took to world record-breaking in
2004 after being inspired by a record-setting rally
driver in Kenya. What began as a hobby soon escalated
into an active publicity pursuit. Today, he promotes the
work of social and environmental causes. For these
purposes, the most fitting game plans are chosen; then
world titles are attempted and frequently created.
This is the story behind our Guinness
World Record™ for the Longest handshake.
Handshaking isn’t boring – even if you shake
hands for more than a whole day. When I did this with Auckland
management consultant, Don Purdon, I realised handshaking can be quite
a challenge. The work started long before the actual handshake, and the
impacts keep going long after.
Even if you love handshaking, I suggest you give
this one some thought before trying it. Don called it the most
difficult thing he’d done. I was too sick and dizzy to even comment.
Don and I are immensely proud to have tie broken
with the Nepalese hand shakers. The intrinsic value generated from this
unexpected ending has positive implications which are spreading widely
around the world. In addition, we both feel this has been more than
worth it because we had a purpose: to raise awareness and donations for
the Auckland Down Syndrome Association, a registered New Zealand
But how did it all begin - and end?
I was approached on Facebook, asking if I wished
to participate in the world’s longest handshake event. It seemed a
great offer, because doing so would be a natural progression of what I
initiated in 2006. While compiling a series of world record attempts
for a children’s charity in New Zealand, I’d come up with the idea of
the longest handshake.
My first attempt failed; thank goodness this
‘test’ had been done in private. My first public attempt had been
successful, which you can read about here.
Over the years, this Guinness World Record™
has proved a very popular challenge for people to try, and it has been
broken several times since then. It was wonderful to see that my
original idea had now provided the impetus for an international event.
The offer I received from the organisers
included a trip to New York City for 6 days, representing my home
country of New Zealand against other nations, having the opportunity to
raise money for a charity of my choice, with the possibility of
returning home with another world record, and sharing in as much media
as the event generates.
After having satisfied myself that the
event was genuine, I set about seeking a partner. One after another,
potential hand shakers committed, or part-committed, and then changed
their minds or lost interest. Finding a dedicated partner soon became a
full-time job because I was under pressure to get someone, and each
time a “committed” partner withdrew their interest, I had less time to
find the next.
Fitness clubs, gymnasiums, sports doctors,
Olympic medal winners, universities, charity promoters, sports
institutes, community groups, radio stations, television stations,
church ministers, youth organisations, national tourism promoters,
physiotherapists, sports psychologists, personal trainers and endurance
sports clubs all declined to help find someone or recommend someone. I
then managed to get in touch with several national sports heroes, but
none were interested. Several radio stations put the telephone down in
my ear, saying nobody would be interested so they’d not broadcast the
By my sixth morning of searching – and
having been disappointed by 11 possible partners, a tear rolled off my
cheek. To my immense frustration, I had been unable to give such an
incredible opportunity away in New Zealand. I was finding the thought
of representing New Zealand tough in light of all the rejections I’d
received. But I persevered, and posted notices for a partner on
Facebook among other websites. Ironically, I got more interest from
young people in Botswana, India and Nepal who were prepared to
represent New Zealand, although they couldn’t readjust their work
schedules on such short notice. One enquirer from Asia began pleading
with me, divulging his world record successes, which, it seemed to me,
he’d forgotten were actually 2 of my own world records he’d broken.
Resorting to desperate measures, I asked
the event organisers if the world record rules would allow me to shake
hands with an unconscious person. This idea arose because my friend in
her 50s volunteered to come if I could find nobody at all. Being of
delicate build, she and I knew she’s not remain awake for 24 to 48
hours, but theoretically I could shake her hand if the doctors let her
lie on site until we’d won the contest. Being desperate to participate,
I even floated the idea of shaking hands with a blow-up doll. But that
thought caused uproar, and I took my words back swiftly.
The following morning, I met a 49 year old
management consultant who had previously worked as a sports
psychologist, Don Purdon. He immediately identified the opportunity as
a fantastic way to promote his business in the United States. He was
fit, available and determined to accompany me. I invited an independent
person to assess the man, and, given the urgency, in front of Don, we
discussed his suitability. “Take him” she said without hesitation. I
flung out my right arm to congratulate the sports
psychologist-cum-management consultant on being the first person I
could find in New Zealand who was prepared to take what could be the
chance of a lifetime.
Like an infuriated wasp, I dashed around
frantically, organising what needed to be prepared. The other teams had
been practising while I’d been on the telephone, putting my partner and
I in a weak position. A sports physiologist had drawn up a physical
training regime for me to cover the short lead-up period, as well as
given dietary and general advice. I had already begun shaking a
sandwich spread bottle, which I then needed to pay more attention to.
