BY Alec Wilkinson December 19, 2001
Ashrita Furman, who has set more than three hundred records, preparing to set yet another.
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Ashrita Furman went to Peru to climb the mountain above Machu Picchu, which is called Cerro Machu Picchu, and is ten thousand feet above sea level. This was late last July. Furman, who lives in Queens, where the highest point is two hundred and fifty-eight feet, allowed himself a day to become adjusted to the altitude. The following morning, he and a friend were stopped by a guard at the base of Machu Picchu, because Furman was carrying stilts. His friend, who speaks Spanish, persuaded the guard to let them pass by saying that Furman hoped to climb higher than anyone ever had on stilts. The record, according to Guinness World Records, was 7,242 feet, set in South Dakota, in 2002.
Furman’s stilts are peg stilts. They are three feet tall and made of metal, and they look a little like leg braces. Each has a platform, eighteen inches above the ground, to which a shoe is attached, and each has a rubber tip, like a crutch. A person wearing peg stilts has to keep moving or lean against something, or else he falls down. If Furman fell, he was allowed ten seconds to get up. Otherwise, for his accomplishment to count, he had to stay on his stilts the entire time.
After an hour of walking awkwardly up some steep and uneven stone steps, Furman arrived at a plaza and a turnstile. Four guards surrounded him. His friend spoke to them while Furman leaned against a pillar. Eventually, the conversation moved indoors to an office. No one said precisely what the problem was. The guards simply insisted that only one person had the authority to let Furman pass, but it was a holiday in Peru, and he wasn’t answering his phone.
Furman’s friend, who is a mountain climber and spends part of the year training in Peru, had written for permission but hadn’t received an answer. Furman had decided to go anyway. No one had stopped him at the Great Wall of China in 2005, when, early one morning, he picked out a stretch where there weren’t many people and completed the fastest mile on a hop ball, fifteen minutes and three seconds—a record that he broke in 2010, doing thirteen minutes in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Nor had anyone interfered when, in 1993, he climbed to the snowline of Mt. Fuji on a pogo stick, sixteen miles up and back, which was the greatest distance ever travelled on a pogo stick, or when, in 1987, he jumped underwater on a pogo stick in the Amazon River for three hours and forty minutes, longer than anyone ever had.
After nearly two hours, Furman’s friend told a woman in the office that he was willing to make a donation. “What will happen is a tourist will take a picture, and it will come out in a newspaper, and I will lose my job,” she said.
“What did you do then?” I asked.
“Surrendered,” Furman said.
Furman, who is fifty-seven and the part owner of a health-food store in Queens, is the world’s leading practitioner of a pursuit that is known as Guinnessport—the undertaking of challenges designed to get a person into an edition of Guinness World Records. He has set more world records than anyone ever has: three hundred and sixty-seven. He has set more world records than Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Dale Earnhardt, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, the Beatles, the Yankees, and Seabiscuit combined. Currently, according to Guinness, he holds a hundred and thirty-one records, one of which is the record for holding the most records. Twenty-seven thousand jumping jacks, done in six hours and forty-five minutes, when the previous record was 20,088, was Furman’s first record, set in 1979. Recently, in London, he walked thirty-three feet in the world’s heaviest shoes, which weighed three hundred and twenty-three pounds. He is especially adept at balancing a bottle of milk on his head. Since the top of his head is not perfectly flat, he has to hold it slightly to one side, which makes it look as if the bottle had moved since he started. He has the record for the fastest mile with a milk bottle on one’s head: seven minutes and forty-seven seconds. In New York, in 1998, he walked 80.96 miles with a milk bottle on his head, which took twenty-three hours and thirty-five minutes. While he was training, children sometimes threw stones at the bottle and shot at it with slingshots. A man hoping to startle Furman into dropping the bottle sneaked up behind him and barked like a dog. People stopped him and asked for directions. A bus driver swerved into a puddle to drench him.
