Stuart Claxton has seen it all. as an adjudicator for guinness world records, he’s the man who separates the winners from the unworthy.
Illustration by David Brinley
This is Stuart Claxton’s job: He is a doorman to the world’s weirdest club. To get into the club, you have to do something, anything, that is the fastest, longest, or biggest on the planet -- something that Claxton, or one of his fellow adjudicators at Guinness World Records, can verify. For would-be record setters, that may mean having to go through years of training or spending months organizing. For Claxton, that means his workdays are filled with counting sneakers, or watching a guy put on 100 pairs of underpants without falling over, or measuring a woman’s 15-inch waist, or counting the number of snakes someone can fit into his mouth. (Snakes!) Things like that. Ridiculous things.
Yet Claxton can be dead serious about what he does, like he is now, with the sneakers, which were collected by National Geographic Kids magazine. They are arranged in the courtyard not in a single line but in a series of rows. Simple algebra would have yielded a fairly accurate estimate of the number: estimated sneakers per row x number of rows ~~ 10,512ish. Job done. Time for a pint.
But because Claxton insists on click-click-clicking his way through, that pint doesn’t come until after two more meticulous hours. “If we don’t take this seriously, no one else will,” says Claxton when, finally finished, he settles into a chair at the nearby Renaissance Mayflower Hotel’s Town & Country bar. “Guinness World Records is known as the chronicler of record breaking all over the world. And because people are so respectful toward us, we have to return that favor. There’s a fun side of record breaking, but there’s also a serious side.”
Mostly, that would be Claxton’s side. As an adjudicator -- Guinness’s preferred fancy word for the people who, say, operate a stopwatch to time someone who can make a quarter spin for 19 seconds -- it’s his responsibility to decide who qualifies for a Guinness World Record certificate, the only thing that record holders receive from Guinness.
“There’s no exchange of money,” Claxton says, smiling. “Aside from getting a certificate and maybe making it into the book, the real reward is probably that sense of accomplishment.”
He says “probably” because he can’t positively say what motivates people to risk life and limb and/or good taste (as Lee Redmond did, sporting 28-foot-long fingernails) just to gain entry into the Guinness World Record club. If anyone would know what drives record setters, it should be Claxton. At age 37, the British-born Claxton is Guinness’s most visible representative in the United States. Boyishly handsome and charming, Claxton has shown up in the dorky blue Guinness blazer to certify record-setting attempts on everything from Live with Regis and Kelly to The Oprah Winfrey Show to the Late Show with David Letterman.
Claxton is still baffled and awed by the first record he ever adjudicated. It was back in 2000. He had just moved back to the UK after spending six years in Mexico working as head of the Scientific Dissemination Department for the University of Guadalajara. He answered a newspaper ad for the job of researcher at Guinness World Records, was hired, and soon after, was sent to a racetrack outside Leicester to watch Brit Jason Rennie try to set a new mark for the longest ramp-to-ramp jump on a motorcycle. The record was 251 feet, held by an American named Doug Danger. Yes, Danger. “Rennie makes three attempts,” Claxton recalls. “He’s just short on the first. On the second one, he’s equal to 251 feet. On the third attempt, it’s nighttime and it’s almost too dark to see. It’s drizzly, too; really dramatic stuff. But he jumps, and he breaks the record by two feet. And not only did you have the drama of the day, but, also, Rennie had remortgaged his house to get the money to put this together. It was preposterous, really. I mean, you’re risking your life and everything you own for this. But that kind of commitment sums up what Guinness is all about.”
Claxton has been all over the United States to adjudicate records -- everywhere from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to someplace that he refers to as “Minnasoter.” He’s met a lot of people who could be described as interesting. Take Cathie Jung, for example, a 72-year-old who has corseted herself for two decades, which has resulted in her having a 15-inch waist. Or there’s Ashrita Furman, who currently holds the record for number of records held at 89. (He’s set, at one time or another, 220 Guinness World Records.) One of Furman’s records is for the fastest mile run while balancing a bottle of milk on your head. Yet “he’s not a weirdo,” Claxton insists. “He’s actually a really nice guy.” Then there’s Jackie Bibby, “the Texas Snakeman.” He holds the record for the number of live rattlesnakes put in a person’s mouth. Claxton says his encounters with Bibby have been among the strangest and most frightening things he’s done. “It’s scary,” he explains, “because … well, because they’re rattlesnakes, man!”
But Claxton’s worst judging moment came while watching one of those ramp-to-ramp jumps. This one, by American Trigger Gumm, ended poorly. “He crashed horribly,” Claxton says. “They’re like dolls when they hit the ground -- just bouncing around. They cut his helmet off after the crash, and he was grabbing handfuls of dirt and crying. I thought he’d busted a rib, but he eventually walked off and was fine.”
This begs the question: Why? Okay, so, yes, we’ve already asked this question. But it bears repeating. Why would someone want a Guinness World Record so badly that he’d remortgage his home or practice running with a bottle on his head or put snakes in his mouth?
