to also cross the international date line in the right direction, headed east, and it had to leave at a time that would let me play golf that morning and get to the airport, like around noon. It had to land at a time where I could still get from the airport to a golf course and play for four hours before dark. That was the hardest part, as most long haul flights leave early in the morning or at night. It was finding the right flight and the golf courses near the airports and putting it together that was tricky.
For the actual record I just had to play golf twice in one day, something I have done dozens of other times, except for the flight in between. The biggest concern was if the flight was delayed or some issue like that outside of my control. It turned out hat the worst part was that it was really bad weather when I got to A, something unusual that time of year, and I had no rain gear and had to play in a downpour, but I lived. After all, if it's easy it should not be a world record.
You nailed a Guinness record for "Longest Casino Poker Session." Describe what it was like not to sleep for 72 hours plus and play poker at the same time.
That one was really difficult, so difficult that is has remained unbroken for 5 years, despite an enormous number of people who play poker. My golf record fell quickly but the poker one is a pretty high bar. I read on the internet about some guy in England who claims he broke it, but Guinness World Records has not acknowledge it, and he did it under much different circumstances, playing one-on-one in a pub while I had to take on the public, eight at a time, under casino rules.
Anyway, staying awake for that long causes all kinds of problems. I read afterwards an army medical study on the effects of 72 hours of sleep deprivation and I had every possible symptom in combination: forgetfulness, agitation, hallucination, trouble seeing, trouble speaking, loss of coordination and so on. The hallucinations were the worst, full-on animated scenes out of fantasy, total disconnect from reality. Peoples faces were melting, I had panic attacks, I though at one point our table was in a gazebo on a mountain top high above the casino, quite literally. At one point my eyelids swelled to the point where my vision blurred and I could no longer read the cards. It was really unpleasant and I simply would not do it again, and I don't recommend that anyone do it. There have been people who stayed up that long and were permanently damaged, lifelong insomnia, those kinds of issues. Fortunately not me, but I was lucky.
Where are the growth areas for Guinness record breakers?
There are a lot of technology driven records, like fastest for sending an instant message, most downloads of a song, those kinds of things. The company even launched a second record book and a website entirely devoted to video games. Surprisingly, one popular way of getting in is taking some of the oldest records and doing a variation on them. One standby of the book is throwing odd things, from boots to bricks, and it seems every year someone comes up with something new to throw, like a washing machine, and gets in. People also take existing records, like unicycling or something, and do them backwards, upside down or underwater, creative variations. Eating records had fallen out of favor but are back in a big way, and instead of huge quantities, they go for most consumed in a minute or a short time frame like that, so just find a new food.
Do you have your heart set on breaking another Guinness record?
Honestly, I don't. My life will not be incomplete without another record. That said, I am interested in a particular area. There are basically a few different ways to set record, namely to break an existing record, which I have done, and to petition Guinness and set an entirely new record, which I also did with my poker. The third area is a group participating record, and that is one I would like to do, because it is not about getting your name on a certificate but rather being part of a mass effort. There is a town in Australia that breaks a mass pub crawl record regularly, getting more and more people to go drinking, and I think my skills would be a good addition to their team. That's the only one I have in mind right now.