Furman’s records involve at least seventy discrete skills, the bulk of which, such as bowling backward, riding a unicycle backward, and bouncing a golf ball on a golf club, he learns for the attempt. Slicing apples in the air with a samurai sword took a year. Furman’s record is twenty-seven apples in a minute. Endurance is a hallmark of many of his accomplishments. He has clapped for fifty hours (a hundred and forty claps a minute, each audible at a hundred yards), practicing at night in his health-food store. In 1999, he carried a nine-pound brick in one hand for 85.05 miles, which took thirty-one hours and is a record that still stands. His most arduous record is for somersaults, which he set in 1986, doing 8,341 somersaults over twelve miles, which took ten hours and thirty minutes. It is his longest-held record. For much of it, he was afflicted with cramps and vertigo and threw up. An English Guinnessport athlete named Terry Cole, who juggles chainsaws, said that somersaults made him so sick and so tired that he could practice them only before going to bed. “All world records are hard,” Cole told an interviewer. “They’re all very, very, very hard.”
Not all Guinnessport is challenging, though. The term also frequently denotes a frivolous accomplishment or attribute, such as growing the world’s longest beard or longest fingernails or having the world’s longest tongue. People who hold a Guinness record—of any sort—often regard themselves as belonging to a select class of person. Inside the recordholding community, someone who does not hold a record is sometimes said to be “Guinless.” Probably the most widely known Guinnessport athlete was Michel Lotito, a Frenchman who called himself Monsieur Mangetout. In England and in America, Lotito, who was born in 1950, was known as Mr. Eats All. By the time he died, a few years ago (not, apparently, from anything he ate), he had cut into pieces and consumed eighteen bicycles, fifteen shopping carts, some televisions and chandeliers, two beds, a computer, and a four-seat, single-engine Cessna, in Venezuela, which took two years. In his lifetime, he is thought to have eaten nine tons of metal.
A few years ago, in order to hold a hundred records simultaneously, Furman took up pure Guinnessport. At one point, he began eating a tree in Queens, having heard that someone had eaten an eleven-foot birch, but he was dissuaded by friends before he got very far. He set records, however, in categories such as kiwi peeling and eating, banana and cucumber snapping, catching in his mouth the most grapes thrown in a minute from fifteen feet away, and being struck in the face by the most custard pies thrown in a minute. “I’m probably not going to be doing that one again,” Furman says. “A pie hit me when my eyes were open, and I see flashes of light sometimes now.”
You can’t just build the world’s largest trombone or walk the length of the Nile and expect Guinness to certify your achievement. To own a record, you have to break one that exists, undertake one that Guinness has created that no one else has yet attempted, or invent one and ask Guinness World Records to approve it.
“Half are rejected immediately,” Craig Glenday, the book’s editor, says. “We can tell from the title. ‘I Can Lick My Elbow.’ Well, we don’t really care. We get a lot of that after-the-pub effect. Reject, reject, reject. There are also things that aren’t measurable. The ugliest dog. There’s no ugliometer. There’s a lot of people who stay awake the longest, usually watching TV. It’s just become a mark for how long you can stay awake, which we don’t really encourage.”
There are recordholders who have announced that they are out to surpass Furman, but they are unlikely to do so. The most vocal among them is a Sri Lankan-born Canadian named Suresh Joachim, who has stood on one foot for seventy-six hours and forty minutes, crawled 35.18 miles, and ironed for fifty-five hours and five minutes. Joachim, however, holds only the third-most, sixteen. Furman sometimes does as many as fifty records a year.
“Ashrita’s in a league of his own,” Stuart Claxton, a Guinness spokesman, says. “No one else can do the volume.” And, according to Glenday, “Ashrita is far and away much farther ahead. No one has quite his dedication to record breaking. No one is in Ashrita’s spectrum.”
