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Remembering the Brave Souls Who Died Trying to Set World Records

For some, the price of the ambition to be the world's best is death.
A Shell ad featuring J. G. Parry-Thomas, who died while attempting to set the land speed record in 1927.

There are infinite ways to feel you've been remembered, that your mark will outlast all others. It could be for almost anything—like, for instance, if you're the one who in all the history of humanity ate the most chicken nuggets in a 24-hour period, you will withstand the test of time. In a culture where attention holds as much private value as any currency, sought by all, the route to significance could be as arbitrary as your imagination might allow.


For some, the price of this ambition is death. In the last handful of years alone, numerous reports of people passing away in the attempt to break a world record turn up, setting themselves apart at least from thousands of others who remain unremarked upon for how they failed.

Of course, you don't have to be Samuel Beckett to imagine that the failures, one after another, year by year, are in their own ways at least as striking as the fulfilled feats themselves. If nothing else, in that way that most days time passes by in bloated calm, or mortal terror, most of us can identify more with the person who died in pursuit of becoming the titleholder than any titleholder at the top.

In the spirit of that, here are some of the insane, beautiful people who died so far this decade trying to be the lord of their own realm.

Trying to Fly Around the World in 30 Days (2014)

Babar and Haris Suleman, a son and father team of pilots, had prepared for months on their way to breaking the world record for flying around the world in a single-engine airplane. They would land for fuel 25 times in 15 different countries over the course of their 26,500-mile journey, completing the circuit in record time, while also raising money for charity to send children in Pakistan to school.

Not long after taking off from Pago Pago International Airport in American Samoa, by causes unclear, the 17-year-old pilot crashed into the Pacific Ocean, ending his life. His father's body was never found.


At night, in darkness or with moon, the ocean often seems so wide it's like it might go on forever scrolling out into itself, its body wide and deep enough to cover over every body ever living and still seem as placid from above—the same breadth where every summer millions flock to burn away their off hours basking at the edge of immeasurable death.

Trying to Participate in Largest Group Skydive (2014)

Among a group of 222 skydivers who'd gathered together in Eloy, Arizona to jump out of a plane at the same time, one wouldn't make it: Diana Paris, 46, who had recorded more than 1,500 jumps throughout her life. This time, though, surrounded by hundreds of other bodies in mid-air, her parachute malfunctioned and did not open enough in time to slow her fall from being fatal.

The 221 remaining divers in the group would resolve to attempt the record again without her, holding a slot of air in the formation open for where her body would have been.

All our air is the only way by which we touch, breathing out and in in cycles beyond landmass. At a certain distance held above, anything at all could appear so small it might just be another lurking planet, until it moves. The same gravity that wants the mass out of the sky being that which holds you down against the ground to walk wherever, or against the bed to sleep.

Trying to Be Buried Alive (2012)

Despite their not being an active world record in which one is buried alive, 24-year-old Janaka Basnayake of Sri Lanka aspired to set one. Family and friends assisted him with digging the ten-foot hole, and covered his body back over with soil after he'd secured himself in a wood chamber on a Saturday morning at 9:30 AM.


Six and a half hours later, upon excavation, he was found unconscious, and at a local hospital not long after, pronounced dead. The family would explain the young man's ambition by telling the media how he had performed shorter versions of the act before, as well as countless other strange fate-defying feats.

What do you step on when you walk? What laces the dirt that holds you up, that holds the mall up, held beyond all eyes until forced out? If it wasn't depth or pressure or lack of oxygen that ended Basnayake, perhaps it was some sound or vision pressed into his head as the earth mistook him for part of it, and all the other bodies brought to rest for miles in the gray mud alongside.

Trying to Ride Your Bike for Five Years Straight (2015)

Juan Francisco Guillermo's plan for record-setting spanned five years, during which time he would cycle 155,350 miles around the world. Having begun in November 2010, he was in the home stretch of the fifth year of his goal when a truck on a highway in Nakhon Ratchasima province hit him, despite having been carefully in his lane on a long straight piece of road. He was killed instantly on impact. His wife and two-year-old child, who had been accompanying him on that leg of the trip, were injured but not killed.

Every move you make is a product not only of your action but of the actions of countless others, orchestrated unseen in time to constraint the present instant to becoming open to what is done. A flick of the wrist from any arm on every road you pass choosing to spare you by not relinquishing control, splitting across the given lines for just a second. Every trace of where you've been covered over as quickly as any other marking.


Trying to Dive the Deepest (2013)

Other divers could see as he descended that Nicholas Mevoli, 32, was pressing further than he should. He had reached a depth of 68 meters in an attempt to break the record of 71 meters for deepest dive without fins among American men, a far shot still from the world record of 101 meters. Nearly to his mark, he faltered, as if to ascend just short, and then forced himself to press on, continuing to complete the dive to 72.

Relief hit the observers when Mevoli surfaced, though immediately they realized he was not OK, despite his physical hand signal to the contrary. He could speak, and there was a dazed look to his eyes, a disconnection between brain and operation. Shortly after, he fainted into unconsciousness, and blood began pouring from his mouth. Following 90 minutes of CPR, he was declared dead.

There is always a further layer. Whatever length or distance set only suspends the edge of where initiative shifts from one effort in a million to the one that stands up against time, until again someone comes to claim the next breadth. The present gap between completion and resignation in the end may prove only just enough to end the wish that pressed you forward in the first place.

Trying to Live (2015)

Misao Okawa of Japan had been named both the oldest living woman and the oldest living person for almost three years when the duration of her claim came to an end. One month following her 117th birthday, having spanned the 20th century in full, she outlived her husband by more than 70 years, but spent her last hours in the company of her many children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Her advice for long life was "to eat sushi and get at least eight hours of sleep a night."

Upon death, Okawa relinquished both her titles, as despite being the oldest living of her kind, she was not the oldest person to have lived ever, short by nearly five years. The successor of her titles had to be researched at her passing, the list not kept complete. She remains the oldest Japanese person ever, and the oldest person ever born in Asia. On her last birthday, she is said to have claimed her life seemed short.

In the end, it is life that gets in the way of life. All you have done compiles in what you were and does you in. What you do or do not remember is as much of how you ended up as what you accomplished, what words could be written in your name, with the next body behind you waiting to fill in the place you called your own as long as you could call it anything.

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