At the Guinness World Records London headquarters this has been, well, a record year. On its website there is a note explaining that the standard 12-week period required to verify records has been extended by at least a fortnight. For the reason that they have been inundated with claims. Lockdown, it seems, has turned us into a nation of record-breakers.
And according to Rory Coleman, who, by adding another 17 to his list, took the opportunity to extend his world record of completed marathons this year to 1,068, there is one person to thank for the upsurge.
“Captain Tom,” he says of the centenarian fundraiser. “He showed us the way. People thought, ‘Wow if he’s doing it, why aren’t I?’ We’re all driven to achieve. And because Covid has meant there have been no organised races, where else do you get the satisfaction of achievement? By rewriting the record books.”
That was the aim of Alan Colville. A keen road racer, he had anticipated spending his summer competing in cycling events. Instead, like the rest of us, he was confined to home.
“Lockdown brought a context where racing bikes wasn’t an option. In those times you look for different stuff to test yourself,” he says. “Suddenly I had more time, I wasn’t travelling for work, I didn’t feel as stressed. So it freed my mind to take on a challenge.”
And the one he took on was sizeable. An accomplished hill climber, who, as lockdown was imposed, had already completed what is known as “The Everest” (cycling up the equivalent height of the world’s highest mountain), he started to think about how high he could climb.
“In May I did a double Everest on my indoor bike,” he says. “And I sort of discovered I was built for it. I only weigh 57kg [9st], and more to the point, I really enjoyed it. Then I got my head around the idea that it might be possible to break the world record for climbing in 48 hours.”
Around the same time, Carla Molinaro, a veteran of many an ultra-marathon, wondered what she might do now her sport was curtailed.
“As lockdown happened, I saw the races I’d normally train for disappearing. I thought it was right to use the time to plan an adventure instead. Breaking the LEJOG [Land’s End to John O’Groats] record popped into my head. And it stuck there.” There is a significant gap, however, between thinking you might go for a record and actually doing it. As Colville discovered, it is not a question of simply getting on your bike and heading for the hills.
“Part of the challenge is the organisation. Guinness issues a set of guidelines specific to the event you are going for. They set out the evidence you need to acquire to verify that you have achieved what you claim.”
Then there is the planning for the event itself: the backup, the nutrition, the kit. “I talked to a lot of people who’d done LEJOG who told me there was no way I could do it this year,” Molinaro says. “It takes so much organisation, they reckoned the earliest I could do it was the summer of 2021. I thought, ‘Nah, I’m really fit, I’m going for this. It took three months to plan. But then I didn’t have anything else to do.”
The first thing Colville required was a suitable place to attempt his record. After weeks of research, he found a hill in Wales, near Abergavenny.
“It was straight, it had a great surface, it was quiet as well, not much traffic,” he says. “And it had a good mobile signal. It ticked all those boxes.”
So in September, together with his support team, and after checking the weather, he set off.
“The idea was to cycle for 46 of the 48 hours. Every minute you stopped, I calculated, you were down 12 metres. We had all sorts of plans, for nutrition, rest, pacing. I used to eat while sitting on the toilet to save time.”
Around the same time, Molinaro had begun in Land’s End. To break the record for the 874 miles to the north of Scotland, she would need to cover at least 72 miles a day for 12 straight days.
“I ran from 5am to 10pm,” she says. “At night, I couldn’t really sleep; my legs were so sore. The getting up next day was way more painful than I ever imagined. But going for the record was the motivation that kept me getting up and going again.”
Colville, too, faced significant problems as he went up and down the 2½-mile long hill more than 170 times.
“On the second night I was hallucinating badly. I had no idea where I was, I had a terrible sense of deja-vu. It turned out I just needed a brief turn-off. I slept in the camper van for no more than five minutes and it completely rebooted me. When sunrise came up there was an injection of energy. It was transformational, almost spiritual.”
According to Coleman, this is not unusual. There is something fundamental in our psyche that drives the urge for records, an impulse which was enhanced by lockdown.
“I think the pandemic has made us all more acutely aware of our mortality,” he says. “It has increased our need to get something done before we go. It’s bucket list time.”
For Colville and Molinaro, the thought of the record was what pushed them on. And when they had done it, the sense was far more one of relief than triumph. “I was emotionally wired,” says Colville, who in 48 hours ended up cycling 617.73 kilometres (383.84 miles), climbing an astonishing 30,321.18 metres (99,479ft) – the equivalent of three Mount Everests. “It took me a long time to turn off.”
Molinaro, recalling running through breathtaking scenery, often accompanied by friends and well-wishers, reckons hers was a life-changing experience.
“Looking back it was wonderful, at the time it was horrific,” she says. “It felt different to winning a race. It felt bigger than anything I’d done before.”
The after-effects were substantial. The night after finishing, on the way back home to Buckinghamshire, she stayed in a hotel in Edinburgh.
“They’d heard what I’d done and very sweetly upgraded me,” she says. “They put me in a huge suite. I wish they hadn’t. I was that stiff, I could barely make it from the bed to the bathroom.”