There is a speculative notion, raised in “Getting Into Guinness,” by Larry Olmstead, that serial record breakers are addicts of a kind. Their accomplishments are thought to stabilize insecure personalities, and, in the more compulsive cases, the accomplishments never suffice and must be accumulated doggedly. The darkest circumstance is that of the recordholder who has had his record broken and is now bereft. This argument does not seem to apply to Furman, who has on his Web site a long explanation of how to break his records. Stuart Claxton says that Furman appears notably detached about his accomplishments. “Records for Ashrita are not precious,” Claxton says. “They’re ephemeral. One reason, perhaps, is the amount. He’s got a lot more even if one gets broken. There’s a comfort zone.”
Furman says that when someone breaks one of his records he feels inspired to respond. Any task someone else can do he believes he can do himself. The question is how long it will take him to train, and, because he prefers working on a number of tasks at once to having a single, dedicated task, it is a matter of how much time he is willing to devote. A record that is too demanding he will abandon. This was the case with land rowing, a category that Furman invented. Around 1987, he owned an expensive rowing machine that he asked a friend who was a welder to convert so that when it was rowed it would move forward—not backward, like a rowboat. “He figured it out,” Furman said. “It was a series of pulleys and chains, and he welded an axle onto it and wheels and brakes, and I went to the Jamaica High School track by my house and went around once, and it all fell apart. I ruined my rowing machine. I was a little discouraged.”
Not long afterward, Furman was in Germany, where he saw, in the window of a sporting-goods store, a land rower. He brought it home and practiced on it and decided to row from New York to Philadelphia, which he did, with a police escort, on the New Jersey Turnpike. The police sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” on their loudspeakers.
“Land rowers became popular, and got better and better, and some guy went the length of England and back, fourteen hundred miles over a period of days,” Furman said. “I was going to Bali—this was in the early nineties—and I decided I’m going to break that record in Bali. There was a guy, an aircraft engineer in Idaho, and he designed a super-high-tech land rower out of airplane parts, and he gave me a big discount on one. I took it to Bali, where there was very little traffic. Guinness said I had to do a hundred miles a day minimum, and I went back and forth from one end of the island to the other, and in fifteen days I had done fifteen hundred miles. Then I heard some guy had rowed across the U.S. That one I just said, ‘I don’t have the time to break it,’ so I gave up. Someday, though, I would like to do it.”
Furman is often called Mr. Versatility. Craig Glenday told me that the only record Guinness feels certain that Furman will never own is oldest living female.
Furman is about five feet ten, with broad shoulders and a trunk so long that from the back his pants appear always to be sliding down his hips. For years, he lifted weights; he no longer does, feeling that training for his tasks is sufficient exercise, but he still has a strikingly proportioned physique. He has short black hair with some gray in it, and he wears wire-rimmed glasses. He has lived a little like a monk, in the same house, in Queens, for thirty-eight years. It is plain stucco, painted a pastel green, as if with food coloring. He has never driven a car, and he is celibate. He says he always knew that he never wanted a family. As a teen-ager, he wasn’t very social and was always more devoted to studying than to girls. His manner is steadfastly optimistic.
Furman did not play sports as a boy. He was beaten up on his first day in high school and lasted one day on the track team. When he was sixteen, he became a follower of the pacifist wise man Sri Chinmoy, who arrived in America from India in 1964, when he was in his thirties, and lived mostly in Queens until he died, in 2007. Sri is an honorific, like Reverend. Chinmoy, who had been a decathlete, believed that extreme physical pursuits offered a means of transcending the self, and, in May of 1978, he encouraged his followers to take part in a twenty-four-hour bicycle race in Central Park. The racers were to ride a five-mile course, and the winner would be the one who had done the most miles. The bulk of Sri Chinmoy’s followers ran marathons and raced bicycles, and the team included nearly two hundred riders.
About ten days before the race, Furman began to feel like a shirker for not taking part, so he bought a bicycle and started riding as fast and as far as he could. At a meeting the night before the race, Chinmoy asked each rider how many miles he thought he would do. A few of the most dedicated riders predicted three hundred and fifty miles. Furman was prepared to predict two hundred, but Chinmoy said, “Ashrita, what do you think, four hundred miles?” Furman nodded.