By the time Don and I left for New York, I’d shaken the jar for 165
hours. Doing so with ice packs strapped to the affected muscles had
earned me strange looks in my neighbourhood, although I was more
attentive to my increasingly sore right shoulder and forearm. My being
left-handed and Don’s being right-handed meant we both had to learn a
range of new skills with our free hand, which took perseverance.
It was a shock to learn that the Nepalese
Government had shown support for the hand shakers coming from that
country. Apparently, I had been told, Kathmandu had already begun
celebrating the event outcome in anticipation! Then we discovered that
the Nepalese Prime Minister had apparently held a special farewell for
the departing pair in Kathmandu before the event. I wondered if that
may have been because the same Nepalese brothers already had a world
record claim to the longest handshake under review.
This news jolted me further into action,
and I noticed my jar-shaking rhythm increased dramatically the day I
heard it. Of course, hastening the pace at which I was shaking my
sandwich spread wasn’t going to make a difference; I needed more
detailed planning, and knew it. But the support the Nepalese were
receiving nationally worried me, because I had no such backing from my
own government. Perhaps it was this nagging in my mind which
over-energised me - I woke myself at 01:30am by shaking my right arm
vigorously, just as if I were practising with the jar.
Further setbacks didn’t bother me as much
because my friends were fantastic support, helping to supply a range of
necessary items from clothing to high-carbohydrate foods. I felt that
was important because the temperature change was to be drastic - my
house temperature had struck over 40 degrees Celsius the week before
departing (being summer here in New Zealand). New York City was
recording snowy weather down to -8 degrees Celsius.
I asked several local businesses with cold
storage if we could practise in their freezers to help our bodies
adjust. All said no. Don and I went to stand in a local snow sports
centre where staff was helpful and where we quickly found the weak
aspects of our planning coming to the fore.
An innovation consultant, hearing my fears
about my hand freezing, suggested I slide a sheath of bubble wrap
packaging around my right arm, which could be pulled down over Don’s
and my grip in the event of extreme cold. I made such a contraption
which was to the envy of the other teams.
Then, just as Don and I were feeling
comfortable with our preparation, the charity withdrew their interest:
7 days before the event, and 4 days before we flew out of New Zealand.
I stayed up almost through the night trying to switch plans to the
backup organisation in Africa. Thankfully, 24 hours and one meeting
later, the assigned charity were back.
The few days before departure were frantic,
but Don kept calm all the while, maybe due to the benefit of his
management training techniques.
Having sorted out as many last-minute
details as we could, we jumped into a taxi. While heading through
Auckland International Airport, I was delighted to be randomly selected
for a bomb safety check. Just as I settled down emotionally, I was
chosen for a second security check and then we were away.
Our San Francisco to Newark International
Airport flight was cancelled due to snow storms and blizzards so Don
and I began thinking of how to keep to our planned schedule of
activities with the flight delay. Whilst consulting Continental Airways
staff in the airport, Don saw his hand luggage was open. Alarmed, he
became convinced his wallet had been stolen. After several telephone
calls, Don located his wallet which had been found by an airline staff
member in the overhead locker. We were both quite relieved to get it
back, and I was stunned to think San Franciscan thieves could get to
visitors before we’d even left the airport’s secure zone.
Don and I had been advised to keep to our
circadian clocks as best we could. This meant we had to stay active
deep into the night and rise for breakfast when local America was doing
other things. To prevent ourselves from falling asleep and thus
breaking our body clocks’ cycle, Don and I planned to walk around San
Francisco, but lost each other and spent our night doing so separately.
Don and I were soon whisked away by a smart
black taxi upon arrival at Newark airport. Inquisitively, I asked the
driver what the ambient temperature was. After asking twice because he
couldn’t understand me, I switched to my own attempt at feigning a
strong American accent. Instantly, the driver replied with a detailed
weather summary. Don and I smiled, knowing this would not be the first
time we’d need to imitate a local accent. It was hard not to smirk
when, emerging from the New York City end of the Hudson River tunnel, I
felt the taxi jolt over a pothole. My mind jumped back to my native
southern Africa, where hitting potholes is part of almost every
When checking into the hotel on Times
Square, Don left his wallet on the counter and had a staff member
sprinting after him. What is it with Don and his wallet, I began to
New York was busy for us from that moment
on: if it wasn’t dodging traffic, it was searching for a wholesome meal
or helping with event plans. The Wall Street Journal did a video
interview, took written quotes from the participants, and produced a
large story. One of the teams missed that opportunity as well as the
pre-event dinner because they’d gone drinking with friends, but the
pair appeared later to introduce themselves - with alcohol on their
When I first stepped into Father Duffy
Square, Times Square, I knew this was a special place to hold a world
record attempt. Pedestrians and vehicles criss-crossed the area
constantly and there was a vibe of non-stop action in the air. I could
see why New York is known as the city which never sleeps. And we were
about to test that theory by seeing if we could shake hands without
sleeping! It was clear that a tremendous event was coming.
