NEW YORK — Ask fans who's the greatest athlete of all time, and you'll hear a familiar debate over the likes of Mohammed Ali, Michael Jordan, and Babe Ruth.
Ask avid readers of the Guinness Book of World Records, however, and you're likely to hear consensus on one name: Ashrita Furman.
Guinness's "Mr. Versatility" winner doesn't make millions of dollars in endorsements or own championship rings. In fact, he doesn't even play on a team.
What Mr. Furman has done is break 60 world records - an eclectic array of feats so odd, so grueling, and so phenomenal, they leave Guinness readers in disbelief.
Among his achievements: pogo-sticking the fastest mile - in Antarctica; yodeling for 27 hours straight; running a marathon in 3 hours, 22 minutes, while juggling three balls; balancing a milk bottle on his head for 70 miles; somersaulting a 12-mile course in Boston; and hopscotching for 24 hours.
But Furman isn't looking for fame or titles. The self-described former nerd who almost failed his high school gym class is on a spiritual mission with decidedly athletic overtones. Born Keith Furman in Brooklyn, N.Y., he says he was a shy, intelligent child whose lackluster skills left his dreams of breaking a Guinness Record purely in the realm of fantasy.
"I had this fascination about the book," he says, "but it was totally theoretical. I had no interest or ability in any sport."
During his teenage years, he "started really searching for deeper meaning in life." This yearning led him, as an economics major at Columbia University in New York, to meet a yoga teacher who would change his life.
Sri Chimnoy, an Eastern religious guru and proponent of ultraendurance athletics, transformed the fumbling Keith into Ashrita (meaning "protected by God") - and into a legend of Forrest Gump proportions. At his teacher's urging, Furman entered a 24-hour bicycle marathon in New York's Central Park. With no training, and matched against Olympic-caliber athletes, the prospects for the 5-ft., 10-in., 165-lb. Furman were slight.
In what was "the absolute highlight of my life," he says, Furman pedaled his way to third place and propelled his Guinness quest with the fuel of an epiphany.
"I understood you could use your inner spirit to do anything," he says. "It's not the body that's [performing]." This thinking led him to a logical, but breathtaking conclusion: He refused to accept any physical limitation. After that, he says, he knew he was bound for Guinness.
With his newfound convictions and athletic confidence, Furman made an auspicious Guinness debut with 27,000 jumping jacks. The rest, as they say, is history.
So how exactly does he get motivated to carry a 9-lb. brick nearly 100 miles around his old high school track? Furman says it's an opportunity to demonstrate his freedom from limitation: "Every time I do a record, at some point the human in me has to surrender, the ego and body says, 'I can't go any further.' I say, 'God, help me.' It's a very powerful experience."
This spiritual drive hasn't quelled his goofy side. "You don't have to be a withering ascetic," he says. As a tribute to his teacher, he once stood in downtown Manhattan and clapped - for 16 hours.
These days, Furman keeps busy managing a health-food store, and he doesn't spend as much time pursuing records. But armed with his slogan, "The road is always ahead of you," Furman will doubtless again find his way into Guinness.
FLYING FRUIT Going for a juicy record
I've always wanted to be a world record-holder. But I'm not 9 ft. tall, I can't recite Pi to the millionth digit, and I have no plans to grow my fingernails for 75 years.
So I've been relegated to one of the more mundane Guinness records: the longest grape catch. Hey, it's not as easy as it sounds: Two guys have thrown a grape 327 ft., 6 in. Oh, and the grape must be caught in the mouth, not in the hand.
With some background as a javelin thrower in college, I thought the record could be broken. But I had another ace in the hole: Ashrita Furman. Who better than "Mr. Versatility" himself to catch a grape from 328 feet.?
So on a crisp, overcast October day, Mr. Furman and I brought measuring tape, video equipment, and two containers of red, seedless grapes to an abandoned softball park in Jamaica, Queens, a New York neighborhood.
Bystanders gawked as we began warming up, two adults in athletic attire looking decidedly silly lunging for grapes with mouths ajar.
But the mood turned serious as we paced out 300 feet and faced a daunting fact: Three-hundred feet is a long way to throw a grape.
Using a 12-step javelin approach and enough grunts to make Monica Seles proud, I could launch select grapes just over 300 feet. But the record proved elusive for another reason: Past 200 feet, Furman literally couldn't see the grape until - on the occasional accurate throw - it hit him in the face. Our best effort of the day was a mediocre, but still thrilling, 200-foot completion.
Despite my doubts of ever making the vaunted pages of Guinness, Furman remains optimistic about me. But you'd expect that from "Mr. Versatility."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society