“I was too respectful to say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” he says. He believed that Chinmoy had seen something in him that he hadn’t seen himself, and resolved to do four hundred miles, but he thought he might die, so he wrote a will. Then he made a chart of how many miles he would have to manage each hour in order to reach four hundred and taped the chart to his handlebars.
The race started at noon. After three hours, Furman was exhausted and had to cajole himself to keep going. In addition to meditating on a flame within his heart, as he customarily did, he imagined himself breathing in light and expelling fatigue. The pain in his legs, he told himself, was from God’s massaging them. By midnight, he was among the lead riders, and twelve hours later, having stopped only once, to go to the bathroom, he finished tied for third, with four hundred and five miles, more than any other Chinmoy follower.
“I had always wanted to do a Guinness record,” he says, “and I remember looking up into the sun and thinking, I’m going to use this power to tell people about meditation. I had barely trained, so there was no doubt in my mind that it was all the meditation.”
The first record he tried to break was for pogo-stick jumping, because that was the only pastime he had ever been any good at. The record was 100,013 jumps. Assuming that the meditation was responsible for his finish in the race, he didn’t train; he just went into Central Park and started hopping on a pogo stick, while a friend counted his jumps on a clicker. “After three or four hours, I thought, Wow, this is really hard. I really should have trained for this,” he says. Nevertheless, he managed a hundred and thirty thousand jumps, but Guinness didn’t accept the record, because he had not taken his five-minute rest periods each hour, as the protocol required. Instead, during one sequence, he had pogo-sticked for two hours, then rested for fifteen minutes.
Sri Chinmoy gave Indian names to his followers. Ashrita means “protected by God.” Furman’s given name is Keith, which is what his father, Bernard, a retired lawyer who lives in California, still calls him. Keith was always very determined, Bernard says. “I taught him some football, some boxing, some baseball. He didn’t display any unusual physical abilities, but what he did demonstrate from infancy was the ability to persevere. Whatever he undertook, you knew he was going to finish it.”
“All the wrong people are right.”
Bernard Furman discussed cases with his son and assumed that he would become a lawyer. “He had a rigorous legal mind,” Bernard says. “Even at eleven, he would always identify the essential point that the court and the jury would have to consider. We were living in Kew Gardens Hills. I was divorced from his mother, but I saw him frequently, without fail. When he was sixteen, he saw a sign saying that there would be a meditation by Sri Chinmoy, and he went and felt an immediate affiliation. I didn’t, when I went later, but he did.”
Ashrita: “I had tried meditating when I was eight years old. I was just always looking for a deeper truth. My parents had sent me to yeshiva, because they wanted me to have a religious education. They themselves were not practicing a strict Jewish life, but I decided I would be sincere and try it, although it didn’t turn out to be fulfilling to me. The summer I was fifteen, I really started searching. I didn’t want to live the life I saw my parents lead. I just felt out of place in the world. When I was sixteen, I was going to Jamaica High School, and I had a book called something like ‘How to Survive in the Woods.’ My idea was that I would find a cave and meditate, maybe find enlightenment. I was carrying the book when I saw a poster for Sri Chinmoy, who lived in Jamaica.”
Bernard: “By the time he reached college, at Columbia, he was studying economics, but he was spending all his spare time working in the stationery store in Queens that was run by one of the Guru’s followers. His third year, I heard he had quit college, so I went to see him at the stationery store. He knew I was coming, and he had a great deal of trepidation. I was prepared to be strict with him. He said there was nothing he needed from college. ‘I don’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a dentist,’ he said. ‘I’m already living the life I want to live.’ That didn’t sit too well with me, and we didn’t speak for about six months. Then I realized that it was actually his life and that if I wanted to be part of it I was the one who had to adapt.”
Training for records and attempting them is expensive, and Bernard Furman says that he helps his son out when he needs it. I asked if he was proud of him. “When people wrote about Keith initially, it was sarcastically,” he said. “Then it became humorously, and as he’s been doing this through the years they’ve been increasingly respectful, because he’s doing these startling things, and he’s no longer twenty-two years old. Everything he does requires endurance, perseverance, conditioning, and some amount of physical pain. He’s not impervious to pain, but he has the mental ability to get over it. I don’t know how he does it. He says he puts it out of his mind. Apparently, he has some way to do that. I admire him increasingly. Ask him about the circus and motorcycles.”