The 4 pairs of hand shakers assembled
behind the barriers in front of Father Duffy’s statue as the day’s
light began to fade over New York City: a team of Nepalese brothers, 2
American teams, and Don and I comprising the New Zealand team.
Everyone, it seemed, was ready to proceed except for the same team
which had missed the Wall Street Journal interview. At 15 minutes past
the official start time, they danced to their seats and the event
formally began according to the timekeeper’s notes. But 15 minutes into
the challenge, the same team lost interest and wished the other pairs
of hand shakers good luck before disappearing into the brightly lit
streets along Broadway. Next, the mobile generator broke down, so no
live video feeds went out across the internet until an emergency rescue
operation had been performed.
Don and I, as well as the American team and
the Nepalese brothers accepted what lay ahead: hour after hour of
repetitive muscle use without a single break. Going quiet, Don and I
set into the rhythm we’d practised for, knowing there was no way but to
win. I’d slipped the sheath of insulating plastic packaging over my
upper arm less than 2 minutes before the countdown to start,
deliberately done at that late stage to surprise the other teams and
put doubt into their minds about their own preparedness. Within an hour
of the contest starting, both the other teams had sent helpers off to
hunt for the same packaging, but to no avail. Thus, Don and I had the
advantage of insulation we could position with flexibility, and which
we needed as soon as the sun set over Father Duffy Square.
Don was worth a lot to me during this
event, especially with his sports event preparation input. He’d drawn
up a list of mini-goals; a tally of hours we would cross off as we
reached that stage in the event. He had calculated regular breaks, how
we’d exercise, and a variety of methods for keeping ourselves mentally
alert. Possibly the most effective of these tips was Don’s having
pre-arranged with his friends to text words and riddles to him every
half hour, which he and I had to try and decipher meanings of. By
drawing on a regular combination of these tactics and tips, Don and I
kept going, achieving one mini-goal at a time.
The first night was our coldest at around
-8 degrees Celsius, and we used the insulating packaging to good effect
until we warmed up with the changing of the days and only a smattering
of snow for less than a minute. The temperature on the second night was
a mild -5 degrees, so we had no need for the insulating tube with all
the clothing we were wearing. I began unzipping several tops to escape
some of the 28 articles of clothing I had pulled onto various parts of
my body before the event.
Light and dark, dates and times all blurred
into what we were concentrating on; up, down, up, down, up… It was
Don’s balanced planning and psychological input which kept us cruising
towards the prize we desired.
Every so often, we had the pleasure of
facing an interruption to the mental and physical monotony; jeering
crowds against the temporary barrier taking photographs and home video,
Nepalese supporters screaming out with patriotic fervour, our helpers
offering food and drink, New York Police car sirens, incomprehensible
verbal assaults hurled at the event from the homeless, attempts by
professional photographers to command our attention, and the event
management ceaselessly explaining to bystanders what they were
watching. Hundreds of New Yorkers and others were always packed against
the barriers, bar during the small hours each morning, totalling an
estimated 40,000 to 80,000 visitors over the event duration.
One of these individuals would be
especially remembered. The Nepalese brothers both wore casual shoes and
their feet were becoming cold very fast, while the American team and
Don and I wore suitable boots. A Nepalese spectator, in a surprisingly
selfless move, removed his boots and socks. These were passed over the
barrier to one of the Nepalese pair. The barefoot spectator then
continued cheering for his nationals on the freezing concrete.
After the event, it was agreed this gesture
changed the outcome from a possible win/lose between the Nepalese and
New Zealand teams, to the tremendous outcome experienced. The Nepalese
were enjoying seemingly endless support, both on-site and remotely.
Their mentor was getting calls of encouragement from Japan,
Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, India, USA, Nepal, Australia and Malaysia. It
was incredible to hear that even in Afghanistan videos of the event
were being watched with excitement.
Most of those who shouted encouragement did
so for the Nepalese, but some cheered for New Zealand. One man barked
loudly, “go Australia” and received a loud low-toned boo. He vanished.
During the event, one email of hatred came in to my knowledge. It was,
very unfortunately, from New Zealand.