“Being a Guinness World Record holder has a connotation of achievement, fun, respect, and history,” Claxton says. “It’s also a name that’s recognized all over the world. You could be from Kalamazoo, but people in Australia, China, Russia, and Brazil are going to be reading about you setting a Guinness World Record. I think people respond to that. They get a kick out of it. It’s cute and fun.”
At least, sometimes. Guinness World Record holder Lucky Diamond Rich -- the most tattooed person -- probably does not qualify as cute. “The tattoos are kind of weird,” Claxton admits. “At first, you’re kind of drawn into it, but after a while, it’s just strange. Everything, absolutely everything, is covered in tattoos. Gums, even.”
If tattoos are not exactly Claxton’s thing, he’s at least diplomatic about the tattoo records Guinness certifies. Indeed, he’s diplomatic about most of the oddballs who populate the Guinness Book of World Records. This is to be expected, given that Claxton is Guinness’s official spokesman in the United States -- and given that whole polite British thing. But Claxton also says the job of a Guinness researcher and adjudicator involves having a certain level of “scientific detachment.” Since Guinness World Records only certifies records and doesn’t get involved in setting them, Claxton and his cohorts aren’t cheerleaders for potential record setters. “We are removed in a way,” he says. “You even have to be a bit standoffish sometimes, because we’re just there to measure what someone has done.”
Measuring 253-foot ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps is not what you do every day at Guinness World Records. In fact, Claxton can make his job sound almost normal. For instance, in Guinness’s New York office, where Claxton is now based, he says a “records management team” gets together each week for a roundtable. This involves sorting through a lot of letters and claims for record attempts.
Before you doze off, consider what’s in the letters that Claxton and his colleagues mull over. Guinness World Records gets about 50,000 record proposals each year. They range from the exciting, like “longest jump into water by an exploding car,” to the seemingly more achievable, like “most spoons balanced on the face.” Whatever the proposal, Claxton and his colleagues insist that all Guinness World Records meet three criteria. They must be measurable -- longest, fastest, hairiest, whatever. They must be verifiable -- as in, something Claxton can check with his clicker, stopwatch, ruler, etc. And they must be breakable. And that’s where things get strange.
Claxton pushes his pint aside and tosses a few sheets of paper down on the bar table at the Town & Country. It’s a list, a very long list, of rejected record proposals. Now, given that Guinness has certified more than 40,000 records since 1965 -- some 4,000 of which are published in its annual book -- and given that some of those records are things like “most men from different cultures in a sauna,” you can just imagine what kind of record-setting proposals get rejected. Actually, no, you can’t imagine.
“Largest collection of stuffed bulls, most dating rejections, most arrests in the eighth grade in one day, longest drawing of an evil train,” reads Claxton. He looks up from the list. He doesn’t say it, but clearly he’s thinking, What does an evil train even look like? He goes on: “most incorrect spellings of the word hemorrhoid, oldest living person to see their placenta … .” This one needs some explanation. So Claxton reads part of the letter that was sent with the proposal: “I was born at home, and my mother saved my placenta to bury next to a tree. She never got around to it, so it is still in my freezer 18 and a half years later.” Claxton continues reading the list, reciting, “most monkeys on a bike, the blackest pants ever, fewest legs on a dog.”
See, now there’s the problem. “Fewest legs on a dog” is unquestionably measurable, verifiable, and breakable. “You could break it,” Claxton agrees. “But that would be awful. I mean, this is most definitely a subjective process. We do try to be objective, but we can’t accept everything.”
Certainly, they can’t. But what Claxton and Guinness’s other adjudicators can do is offer a certifiable achievement to just about anyone. You and I are not Michael Phelps, and we will not someday have the most Olympic gold medals in history. But could we be Nico Surings, who holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest barefoot 100-meter dash on ice (17.35 seconds)? Maybe. Or what about Joe Allison, who got Guinness “gold” by balancing 16 spoons on his face? Seems doable. And maybe that’s the real why after all: Why? Because anyone might be able to do the kind of things that Stuart Claxton could count with his clicker. And that brings up another question: So what?
“When people try to pooh-pooh some of these records,” Claxton says, “what they always say to me is, ‘So what? What does that mean?’ So we say, ‘Well, you do it, then.’ If you can balance more than 16 spoons on your face or if you can spin a quarter for longer than 19 seconds, then you get the Guinness World Record. That’s what it means.”
And, really, isn’t that enough? In a time in which people have become famous for far more dubious achievements, getting a Guinness World Record still at least involves some effort, some practice, and the formal approval of a guy like Stuart Claxton. Even so, maybe he could lessen his strict standards in just one case -- because we’d really like to get a look at that evil train. AW
American Way contributor JOSEPH GUINTO refused to donate any of his seven pairs of old Air Jordan sneakers to National Geographic Kids’ Guinness World Record.