Chinmoy’s followers have an amateur circus called Madal Circus—a madal is a kind of drum, and it was also one of Chinmoy’s nicknames as a boy. Savyasachi Brown, the owner of the stationery store, whose given name is Carl, saw a Chinese acrobatic troupe in Puerto Rico “hitting pots on their heads, and balancing knives and bending things,” he says, “and I thought, O.K., half those things are completely beyond a normal person’s skill range, but there was bending a rod that I thought maybe I could do with someone.” Brown and Furman developed an act they called the Pandava Brothers, after five brothers who were heroes in the Mahabharata, the Indian epic that includes the Bhagavad Gita. Brown spread broken glass on the ground and climbed a ladder while Furman lay on the glass, and then Brown jumped off the ladder and landed on him. “We would see something on TV and just copy it,” Furman says. “He would rest apples on my throat and cut them in half with a machete. Or I would put pins through my arm, or he would ride a motorcycle over a board on top of me while I lay on a bed of nails. One time in his yard, I took twelve bathroom tiles and put them on my head, and he broke them with a hammer, and I saw stars. I’m not saying this was the smartest thing—it was just a lot of fun at the time. Savyasachi knew a gardener with a little steamroller like you use on lawns, and after he ran over me with it while I was lying on broken glass, and had some internal bleeding, Sri Chinmoy banned us from the circus.”
Sooner or later, nearly all professional athletes play despite being in pain. In addition to occasionally receiving shots to subdue it, they often rely on psychic techniques. Brandon Prust, a forward for the New York Rangers, became known last season for playing with a shoulder injury so painful that sometimes he couldn’t lift his arm. “A lot of pain is very mental,” he told me. “You have to task yourself into forgetting about it.” Frank Shorter, who won the gold medal in the marathon at the Olympics in 1972, has said that his ability to run while in pain was the result of his father’s beating him mercilessly as a child. That memory created in him an awareness that the pain that would inevitably arrive during a long race would be finite and that it was possible to outlast it. Paddy Doyle, an Englishman and former paratrooper who has the second-highest number of records (thirty-one, Guinness says), specializes in ones that require stamina and strength—he once did 8,794 one-arm pushups over five hours. “You naturally just cut out the pain,” he says. “I tend to carry on regardless.”
“I always notice you get to a point where you say, ‘I can’t do this,’ then you go past it,” Furman says. “I can train my body to a certain point, and beyond that I have to just allow something else to take over. After a while, it becomes as if it’s happening to someone else. You feel that the person experiencing the pain is not you, and you don’t identify with it. You’re an observer. It’s a level of consciousness. In ordinary consciousness, if you bang your hand you feel the pain. But if you’re meditating it doesn’t have any effect. What you’re feeling is remote.”
Several days after trying to climb Cerro Machu Picchu on stilts, Furman went to San Diego to climb Mt. Baden-Powell, which is about sixty miles northeast of Los Angeles and nine thousand four hundred feet high––not as high as Cerro Machu Picchu but tall enough for the record. The three days he had spent in Peru had got him accustomed to high elevations, and he was impatient to make the attempt while he still felt acclimated.
One morning a little before six, Furman and two friends, Salil Wilson, an Australian whose given name is Russell, and who lives across the street from Furman in Queens, and Atulya Berube, who grew up in Florida as Lee, left San Diego to drive northeast about two and a half hours to Mt. Baden-Powell. The sun wasn’t entirely up and cast long shadows on the landscape. For a while, we drove through fog. Now and then, on a hill, we would rise above it, and from one of the hills we saw a collection of hot-air balloons, about a mile away, like ornaments hanging from a mobile. When we descended to the valley, they disappeared in the fog.