The American team was an 8-hour wonder.
They’d not only managed the entire event and all its complications, but
also decided to participate, which won respect from many. What stood
out to me the most about how these organisers had overcome waves of
challenges was how their dealings with the management of Times Square
Initially, the quoted fee for use of the
square was US$180,000 for 3 days; the event management was grateful for
a reduced fee of US$20!
During the small hours each night, the
event had to be moved into a nearby hotel because Father Duffy Square
shut down. In the hotel room, Don and I were shaking to our
mind-numbing routine when – without any warning – half the American
team collapsed at just beyond the 8-hour mark.
Their handshake had been ripped apart and
they presented a threat to Don’s and my winning no longer. Perhaps it
was exhaustion and low blood sugar which floored the participant, and
for a moment, alarm spread among the others present. Ironically, it
also provided live entertainment: paramedics rushed in, telephone calls
of concern filled the night air, and medical discussions ensued. I felt
a sense of thanks to the collapsed young man, since he’d inadvertently
helped to extend my alertness. What’s more, when he’d fallen, I had
been lying down while Don powered the handshake from a chair. The
American’s head hit the carpet less than a metre from mine, sharpening
my concentration when I wondered if I was about to be struck by a
flying foot or worse.
Going to the toilet made Don and I feel
like celebrities. To ensure that competitors’ handshakes were not
broken by bystanders, we had ‘protectors’ who surrounded each pair for
toileting trips. These people had the duty of parting crowds of
business people and those attending conferences in the hotel where the
toilets were located, clearing space in elevators, and repeatedly
apologising to irate members of the public regarding why they had to
step aside for handshaking foreigners!
Most of our toileting journeys involved
some level of fuss. Don and I had practised urinating, and we’d agreed
that it would be the only kind of toilet stop we would make during the
contest for practical reasons. It was rather a performance every time.
I urinated on the toilet floor, on my left hand and on my clothing.
Yet, we had the system very well coordinated.
The one urinating would hand control over
to the other in a three-step process to make sure no grip was lost.
Firstly, both of us would hold hands tightly and power the handshake
together. This was a tactic we’d use whenever a disturbance increased
the likelihood of the handshake being broken or slipping. Next we’d
arrange for the non-urinating person to take over handshaking. “Don
taking over” would lead to that action, followed by “Alastair relaxing”
and then confirmation that Don was in control of the handshake with the
words, “Don shaking”. This worked so well that we used the technique as
necessary throughout the event, although anyone hearing these words
emanating from the toilets must have wondered what was going on.
Upon completing the toilet stop, we’d both
power the handshake and move back to Times Square. At first, we each
washed our left hand but that became too much for us to cope with as
fatigue set in. Don and I had to go to the urinal 20 minutes before the
15-hour official world record for an unavoidable stop – a
nerve-wrecking thing to do. If our grip had slipped then, we wouldn’t
even have exceeded the official title. But we made it back to the event
with hands still tightly clasped.
Our diet was anything but appetising.
Research had shown Don and I that high-carbohydrate foods were
required, as well as those with a low glycaemic index. We also needed a
sustained intake of energy and had to manage these foods carefully. A
New York diet was fine in the beginning, but as the event wore on, we
required more specific foods than fries and large cups of fruit juices
to combat the fatigue. By hour 20, both of us were force-feeding
ourselves carbohydrates and appropriate sugars.
Apart from triple espresso coffees, bottled
water and disgustingly sweet energy drinks, our diet shrunk to mashed
potato and bananas. The 20-hour point was that at which the current
world record claim stood and was under review - by the same Nepalese
team. Don and I didn’t even notice because we were mentally locked into
a one-way battle of rhythm with our Nepalese opponents. We felt sick
from the culinary treats we had, but we knew we’d lose any chance of
gaining the world record title if our blood sugars dropped too low. The
only way to sustain our bodies was to push potato and banana down our
throats on a regular basis, no matter what time of day or night. That
narrow diet must’ve paid off, because Don and I just kept going, even
though intense fatigue was setting in.
Peculiarly, we saw the Nepalese hardly ate,
and when they did, it seemed to be fast food. Don and I knew that
without a doubt we faced very tough brothers.
By the time hour 30 came and went people
had accepted that the Nepalese would not give up, and both Don and I
felt the same. A deadlock was developing. Both teams were still feeling
strong and had exceeded the event management’s expectations of probable
handshaking duration. Don had also found out that one of the hand
shakers in a team was permitted to sleep, which could mean the event
continuing for many more days if done cleverly. Several of the bookings
for the event were close to expiry, and Don’s flight was in 12 hours;
management was being pushed into devising a plan.
