While some people spent time baking, gardening, or raising poultry in 2020, Laura D’Asaro was on her hands and knees crawling around a track near her San Francisco home. Twice a week for three months, D’Asaro would don a mask as well as some more unorthodox gear. She put adhesive bandages on her palms, then covered those with bicycle gloves to keep from getting blisters. She wrapped her knees in bubble wrap, then added hard knee pads on top. She even put extra knee pads over the front ends of her shoes so they wouldn’t get rubbed away from friction. “It was pretty comfortable,” she says.
D’Asaro often crawled on Wednesdays, when a San Francisco marathon training team ran at the same track. “At first I got some weird looks,” D’Asaro says. “Then finally someone on the team stopped me and asked what I was doing.”
The answer? Training to break the Guinness world record for the fastest time to crawl a mile.
Last year wasn’t the first time D’Asaro, 30, had tried to break this record. She first attempted it when she was 17 as a way to raise money for cancer research and honor her grandmother who’d recently died from the disease. Training was different back then. “My mom would ask me to take the dog for a walk after school, but instead of walking, I would crawl,” D’Asaro laughs. She crawled around her neighborhood and on beaches and trails while wearing a sign that said “World Record in Progress” so strangers would stop asking her questions. Everyone at school knew her as the crawling girl. She even got a write-up in the local paper. “When you’re 17, you haven’t found a place in the world,” D’Asaro says. “This was something uniquely mine.”
When it finally came time for the attempt, family members and kids from her high school showed up to watch and support her. She crawled four times around the inside of a track and thought she’d beaten the record. But there was a snag. “I didn’t realize at the time that four times around the inside of a track is only 99 percent of a mile,” D’Asaro says. “I submitted the record, and it didn’t get approved.”
Getting 99 percent of the way there wasn’t enough for D’Asaro. So each January for the last 10 years, D’Asaro added “breaking the record” to her list of New Year’s resolutions. She’d train a little in January, maybe even February, and then life would get in the way. “I felt really embarrassed,” D’Asaro says. She always felt like it was “one extra box that didn’t get checked.”
Then the pandemic happened.
Suddenly, no one was inviting her to restaurants or parties. The biggest event on her social calendar was when people opened their windows to cheer for health care workers and first responders at 8 p.m. And most of all, training gave her a purpose—something she could control during an otherwise uncertain and scary time. “For the first time ever, there was nothing standing in my way,” D’Asaro says.
So she started crawling in earnest, and on June 24, 2020, she made her official attempt. Some friends came to watch, and her grandmother, parents, and other people who had seen her first attempt watched through livestreams. This time, D’Asaro crawled a mile in 21 minutes and 36 seconds to get the women’s record. (The men’s record, set in 2007, is 23 minutes and 45 seconds.)
D’Asaro started graduate school a few months later, and when she got her official certificate from Guinness World Records, she framed it and put it on a shelf above her computer in her dorm room. “I’m proud of it,” she says. “In some ways it doesn’t matter at all—it’s a stupid paper certificate for crawling around for a mile. But in other ways, it means a ton.”
Since the organization that’s come to be known as Guinness World Records made its first book of superlatives in 1955, it’s grown to occupy a strange space in global culture. Guinness, which has not been connected to the beer brand since 2001, commemorates the newsworthy superlatives—like the longest aggregate time spent in space by a single person, or the deepest dive by a crewed vessel—as well as the ones that are hard to categorize and even harder to forget. (Remember the photos of people who hold records for the most body modifications or juggling the most samurai swords?) At its core, though, the Guinness series is a love letter to the superlative nature of humans. It stretches people’s imaginations of what’s possible, for individuals and society alike. “With the pandemic,” D’Asaro says, “it forced us to think about who we want to be. And how we want to show up in this one life we have.”
In a year that often felt like treading water, many saw breaking a world record as a chance to feel part of something good, to stand out, and even to connect with others. Guinness World Records saw a 10 percent increase in record applications between April and December 2020; in North America alone, time-related records like “most in a minute” or “fastest time to” went up notably, according to the company. “Our fear was that we’d never have enough records to fill the book,” Craig Glenday, the editor of Guinness World Records, says of the early days of the pandemic. But they had thousands more than he could ever fit in the 2020 edition.
Sir Hugh Beaver, managing director of the Guinness brewery, was on a hunting trip when he got into an argument about what the fastest game bird in Europe was. He and his cohort debated and debated, but no one seemed to know the answer: the golden plover. It was exactly the type of arbitrary question that humans still fight about at parties—what’s the bestselling record ever? Can a human outrun a horse? What is a caper, anyway?—only now we have the internet to get us the answers. Back in the 1950s, though, Sir Beaver was on his own. So he hired twins Norris and Ross McWhirter to publish a book of superlatives that he could give to pubs as a marketing tool.
Within 16 weeks, the McWhirters “extracted -ests from the -ists,” as they famously said, contacting everyone from archeologists to geologists to mycologists to collect whatever superlatives existed in these fields. And the book was born.
Copies of The Guinness Book of Records, as the 1955 edition was known, were given away to pubs throughout the U.K. Complete with waterproof covers to protect against spills, they were an instant hit. There was so much demand for this first book that a bound print edition came out for purchase that fall. It was a U.K. bestseller by the end of the year. Then, in 1956, Superlatives Inc. put together a new edition and decided to sell it in the United States.
The original U.S. edition included just 15 pages of black-and-white photos; the rest was text. The types of human records listed were more staid than what you’d find in an edition today: tallest, fastest, oldest, along with some world records for sports. The book didn’t have the immediate success in the U.S. that it had enjoyed in the U.K. But soon the bookmaker realized people didn’t just want to read the collection of records—they wanted to be in it. As Larry Olmsted writes in his 2008 book Getting Into Guinness, the first person to get into the book for a bizarre human achievement was Jim Rogers, who marathon-drummed for 80 hours, 35 minutes, and 14 seconds in 1956. From there, all hell broke loose. “At first, records were merely a way of finding one’s statistical bearings,” wrote Jerry Kirshenbaum in a 1979 article about record breaking. “But they soon became ends in themselves as fans, athletes and sportswriters got caught up in the giddy allure of somebody ‘going for the record.’”
And, according to Guinness World Records, no country breaks more records than the United States.
“We have the Protestant mindset that you should always be engaging in something productive, and anything you do should be to prove yourself,” says Francesco Duina, author of Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession. In the U.S., the idea of winners and losers has gone beyond business deals and the courtroom to saturate popular culture. Reality television exploded as a genre once competition was brought into it. Shows like America’s Next Top Model and American Idol gave contestants a chance at celebrity and the possibility of a career in a difficult but glamorous industry. Even dating shows learned early on that love could be a game to be won or lost.
Having a Guinness world record is a paradoxical achievement because it’s a claim to fame that doesn’t actually make most record holders famous. “No one typically knows outside of friends and family,” Olmsted says. Yet in modern society, standing out for something has become so important that people have gone to great lengths to do it.
Shridhar Chillal started growing the nails on his left hand when he was 14 and didn’t stop until he was 82. He eventually set the record for longest fingernails on a single hand, but for his troubles got permanent disfiguration in his hand from carrying so much weight, and constant pain. Yet he doesn’t regret it. “What does man not do for fame? He jumps from boats, dives from planes and does stunts on motorcycles,” Chillal told The Guardian in 2000. “Were I to have another life, I would do it again.”
Ashrita Furman, who lives in New York City, broke his first world record in 1979. Since then, he has broken more than 700 records and is the current holder of 200. Furman follows the teachings of a man named Sri Chinmoy, who believed extreme physical challenges were the key to spiritual growth. Training to break so many records—like the longest distance jumped on a pogo stick, which he set by hopping up Japan’s Mount Fuji, and beating his own record for most consecutive somersaults by rolling the length of Paul Revere’s midnight ride—takes up an enormous amount of time and can be physically grueling. But the process of outdoing what he previously thought was possible is important to him.
How could something as seemingly insignificant as a paper certificate saying “World Record” or, best-case scenario, having your photo featured in a Guinness World Records book, be worth all this? It’s a chance for people to define themselves, Duina says, and a way to gain the internal satisfaction of knowing they can be the best in the world at something, no matter how strange or small.
One of the beauties of the Guinness books is the way they present the records as equal. The planet Mars gets a two-page spread in the 2021 book for its various superlatives, but so do write-ups for most things done in a minute, biggest fruits and vegetables, and backyard inventors. It divvies up information about the world in a way that most people wouldn’t think of: the desert that gets the most rainfall, the highest clouds. For adults who tend to take the world around them for granted, paging through a book is a brief reminder of what it was like to be a child: questioning everything and constantly being astonished by what’s possible. Highlighting the amazing things people do every year is life affirming, Glenday says, adding, “By definition, everything [in the book] is amazing.”
Zaila Avant-garde, 14, knew she wanted a world record as soon as she got a copy of the book for her eighth birthday. Children, of course, are the books’ primary audience. “[The book] puts it out there that things that might seem kind of impossible are doable with a bit of practice,” she says.
Avant-garde didn’t know which record she’d go after when she got the book, but a few years later she got an idea. Avant-garde, who has been playing basketball since she was about 5, honed her skills over the years. “I started dribbling two or three balls at a time to help with hand-eye coordination, so dribbling one ball would be easy,” she says. Ahead of her 12th birthday, she decided that her present to herself would be breaking her first world record. Instead, she broke two: most bounce juggles in a minute with three basketballs, and most bounces in 30 seconds using four balls.
Avant-garde, who also became the first African American winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in July 2021, wasn’t surprised to win. “When I go for my records it’s not too stressful,” she says. She wouldn’t try for a record if she weren’t positive she could get it.
Some time after she break her first record, Guinness World Records called Avant-garde and asked whether there was anything else she wanted to break. This isn’t uncommon. While many people apply for records, the company notes achievements by people who are already famous in their own right: Jane Goodall for “longest running wild primate study”; BTS for breaking five world records with their song “Dynamite,” including most viewed YouTube video in 24 hours; and Greta Thunberg for being the youngest Time Person of the Year. Likewise, people who upload videos of themselves doing unusual things to the internet might find themselves getting a phone call, nudging them toward making it “officially amazing,” as the company says.
Avant-garde took her previous record, added another ball to the routine, and in November 2020 set another record for doing 255 bounce juggles in a minute with four basketballs—this time while she and her family were evacuated from their home in New Orleans because of Category 2 Hurricane Zeta. She could have postponed her attempt, but they’d already set a date and gotten cameras (each attempt requires video from multiple angles to ensure that the video wasn’t manipulated) and witnesses. “It was a welcome chance to get out of the hotel room,” she says of going out to practice, as Avant-garde, her parents, and three siblings all shared one room. “I like doing things that put a little pressure on you.”
Randy DeGregorio feels similarly. The 23-year-old lives in New Jersey, and before the pandemic he worked as an intern at Madison Square Garden. “Because of COVID, they delayed the process of rehiring,” DeGregorio says, so he went to work as a pizza delivery driver. Quickly, though, he realized his job could offer an opportunity to break a record. For DeGregorio it wasn’t just a way to set a personal accomplishment, but to show future employers he wasn’t “slacking off” during the pandemic.
It all started with folding pizza boxes. That’s part of the job—a chore that pizzeria employees have to do before clocking out for the night—and DeGregorio was always better at it than his coworkers. During a bout of boredom at home, he looked up the record for box folding and saw that it was only 14 boxes in a minute. He knew he could do better, so he worked through the pandemic, spending an hour every other night for months—sometimes three or four hours—folding pizza boxes at home. He even asked his boss for extras he could practice with. During his official attempt in October, which took place at the pizzeria where he works, DeGregorio folded 18 boxes in a minute and easily took the world record. For the honor, he got to create a pizza named after him; he did not get a raise.
“As soon as I did the record, every pizzeria in my area was attempting it,” DeGregorio says. He’s not worried about local competition—a friend told him that employees at another area spot were only able to fold eight boxes in a minute. But it’s only a matter of time until someone—maybe the person from Italy from whom DeGregorio took the record—beats him. “I check the website every once in a while to make sure [my title] is still there,” DeGregorio says.
Even if someone else gets the title one day, DeGregorio will always be able to say he broke it once upon a time. For however long it lasts, DeGregorio has proof that he could do something better than anyone else in the world. “My dad always said that there’s something special about saying you’re the best at something.”
