I had driven nonstop down the autobahns from the German port of Hamburg on the North Sea into Austria.
It was a pristine September morning in 1982 and I was in need of a good sleep when I pulled my 1980 Volvo DL station up to the tourist-information center an hour south of Salzburg. It was the same car I had broken the world land-speed record for circumnavigating the world two years earlier.
Nestled around a series of lakes at the base of the Austrian Alps, the stunningly beautiful area had nothing on Katrina, the striking hostess who greeted me and reviewed a registration package for the five-day convention I was about to attend.
Katrina told me I was one of 60 Guinness World Record holders registered along with as many reporters from around the world. The Austrian Tourist Association would provide accommodations at resorts surrounding “Faaker See,” a crystalline alpine lake a short drive away. A slew of media events were scheduled throughout the convention where record holders could strut their stuff.
The next morning, Norris McWhirter who, with his twin Ross, founded the Guinness Book of Records in 1955, welcomed the unlikely collection of humanity. As he spoke, I thumbed through Katrina’s material trying to figure out who was who.
Across the table, Roger Bourbon, who ran marathons in a waiter’s uniform carrying bottled water on a serving tray, was chatting with Sabra Starr, a belly dancer who could gyrate for 100 hours without stopping. Meanwhile, a guy named Raino from Germany pulled a 6-inch-tall bicycle out of his briefcase and began circling the room as he would do all week whenever he had an audience.
Later we stepped outside where Englishman John Moss clamped his teeth onto the end of a towrope. The other end was tied to the back of a snorting Yamaha motorcycle. With John anchored to the front of a transport truck, the motorcycle hopelessly spun its rear wheel trying to escape the mighty molars of Mr. Moss. He later told me his teeth once held down a helicopter.
Over the next few days, I witnessed an unbalanced Englishman do 760 one-handed push-ups and met a flat-stomached chap who recorded 26,000 sit-ups. A gentleman known as the Flyer of Flemsbury made swan diving across four kitchen tables look like child’s play.
I hung out with the hungriest flame-eating lady, who I suspected wore an asbestos wig, a woman who could eat more than 100 yards of spaghetti in less than 30 seconds and lanky 7-foot, 6-inch giant Chris Greener.
Michel Lotto from France earned his nickname, Mr. Mangetout, after eating an entire Cessna airplane.
“Geeez, what was the worst part?” I asked, trying to wrap my head around his obsession.
“Aaaahhh, the tires!” He went on to tell me about his plans to eat an Austin Mini.
On the last night of the conference, Lufthansa threw a big party. Everyone feasted on Old World delights and the motley crew of record holders strutted their stuff to the gaggle of attending journalists, Guinness Book of Records executives and Austrian Tourism officials.
About midnight I piled the giant, the flame-eating lady, Raino and the smartest man in the world into the Volvo and drove back to the resort. While I helped the giant out of the Volvo, the smartest man in the world asked if the Volvo was “souped up.” I said no realizing his brainpower must have leaned more toward the arts than automotive technology.
Morning came quickly. At our final breakfast, the Guinness people explained their book was in itself a record for the largest-selling copyrighted book in the world. As they pointed out that the previous year’s sales were equivalent to 118 stacks of books, each as high tall as Mount Everest at 29,000 feet, I scanned the gathering. The fire-eating lady was trying to break her record of eating 6,670 flames in two hours. The smell of the torch was getting gross. Donna Maiello was trying to down 100 yards of spaghetti in less than 30 seconds. Sauce was flying everywhere.
Willem Klein, the human computer, was sitting at my table. He could extract the 13th root from a 100-digit number in his head. I asked if he could translate my around-the-world record into minutes. He told me it was 107,011 and asked if I wanted to know the square root.
I escaped breakfast and headed to the summer toboggan run for the last event of the conference where teams were trying for the best time down the metal run. They were all there … the belly dancer, Mr. Push-up and even Christian Patzig, the backward sitting cyclist who peddled 69 miles using mirrors to steer while playing classical violin.
I was voted lead toboggan.
“Go faster,” they all coaxed.
I did and then managed to lose control and flip the toboggan half way down the slope. It knocked the wind out of me. My baby finger is still crooked from the incident. I staggered to the bottom of the hill and asked Mr. Mangetout if he was giving it a try. He declined, citing the havoc the toboggan run would wreak on the 21 bullets he had for breakfast.
I checked out my around-the-world Volvo in the parking lot and thought about the long drive back to Liverpool, England, where I would ship it back to North America and life would get back to normal.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Raino opening his briefcase and pulling out his tiny bicycle in front of a busload of Japanese tourists.
Great place, this Faaker See.
Garry Sowerby, author of “Sowerby’s Road: Adventures of a Driven Mind,” is a four-time Guinness World Record holder for long-distance driving. His exploits, good, bad and just plain harrowing, are the subject of World Odyssey, produced in conjunction with Wheelbase Communications.