BROOKE GLADSTONE: Guiding Light is credited by the Guinness Book of World Records as being the longest running drama in broadcast history. Come to think of it, after 50 continuous years of publication, the Guinness Book of World Records is the world's best selling copyrighted book, earning its own entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. And the list goes on. In recent weeks, a 24 year old Indian woman won entry by floating on water for 54 hours and 27 minutes, a 43 year old New York man got in with the world's longest eyebrow hair, and Canadian Suresh Joachim set his 31st Guinness World Record by rocking non stop in a rocking chair for three days, three hours, three minutes and three seconds. But he told a reporter that the record he most wants to break is held by world class publicity seeker, Ashrita Furman, who holds the Guinness World Record for breaking Guinness World Records; at last count, 94 of them for, among other things, 27 hours of continuous yodeling and 307 games of hopscotch played in 24 hours. To commemorate the Guinness Book's golden anniversary, On the Media will now break its own record for rummaging through the archives of its hosts by presenting this 12 year old piece by Garfield when he spent a day with Ashrita Furman. On that day in June of 1993, Furman was on a high school track in Queens, New York training for the record breaking feat of walking 64 miles in 18 hours and 10 minutes with a nine pound brick pinched between his fingers.
ASHRITA FURMAN: The idea is to hold the brick with your palm down, thumb on one side, fingers on the other side. And you have to keep it in the same hand you can't drop it and walk as far as you can.
BOB GARFIELD: Ashrita Furman is about to sit down to a steaming pre workout serving of fried tofu at the Smile of the Beyond luncheonette, but first he's explaining his technique for world class ceramic building material carrying.
ASHRITA FURMAN: It's very tough. I mean, it's all grip strength and after while you just, you know, start losing your grip. But the idea for me is to concentrate on using different fingers, different muscles. It's to the point where you can, you know, do that for five to six hours and eventually I'm going to have to it for seventeen hours. So it is tough. It is really [CHUCKLES] tough.
BOB GARFIELD: It's not just tough, though, it's something it's something more than tough, Ashrita. It's --
ASHRITA FURMAN: [LAUGHING]
BOB GARFIELD: really, really stupid.
ASHRITA FURMAN: [LAUGHS] Yeah, it is. [LAUGHS] But, you know, what can I tell you. I I this is how I get my kicks. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: He doesn't mean long distance brick pinching per se. He means any display of unimaginable stamina in unimaginably pointless athletic endeavors. During the past 14 months alone, he has done 1,659 squat thrusts in an hour, performed 3,000 plus deep knee bends in an hour in a hot air balloon, and for the second time established the endurance record for juggling cannon balls under water in scuba gear 65 minutes. He might have done more, but he got a nasty case of dysentery while traveling, possibly while pogo sticking for three hours and 40 minutes with a snorkel, eyeball deep in the Amazon River.
ASHRITA FURMAN: Had a rope tied to me [LAUGHS] just in case the piranhas attacked. The piranhas were there like 30 feet away, but it was great. It was so much fun. It was a great adventure.
BOB GARFIELD: Digging into his tofu is a broad shouldered muscular 38 year old athlete, arguably one of the greatest athletes in the world. Hard to believe that 20 years ago Furman was a clumsy, bookish weakling.
ASHRITA FURMAN: Your typical nerd, I mean, down to the plastic pen holder in my pocket. In fact, I got beat up the first day at high school because I was such a wimp. And I really I didn't I mean, as far as I was concerned I really didn't have much of a life.
BOB GARFIELD: That's when he was Keith Furman, a nice Jewish boy from Queens, who everyone assumed would follow his father's footsteps in corporate law. In high school, however, he began to believe that there was something of importance beyond the National Honor Society. He read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, which led him to Eastern philosophy, which led him to transcendental meditation which led him a mile from his house to a Jamaica street called Parsons Boulevard. There he discovered an enclave of disciples of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian holy man who teaches a particularly strenuous path to spiritual enlightenment.
