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David Moye
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Why Do People Risk Their Lives For Guinness World Records?

First Posted: 09/19/11 04:57 PM ET Updated: 10/31/11 06:12 AM ET

Have you ever wanted something so badly you were willing to do anything for it, even risk your life or a limb?

If so, you just might have what it takes to become a Guinness World Records holder.

As a compiler of amazing feats and achievements, Guinness is in a class of its own. And some people believe that making it in the book is an accomplishment worth any risk.

With the 2012 version of the book on the brink of being released, daredevils like Michael Hughes are getting ready to up the stakes.

Hughes set a world record in September 2002 when he strapped himself in a limo and launched the vehicle 103 feet. He is now planning to attempt a new world record in October for the longest, highest jump off a ramp in a rocket-powered car.

He thinks he can reach a half mile and said his decision to defy death in order to get into Guinness is one based on pragmatism.

"I am hoping to make a few bucks off this rocket jump," he told HuffPost Weird News. "I see it as a springboard for the rest of my life. Maybe a clothing line or sunglasses."

It's that chance for immortality that may explain why Susanne Eman, 32, a single mom in Casa Grande, Ariz., has made it her goal to break the record for "World's Heaviest Woman."

Currently, Guinness recognizes Pauline Potter, 48, of Sacramento, Calif., as the world's heaviest woman. