Like a Broken Record

From beer milers to long-distance crawlers, the unending appeal of being No. 1.
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(Illustration: Sebastien Thibault)

(Illustration: Sebastien Thibault)

Andy Warhol is famous for saying we’d all be famous, if only for 15 minutes. He didn't really say it, but still, in January 2013, applied mathematician Samuel Arbesman added up the number of Wikipedia’s “notable” living people (604,174), divided that by the number of people in the world (7,059,837,187), and concluded that Warhol had grossly overestimated. Forget 15 minutes; according to Arbesman, each of us has only a 0.0086 percent chance of being famous at all.

There’s one way to break into that rarefied percentile: Be the best at something—anything. This was my reasoning at 15 years old, that age when fame is so alluring. But what could I excel at? I had no skills. So I picked an obscure event far from Olympic glory that demanded only determination and focus.

Crawling.

The distance-crawling record at the time was 12.5 miles. For some reason, breaking it seemed totally manageable. I enlisted a friend. We didn’t even train. We crawled as babies, we reasoned; what was there to learn? On the scheduled day, we pulled ski gloves onto our hands, cinched furniture pads to our knees, and began our scramble around the high school track. Easy! The first lap, a quarter mile, took 10 minutes.

"It's a yearning to belong somewhere that causes us to seek the fulfillment of attention and approval of strangers."

At mile three I was tired but determined. At mile five my knees were bleeding through my jeans. At mile five and a half my friend dropped out. Lap times were slipping, from 20 minutes to half an hour. At mile seven it began to rain. At mile eight I was hypothermic and speaking gibberish to my timekeepers. Finally, those timekeepers ended my ordeal. I had crawled for 12 hours and 8.5 miles. All that pain, and I had failed.

Recently, runner James Nielsen did what I could not: He set a world record in a different, but also absurd, event called the Beer Mile. Often practiced by collegiate teams after a successful season, the Beer Mile consists of a beer chugged at the start, and then at every quarter mile, while running for a mile. Sounds like fun, right? Wrong, says Nielsen. It’s more like waterboarding than partying. “You feel like you’re drowning while you’re drinking the beers,” the former NCAA Division III champion runner explains. “It’s really an uncomfortable, painful experience.”

Nielsen had once been a formidable competitive runner, coming close to a four-minute mile. But he was never close to being No. 1 (the current record is 3:43). Drinking and then running was his chance at glory. Better athletes, like Olympian Nick Symmonds, had tried and failed—but, says Nielsen, “I can drink beer and I eat a lot, so I just combined it.” The previous Beer Mile record was 5:02, set by an Australian, of course. Nielsen wanted to run his in under five minutes. He did, setting a world record of 4:57. “But why put yourself through this?” I asked him.

“Just to see if I could be the best in the world,” he responded.

Now he’s the Beer Mile champ, with a YouTube video of his run that has almost 1.3 million views, and online articles on CNN and the Wall Street Journal. Nielsen says fame wasn’t a motive; still, he’s arguably now in the 0.0086 percent.

The king of excelling in obscure niches is Ashrita Furman, a 60-year-old health food store manager from Queens, New York. Furman holds the world record for world records—as of press time, 562 broken, 206 still held—including continuous somersaulting (12 miles, 390 yards) and balancing a milk bottle on your head for the longest distance (80.95 miles). He also owns the 10-meter walking-backwards-in-440-pound-iron-shoes record (32.72 seconds). Personally, I think the slicing-potatoes-while-hopping-on-a-shovel record is sort of B.S. But translating and reciting a poem in 203 languages? Impressive.

Furman, who credits his meditation practice with his success, says he attempts records as a spiritual quest, and because “I’m trying to show others that our human capacity is limitless if we believe in ourselves.” But is that really the whole caboodle? The most pancakes caught in a minute (46) doesn’t exactly inspire. Furman must realize that oddball record-breaking pogo-sticks him into fame, and a peculiar kind of acceptance. As Orville Gilbert Brim, psychologist and author of Look at Me! The Fame Motive From Childhood to Death, has said, “It’s a yearning to belong somewhere that causes us to seek the fulfillment of attention and approval of strangers.”

Some people are prepared to die to meet that need. Jonathan Rice runs in Death Valley—while dressed as Darth Vader. Why not just wear a headband and shorts? Because being the Darth Valley Runner is much more eye-catching than being That Dumb Guy Who Runs in Very Hot Weather. Now Rice is determined to set the world record for the hottest mile, and for him it isn’t enough to achieve this in running clothes. In 2013, he threw on his Darth digs and headed out on a 129-degree day. (The record claim was rejected by the Guinness Book of World Records for being too hard to verify, though Rice insists he has several witnesses, the official temperature report, two GPS logs, and a video.)

But we love a champion, no matter how obscure the victory. Breaking any record takes grit and skill (most of us would have upchucked by the Beer Mile’s second lap). No wonder we click on the videos, and the escapades become eccentric. Personally, I have no need to be the best anymore. I’m content as The Woman Who Failed at the Crawling Record. Meanwhile, Nielsen—now known as Beer Mile Guy—is looking to shave seconds off his time. The first formal Beer Mile World Championship is set for December 3.

“I can certainly drink the third and fourth beer faster,” he muses.

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