After much discussion with the mentor for
the Nepalese team – who had crumbled to tears from sadness that New
Zealand was pitted against Nepal, given the nations’ long and strong
peaceful histories – the consensus was to conduct a tie break to the
event. This was acceptable from a world records point of view, and,
seeing the situation, I reluctantly agreed.
Out in the dawn at Times Square, at
precisely 3 minutes beyond the 33 hour mark, the event director lined
up both teams and split the handshakes simultaneously. The Nepalese
seemed incredibly pleased with this outcome; it then transpired that
one of the Nepalese team had been in a lot of pain.
A lot of action erupted, although the 4
tie-breaking hand shakers were too fatigued to appreciate much of it. I
remember being congratulated by the Nepalese brothers and several
others. I thought it unfortunate that congratulations typically go with
a firm handshake in the western world, because I was forced to extend
my sore right arm once more. If ever I have felt nauseous at the
thought of shaking someone’s hand, it was then. Yet, the symbolism and
implied values associated with those final handshaking moments caught
the attention of sufficient important people that Don and I would be
hearing a lot more about it.
After kissing the concrete in front of
Father Duffy himself for the video cameras, I marched myself to the
closest available toilet. Don hobbled to his bed in silence. On my way
to the hotel room, dazed from exhaustion and with only sleep on my
mind, I was once again selected for a random security check. Instantly
I became highly annoyed because the timing couldn’t have been any
I awoke with a creaking wrist which lasted
a week. Don looked worn out even though he hadn’t acquired a painful
wrist, possibly because he had not spent dozens of hours shaking a jar.
Hearing how much media the event had attracted woke us up fairly
quickly. After being published in the world’s largest English-speaking
newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, the event had appeared on all 3 of
the biggest television channels in the United States. News of the world
record attempt spread so far across the internet, it became the third
most-viewed video of the day on YouTube, and was its fourth-most
discussed video of the day. Views on YouTube reached nearly 1 million
with 186,000 in the first hour, which was fitting since the event
featured on every single page of this massive website the world over
during the contest. Stories of the handshake continued to blossom in
many languages from in Japanese and Indian newspapers to American radio
and countless websites based in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the
Nepalese media in particular had zoned in
for the kill. The event grand finale had been on Nepalese national
television and one day later, it had become the biggest news in Nepal.
That country’s media publicised a repeat connection between their
country and New Zealand, referring to the conquering of Mt Everest by
New Zealand’s Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepal’s Tenzing Norgay, and the
special nation-to-nation relationship which developed as a result.
Don and I got word that Kathmandu was
preparing a homecoming celebration for the brothers to recognise the
significance of this event, something we found astonishing to accept.
In the hotel, the Nepalese team’s mentor gifted Don and I each with a
special design of silk scarf. These had been blessed by a Buddhist
monastery in Nepal, and are given as a symbol of honour only to high
achievers, we were told with pride.
My taxi ride to Newark International
Airport was most unpleasant but represents, I guess, one of the
attractions of travelling in one of the famous cabs. The Bangladeshi
driver introduced himself with affirmations of our friendship, and then
proceeded to beg me for directions to the airport throughout the trip.
This man spent the entire road trip on a mobile telephone asking for
directions, nearly hit a car, and then swerved in front of a truck. He
zigzagged up to a lane-splitting barrier and barely missed it when he
finally veered to the right, all while intermittently telling me of our
great friendship. As soon as he’d parked, he insisted on being given a
tip plus full fare. I passed him some cash and walked off. The
Bangladeshi driver moaned abuse and executed a fantastically pathetic
20-minute temper tantrum which would have made great video. Only when 4
police officers who’d surrounded the spectacle told me the law stated I
need to pay no matter how poor the service, did the matter end.
The Auckland Down Syndrome Association, for
whom Don and I had participated, was waiting to hear how much money had
been raised. Once back home, it became apparent that the donation link
on the event website had not been functional at all times, and had thus
hindered the public’s ability to donate at times. Although it seemed
that software had malfunctioned, I was still tremendously impressed
with the abilities of the 3 young event managers to successfully follow
through such a memorable charity project. The charity looks forward to
benefitting from the donations raised, and they’re pleased that
awareness of their organisation has expanded substantially. To me,
these are important things in which I take pride – even if I had to
almost shake my hand off to make me this satisfied.
For the first time in my 8-year world
record-breaking career, I can say from my heart that I am immensely
pleased not to have won. The humanitarian implications resulting from a
Nepalese-New Zealand tie breaker exceeds the exhilaration of a
straightforward win for me in this case, and I wouldn't have it any