People make fun of the more frivolous records listed in Guinness, like running a marathon in a nurse’s uniform or the fastest time to put together a particular Lego set. Some think it’s odd that a book that lists the first people to row across the Atlantic or skydive into a jet stream would also showcase people with big feet or a preternatural skill for stacking Jenga blocks. But are these records really so arbitrary?
“We cover the spectrum of ‘Everests,’” Glenday says, “whether it’s climbing the actual mountain or putting together a Mr. Potato Head. Why not accept that everything is amazing if you do it in an amazing way?”
When Pam Onnen, a teacher in her 50s, talks to herself, it’s usually backward. She spells words backward and says words backward even when no one is around. “I find my fingers are trying to type things backwards,” Onnen says. There’s a video of her reciting the alphabet backward backward, flipping the phonetics of each letter, which sounds like something from Twin Peaks if it had been made for elementary school students.
It’s been this way since middle school. “It was just a weird thing I didn’t tell anybody about,” she says. She eventually shared her strange skill with her husband, and when her children were young, she’d talk to them backward sometimes just to watch them double over laughing. But then she got the record for spelling the most words backward in a minute in July 2020, and now she talks about it all the time. “The only reason it’s cool is because it’s a world record,” she says.
Onnen is a mom and a substitute teacher. For years, she says, she’s been focused on doing things for everybody else. This was something just for her. When asked how the record compared to her life accomplishments, Onnen said, “I can’t say number one, because I’m married with kids,” then laughed. But she noted that if somebody were to go to her house and look at the walls, they’d see her certificate has the largest frame in the house.
“The overview effect” describes how astronauts feel when they go into space for the first time and see Earth looking as small as a ball they could grasp in their hands. In many people, the experience produces a strange euphoria and a sense of interconnectedness that lingers long after the astronauts return to Earth. Getting a copy of a Guinness World Records book may not be as special as going into outer space, but it’s still a unique snapshot of life on earth—disasters and triumphs and people who do strange things with their bodies that make you squirm. Each new edition of the book acts as a snapshot of the world at that time, and serves as proof that the benchmarks keep moving.
“The 2022 edition, which we’re working on now, will be an interesting time capsule of what life was like during the pandemic,” says Glenday. Mass participation events like “loudest scream by a crowd” or “largest gathering of people dressed like Superman” went from a third of Guinness World Records’ events to single digits. The book mostly features lots of people wearing masks, and plenty of images captured via Zoom. “There was lots of online record-breaking,” Glenday says. But some were still able to gather together to break records and share in the experience.
“If you’re lying on your deathbed and look back at your life, what did you do?” says Chris Shields, 60, when asked about the appeal of a world record. He and nine friends set the record for the longest wiffle ball game in March 2020, just before lockdown. It wasn’t his first record—he caught a softball dropped out of a plane 250 feet in the air in 2013 after his daughter suggested he try it. But his friends were always curious about his record, and this was something they could do together. People flew to Illinois from Washington and Florida for the marathon game. Breaking a world record was an excuse to see one another. They played for 27 hours straight, roughly 426 innings.
While there were more individual records set than usual during the pandemic, group records are a popular category and continued in virtual form during lockdown. In August 2020, a life insurance company set a record for the “largest online video chain of people doing the arm wave” with 359 videos from employees all over the world. The London Marathon had a shocking number of participants last year, as 37,966 people signed up to run remotely, setting a record for “most users to run a remote marathon in 24 hours.” (This year, the London Marathon is planning to hold both in-person and virtual events.) People feel like they’re part of a long tradition when they break an individual world record, but there’s something extra special about doing it as a team.
Shields says that his wiffle ball team formed a deeper bond through their marathon game. “We’re getting on in age now,” Shields says, but this is something they can always look back on. Officially, the group got the world record, but between the time of their attempt and when their certificates arrived months later, another team tried for the same record and broke it. “We had the record for four months,” Shields says. He consoled his friends by telling them they were “kings of the world” for those four months.
Shields is an electrician and he’s planning to retire in a few years. “I don’t want to hit the couch and do nothing,” he says. He’s thinking of what record he could break next.