The Question Is Why? Ashrita Furman has hopped, juggled and yodeled to 57 Guinness marks

Nov. 02, 1998
Nov. 02, 1998

Table of Contents
Nov. 2, 1998

Faces In The Crowd
Pro Basketball [bonus Piece]

The Question Is Why? Ashrita Furman has hopped, juggled and yodeled to 57 Guinness marks

David Frankenbery sits in the dawn's gray glow and wonders why
this duty has been foisted upon him. Yesterday Frankenbery, a
park ranger at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, was issued
orders most abstruse: "Be at the parking lot at 5:30 a.m.," his
boss said, "to monitor a guy in a potato sack for 10,000 meters."

This is an article from the Nov. 2, 1998 issue Original Layout

So here is Frankenbery, stopwatch in hand. Laid out before him
is a ribbon of sod 100 meters long. Next to him stands a man in
a potato sack. For the record--and this definitely is--it is a
peanut sack. The stranger's face betrays as little emotion as
those of the four granite U.S. presidents in the background. He
is meditating. At last he opens his eyes. He inhales deeply.
"All right," he says. "I'm ready to go."

He's at it again. Ashrita Furman is rewriting the record book.
Since 1979, when he first etched his name into The Guinness Book
of World Records for doing 27,000 jumping jacks, Furman, 44, has
practically transformed "the chronicle of human achievement"
into his own curriculum vitae. Furman, who is disarmingly normal
in appearance (5'10", 165 pounds) and manner, has set a
world-record 58 Guinness world records. No one has pogo-sticked
farther. No one has juggled longer. Certainly no one has juggled
as long while pogo-sticking. In 1987 Guinness dubbed him Mr.

"Pogo-stick juggling sounds silly," says former Guinness editor
Gene Jones, who approved many of Furman's record ideas. "O.K., go
do it. It's not as easy as you think."

Some records, such as milk-bottle balancing and long-distance
somersaulting, Furman has shattered and reshattered. Others,
such as yodeling (27 hours) and backward unicycling (53.2
miles), the latter which Furman did to celebrate his 40th
birthday, have been one-time efforts. "Yodeling!" he exclaims.
"Tough. The hardest part? Getting people to listen."

He set the yodeling record in San Francisco in 1989. He rounded
up a few folks to act as witnesses and began yodeling at
Fisherman's Wharf. But after a few hours, the monotony, to say
nothing of the yodeling, began to unnerve all. So Furman and his
witnesses piled into a car and cruised the streets of San
Francisco, Furman yodeling all the while out the windows. "I was
literally driving them crazy," says Furman.

He knows what you are thinking. "I really don't care if people
think I'm nuts," says Furman, the manager of a health-food store
in Queens, N.Y., who is celibate and also abstains from eating
animal flesh.

For the record, Ashrita (ne Keith) Furman was born on Sept. 16,
1954, in Brooklyn and later moved to Queens. The person who would
one day construct the world's largest pencil (20'6" and 560
pounds) says that as a youth he was a pencil-necked geek. He was
the valedictorian of his junior high. On his first day at Jamaica
High, he was beaten up. He regularly skipped gym class, and he
lasted only one day on the track team.

He went on to Columbia, but in 1974 his formal education ended
abruptly on the first day of his junior year. By then he'd
become a devout follower of Sri Chinmoy, the Indian-born
spiritual philosopher who founded a meditation center in Queens
in 1968. Prolific in thought and deed, Sri Chinmoy has composed
more than 67,000 poems, and his marathon team sponsors an annual
3,100-mile footrace that is an exercise in (depending upon your
outlook) enlightenment or ennui.

"I had a Jewish upbringing, and my dad was a lawyer," says
Furman. "I was looking at a similar future. I felt empty inside.
My life changed when I met my teacher." (He never refers to Sri
Chinmoy by name.) So on that first day of classes in 1974, when
Furman's theology professor criticized Sri Chinmoy, Furman stood
up and walked out. Four years later Ashrita (he adopted the name,
which means "protected by God" in Sanskrit) was introduced to the
outer limits of stamina when he and a number of Sri Chinmoy's
followers entered a 24-hour bike-a-thon in Manhattan's Central
Park. "Ashrita, how many miles will you do?" Sri Chinmoy asked.
Then the teacher answered, "Four hundred."

Furman biked 405 miles. "Once I did that," he says, "I understood
the resources inside that meditation had unlocked."

Furman can perform in exotic locales or the most mundane. He set
his first pogo-stick distance record (11.5 miles) by hopping up
and then down Mount Fuji in Japan in 1986. He broke the
brick-carrying record (77.05 miles) by toting it around a track
in Queens. Some feats, such as balancing glasses (62) atop his
chin, required months of practice; others he did on a lark, such
as the record for aqua pogo (pogo-sticking underwater, using a
snorkel to breathe: three hours, 40 minutes) that he set in the
Amazon River while on vacation.

Furman is in excellent shape. On the sod track he has laid at
Mount Rushmore, he completes the first half of his one-man
peanut-sack 10K race in 42:34, only about double the time it
would take a well-conditioned adult to run the same distance. His
self-discipline, he says, is the product of his twice-daily
meditation exercises.

"When I set the somersaulting record," he recalls, "I was in
extraordinary pain. I did the reverse route of Paul Revere's
midnight ride, from Lexington to Charlestown. The roads were
bumpy. The night before, I had eaten four slices of pizza.
That's an unofficial rule for the somersault record, by the way:
You can stop to vomit. Anyway, after a while I wanted to quit.
But this mantra just entered my head: 'I am not the body, I am
the soul. I am not the body, I am the soul.' I felt my teacher
guiding me."

Not all records were made to be broken, even by Furman. The
record for being motionless (18 hours), for example, was at odds
with his hyperkinetic mien. "I practiced for three hours," he
recalls, "and then I was ready to go nuts, so I quit."

Once Furman was at the Temple of Luxor in Egypt with a few pals,
a pogo stick and three balls. (As travel coordinator for Sri
Chinmoy's international peace conferences, Furman is often
abroad.) He decided to break his own pogo juggling record. He
was 10 minutes shy of the 61-minute mark when two armed guards
spied him. His friends attempted to assuage the guards but drew
blank stares in return. Maybe it was the language barrier. Or
maybe explaining why someone is hopping and juggling in front of
a temple is doomed to failure in any language. The guards cut
the record attempt short.

The tree-eating record also eluded Furman. One day while reading
the Guinness book he saw that a person had ingested an 11-foot
birch tree. I can break that record, he thought. The next few
days, tree branches in Jamaica began to vanish. "Then someone
told my teacher what I was doing," says Furman. "He said, 'That's
absurd.' So I stopped."

He knows that many folks find his endeavors absurd. "They always
ask me, 'Why?'" he says. Why indeed? Ego? "At first it was," he
says, "but not anymore."

"It's a spiritual quest," says Furman. "Breaking Guinness records
brings me closer to inner truth. It proves that human beings have
unlimited potential."

Back at Mount Rushmore, Furman hops his final leg of the sod path
to reach 10,000 meters. Frankenbery presses his stopwatch. "One
hour, 24 minutes and 10 seconds," he says in disbelief.

Furman bends over for a few moments but is soon standing upright.
He smiles and stares at the stony visages of the U.S. presidents.
"I'm happy, I'm thrilled," he says. "I'm full of energy."

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID GONZALES The sack-hop trailblazer was once a pencil-necked geek. On his first day of high school he was beaten up. [Ashrita Furman sack-hopping with Mount Rushmore in background]
"Yodeling!" Furman exclaims. "Tough. The hardest part? Getting
people to listen."