SRI CHINMOY: He knows philosophy, the physical and the spiritual must go together if we [PAUSE] want to achieve something. And for more achievement if we want to inspire people, then we have to remain in the inner world of inspiration as well.
BOB GARFIELD: Along the way to self transcendence, Sri Chinmoy's students combine spiritual and physical culture. They run ultra marathons, climb the mountains, and swim the English Channel in pursuit of inner peace. In 1970, Keith Furman, now Ashrita Furman, decided this would be his path. By 1979, having accepted Sri Chinmoy's teachings of self denial and celibacy, he was ready to tap his dormant capacities. Marathoning seemed a bit quixotic, but he had always been a pretty good pogo sticker, so into Central Park he ventured, determined to break the endurance record of 100,000 pogo jumps in 15 1/2 hours. Remarkably, despite excruciating pain and unbearable fatigue, he reached 100,000 within 13 hours.
ASHRITA FURMAN: For me it was like a spiritual experience, because right at the moment that I broke the record I did 100,001 jumps I was in Central Park and this peacock started like screaming at three o'clock in the morning, and like in Indian mythology that's like a victory cry, kind of. It was like very kind of cosmic thing.
BOB GARFIELD: Or maybe just peacock indigestion. Ashrita went on to do 130,001 pogos and submitted his feat to the Guinness Book, which informed him that he had taken his rest periods at improper intervals and summarily disqualified him. But, Ashrita was undeterred. He simply changed events and, after another false start, did 27,000 jumping jacks in July 1979 to finally break an established Guinness mark. He's been doing it ever since and, because he also arranges tours for Sri Chinmoy disciples all around the world, Ashrita gets to break records in exotic places, such as Zurich, where he established my favorite Ashrita record for walking distance while balancing a pint bottle of milk on his head 61 miles, 15 hours, a feat exceeded in its difficulty only by its ridiculousness and also, perhaps, by a certain kind of vanity that at first blush seems out of place.
ASHRITA FURMAN: Maybe there is a certain part of me that enjoys the attention. I'm not going to deny it. You know, I mean, okay, I'm trying to lead sort of, let's say, a monkish, spiritual type life, but I'm a human being and also there is it is there is a way for me to get maybe something of a message as far as meditation to people. I I really believe in it and I like to tell people about it and I feel I think they're wasting their own capacities if they don't practice meditation. [SOUND OF SINGING]
BOB GARFIELD: Clad in his orange silk dhoti, Sri Chinmoy is presiding over his Friday hour of meditation. The session ends with a chant of Sri Chinmoy's own composition, whereupon he walks serenely into an adjoining room to contemplate Ashrita's achievements. His favorite is the milk bottle walk, too.
SRI CHINMOY: Because it demands constant, constant attention. If he's relaxed, even for a fleeting second then the bottle will drop and he is disqualified. Concentration is of paramount importance. Without concentration, we cannot succeed in any field.
BOB GARFIELD: Ashrita, we're walking around the track. You're carrying a nine pound brick in your hand. Are you getting closer to God?
ASHRITA FURMAN: Yeah, I think so. I mean, it's it's, you know, very gradual, let's put it that way. But, yeah, I think it does intensify my spiritual life. For instance, after ten hours of this you're almost forced to like start praying, you know, to God, or you'll try to feel God inside of you.
BOB GARFIELD: You sure that's just not cramping?
ASHRITA FURMAN: [LAUGHS] No. [LAUGHING] I, you know, I this is something I really do believe in, that my body has a capacity to go a certain distance, let's say, and then after that it's sort of like my mind, or you might say my soul or whatever, my deeper part, takes over.
BOB GARFIELD: As it turns out, take control his deeper part would. After 64 miles and 18 plus hours of cramping, shin splints, and bloody blisters, Ashrita would own another record self transcendence, yet again. Inner peace achieved, at least for a while. There's a backwards unicycling record out there 46 miles and by September it will have to be broken. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Sarah Dalsimer. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.