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Breaking a Guinness World Record Is Even Tougher (and Weirder) Than You Imagine

After 60 years, Guinness World Records continues to draw avid fans—and competitors.

World’s longest tongue (3.97 inches); world’s most consecutive skips of a stone on water (88); world’s largest hamburger commercially available (777 pounds); world’s farthest eyeball pop (0.47 inches). World records are as alive and well—and as strange—in 2015 as they were in 1955, when the very first Guinness Book of Records was released to mass acclaim. The book stole the hearts of holiday shoppers in England, turning out to be a surprise bestseller. Sixty years later, Guinness World Records still holds the No. 1 slot in sales among copyrighted annual books, with more than 132 million copies sold as of October 2013—the last year for which there is a record.

Why does this oddball competition—which rarely brings fame and never fortune (no cash prizes are awarded)—still capture our attention? You’d think Tim Buie, who thrice attempted to break the world record for longest continuous piano playing, would have an answer to that question. After all, his wife Rita is able to describe the intensity of his first try in great detail: “He would eat with one hand and play piano and sing in between mouthfuls," she says. "If he had to [use the restroom], we used a shower curtain rigged around a ring, and someone would hold that over him.”

What motivated her husband to put himself through all that physical stress? Quite simply, she says, “Tim always does what he’s going to do.”

Each week, about 1,000 people demonstrate the same kind of bewildering tenacity when they apply to break a Guinness World Record, though only 5 percent of them will go on to achieve that goal. To date, the Guinness database boasts approximately 40,000 record holders, each verified by Guinness-sanctioned judges to be the very best at something that’s highly unusual.

That club of 40,000 has an Irish bird to thank for its existence. In 1951, Sir Hugh Beaver, Guinness Brewery’s managing director, was hunting game. When he shot at a golden plover and missed, Beaver wondered if it might be because the bird was the fastest of its kind in Europe. He tried to find an answer, but there wasn’t a reference book that could satisfy his curiosity. So he decided to make one himself—and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, anyone who wants to break a current record can do so at no cost by filling out a standard application for free on the organization’s website. (Postal applications are no longer accepted.) Guinness promises to reply within 12 weeks. Should an eager applicant decide that’s too long to wait, they may choose to fast track their application—for a fee of $750.

If Guinness approves someone’s record attempt, they will then send the applicant a list of exhaustive guidelines, custom to the unique record they’re trying to break. Guinness hopefuls must follow the guidelines to the letter, to ensure that the attempt is fair to previous holders of that record—as well as to ensure that all achievements can be quantitatively compared.

In other words, for Buie to earn the Guinness stamp of approval on his attempt to play piano longer than anyone ever had in the history of the world, it was going to take a lot more than stretching his fingers and hoping for the best. First, he’d have to play recognizable songs lasting at least two minutes each throughout his time at the piano—and he couldn’t repeat any song for at least four hours. In addition, Buie wasn’t allowed to rest for any longer than 30 seconds between songs, with only one 15-minute break allowed per eight hours of continuous play. And, of course, the kicker was that he’d have to play for at least 54 hours and 10 minutes, according to the Guinness team.

Buie decided he was up to the challenge. His first attempt took place in early 2005 at Wilson’s Dueling Piano Bar in Wilmington, North Carolina. He had already spent weeks waiting for Guinness to reply to his initial application (which, back then, had to be mailed; approval came by phone). A Wilmington business loaned him their piano. A crowd of thousands streamed in and out to cheer him on over the course of his performance, and were asked to donate whatever they could to the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. (Guinness asks that connections to charity be included on the application, though it will not help or hinder anyone’s attempt at glory.) And a panel of judges were on-site to document Buie’s every song and his length of play throughout the event.

“I would get up from the drums and dump entire buckets of ice water on his head to keep him going," Buie’s drummer, Jeremy Jones, recalls. “I had to be careful not to get the piano wet and ruin the whole thing.”

“He would hallucinate and get paranoid,” Rita says of the effects of lack of sleep. “At one point there were garbage trucks outside the bar, waiting to start their morning shift, and I had go out there and tell them to shut their lights and engines off. He was positive they were coming to get him.”

These effects are not uncommon when it comes to sleep deprivation, and aside from having to play the piano all that time, the mere feat of staying awake continuously is so arduous that it is considered torture by many experts around the world. But Buie’s team of helpers kept him going. There was nothing in the rules that said they couldn’t give him massages, dip his fingers in soothing cream to stop the aching, and stay by his side throughout the event.

“We were over the moon when it ended,” Buie says of the moment he exceeded 54 hours and 10 seconds of continuous play. “But I still couldn’t sleep for days after. I had to wind down.”

After recovering, Buie sent his numbers off to Guinness World Records and awaited his award. What he received instead was a sheepish phone call of apology. The Records people had made a mistake. After all that energy, all that time, Buie had not broken the record after all. Charles Brunner still held the record, at 58 hours and 26 minutes.

“They’d given me the wrong information,” Buie says. “They were awful sorry about it, but that didn’t solve my three-days-of-no-sleep-for-no-record problem.”

The bitter taste of losing the world record because he had incorrect data ate at Buie. He was physically and emotionally wrecked, but to go through that much effort only to fall short by only a few hours was unacceptable to him. So, less than two weeks after his first attempt, on February 10, 2005, he gathered up his crew and did it again.

“I thought, ‘Are you crazy?’” says Dominic Pirozollo, Buie’s main judge for the event. “How can your body go through that again with no time to recuperate?”

“I told him it was a bad idea,” Rita Buie says. “But he was going to do it anyway.” The team reassembled at the bar in Wilmington just 10 days later, with Guinness’ blessing. Though the joyful spontaneity of the first event was lacking, a gritty devotion to doing it right this time set the tone. Jones says the second attempt (and ultimate win) had a more desperate and darker vibe, though there was a stronger commitment and bond, as well.

“A man named Ward Manning came in and put $5,000 in my pocket for that one,” Buie says. “And he asked the patrons of the bar to band together to match it. I don’t know the actual total, but I know it’s the most money I’ve ever raised through one event. And the cherry on top is that’s the time I actually and for real broke that damn record.”

Buie went on to break it once more in the coming years, his all-time longest stint lasting more than 63 hours.

Records rarely stay unbroken, however. Guinness World Records now reports the longest continuous piano play by an individual at 103 hours and 8 minutes, a time Buie says he has no interest in breaking. And breaking old records isn’t the only option—applicants are also creating new records all the time. When applicants are interested in starting a new category, they simply need to keep these questions in mind: Is it measurable (longest, heaviest, fastest, etc.)? Can it be repeated by someone else? Can it be done anywhere in the world? Can its truth be proven? Is there only one variable? And is it substantially different from a current record already on the books?

If so, all it takes is a little patience, along with some gumption and a taste for a peculiar type of glory. A good night’s sleep doesn’t hurt, either.

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