“I did a record in a balloon,” Furman said. “Most deep knee bends in an hour. I had done a record underwater, and another on a mountain, and I thought, What’s next? Do something on an airplane. I was training for deep knee bends, and I did several hundred in the galley of a flight I was taking, then the plane hit turbulence, and I had to sit down. This was in the nineties. I thought of a balloon, and I started calling balloonists and explaining what I wanted to do, and they said, ‘You’re crazy. You’re going to fall out of the balloon.’ Finally, I found a guy in Vermont, Brian Boland, who was willing to take me up. I didn’t realize my dips would affect the balloon. When I went down, the balloon went down, but it didn’t come up as fast as I did, so I was fighting it the whole way. The record was around three thousand in an hour, and I barely broke it—maybe by eighty. It only lasted about a month.”
We passed foothills with Spanish-looking houses, and scrubby mountains. “The record was hotly contested for a while,” Furman went on. “One time, there was a Pakistani guy in England who had it, and he came into my store and tried to make a deal with me not to break it, but the thing was, I had already broken it—it just hadn’t been published. I didn’t tell him. I wasn’t trying to hide anything—I just didn’t want to disappoint him.”
At the head of the trail up Baden-Powell was a parking lot with a sign that said “Vincent Gulch Divide, 6,565 feet.” In the back seat, Furman put on shin guards. Then he got out and leaned against the trunk to attach his stilts. While Wilson held a video camera to verify the record, Furman read aloud from a page of instructions he had received from Guinness. “This record is based on the highest mountain above sea level for the individual to hike via stilts,” he began. When he finished, he sat down on the trunk and tightened the straps on his stilts. A troop of Boy Scouts wearing red T-shirts and shorts arrived and started walking toward the trail. The wind brought us their voices, like a scent.
“A word of warning,” Wilson said, for my benefit. “Ashrita, when he starts, he’ll take off. It won’t last.”
“I guess it’s my excitement,” Furman said sheepishly.
Wilson said to the camera, “We’re starting at nine o’clock, a little before, eight-fifty-four.”
Furman stood up and began walking across the parking lot. When he reached the trail, he raised a reddish dust, and he said, “Wow, this is steep.” The trail cut back and forth and was wide enough for only one person. Furman went first, with Wilson and Berube close behind, in case he should fall. After fifteen minutes, we caught the Boy Scouts, who stood aside for us to pass. No one asked Furman what he was doing, and I wondered if they thought it was a bet. There were a lot of small rocks on the path. “You O.K. with the gravel?” Wilson asked, and Furman held one hand to the side and fluttered it. We passed two men in shorts, one of whom was heavyset and had tattoos like comic strips on his calves. The man said to his companion, “Amazing what people are into, isn’t it?”
For about fifteen minutes, we walked without talking, then Wilson and Berube began talking about sports, and one of them said that the N.B.A. was his favorite sport to watch, and the other said, “Second favorite, after stilt walking, right?” And the first said, “I could watch that for hours.” Then we started to tell jokes, until Furman said, “That’s enough talking.”
After half an hour, he stopped, sweating heavily, and leaned against a tree. “It’s definitely hard,” he said. “It’s slippery, and there’s not much room on the trail.” The sides of the mountain were steep. “If I slip, I’m going down the hill, and I’m not coming up in ten seconds.” After we had walked a little farther, he said, “This is a hard one. I wouldn’t have recommended this. Too steep, too slippery, too close to the sides of the trail. In the East, if I fell, I’d hit a tree. Here, if I fall, I’m going down the mountain and that’s it, the record’s over.”
“It’s very hypnotic, watching you do this,” Wilson said. “With every step being the same.” Berube said, “It’s like following a satyr.”
“I have to concentrate on where I put my feet,” Furman said. “I feel like if I’m not careful I might fall.”
In another few minutes, Furman stopped again to lean against a tree. “You’re really hammering it,” Wilson said.
“In the car I thought it was going to be a cakewalk,” Furman said. Then he raised himself from the tree and started off, and stumbled, then recovered.
“Nice catch,” Wilson said.
After nearly two hours, we arrived at a saddle and a tight turn where the ground was soft and there was a big, knuckly tree root and then a step down, and Furman nearly fell again. Then we went straight up a spur and, after a few hundred feet, arrived at an open stony place where the view spread suddenly all around us. From there a rising piece of rock led the last hundred feet to the summit, which was a spine so narrow that you could practically straddle it. Furman paced on his stilts, like those sprinters who take a while to come to a stop. Then he signed his name in a guest book and took off the stilts, and we started walking down.
Afew days later, Furman’s friend Vinaya Lebenson, whose given name is Marty, borrowed a red Ford Fiesta, and Furman practiced car pushing in Howard Beach, which is notably flat. (He once held the record, at seventeen miles, and now it is twenty-six.) He also ran a half mile in swim flippers on the track at St. John’s University (he holds the record for the flipper mile), and practiced catching grapes in his mouth with his friend Bipin Larkin (their record is a hundred and eighty-nine in three minutes).
Furman especially likes doing things underwater, such as juggling and jump-roping, which occurred to him when a friend said, “What’s next? Underwater jump-roping?” (“It got me thinking,” Furman says. “Heavy metal wire, stiff, attached to handles . . .”) For the past few years, he has wanted to attempt the record for greatest distance bicycle riding underwater, which is two kilometres, but he hasn’t been able to find a pool that would allow him to practice. Recently, he got permission to rent part of a pool in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, for two hours, for a hundred and fifty dollars. Furman has a kind of technical adviser named Udar Robinson, whose given name is Rayto, and who designs and builds devices like enormous hula hoops for him, and he had spent the evening before trying to make Furman’s bike “more hydrodynamic,” he said. This involved attaching small plates of galvanized steel, for stability, and, with a garden hose, filling the tires with water. “When you ride a bike on land, the motion of the wheels keeps you upright,” Robinson said. “In water it doesn’t.”
Furman was also accompanied by Salil Wilson and a young man named Homagni Baptista, whose given name is Nelson. In a wetsuit, and with a scuba tank and mask, Furman stood beside the pool with the bike. “Are we going to try it without any weights?” he asked.
“I think you need weights,” Robinson said. “Are you going to ride in from the diving board?”
Furman cut his eyes toward him, then shook his head. Robinson lowered the bike to the bottom using a yellow nylon rope to which a hook was attached. Six little girls, wearing goggles and bathing caps, sat at one side of the pool, their legs dangling in the water. A young man stood over them with a clipboard.
As Furman tried to ride, Robinson peered into the water. “It looks really hard,” he said. “He’s already disoriented. He’s going in circles. I can’t believe how slow.”
Furman got off the bike and started walking it. Then he let the bike fall and started rising. When he reached the surface, he said, “I’m not sure what gear it’s in. It’s really tough to move.” They raised it, and, after turning the pedals by hand to lower the gear, Robinson said, “We should duct-tape his feet to the pedals.” When no one answered, he added brightly, “What could go wrong?”
Furman said he had felt like he was floating, so Robinson gave him some ankle weights. “It’s definitely work,” Furman said. “I thought it was going to be easy.”
Baptista crouched beside the bike and, tearing off strips of duct tape, fashioned toe clips like slippers. Robinson taped a ten-pound weight above the front wheel. Furman rode for a few minutes, then swam to the surface. While Robinson and Baptista changed the angle of the spoilers and adjusted the toe clips, he practiced underwater jump-roping, moving so slowly that he looked like one of those Muybridge studies where you can see each component of a gesture. When he got back to the surface, he said, “I did a hundred jump-ropes. That would be twelve hundred in an hour.” The record was nine hundred, he said.
On his next pass, his scuba tank shifted from side to side, and he had trouble with his balance. Twice, he knocked into the wall. He made one more pass, then came up and took off his mask, which had left a little red dent between his eyes, like a dash. “I’m pretty happy so far,” he said. “I think now it’s just a matter of training. Anyway, it’s thrilling to say I’m finally cycling in the water.”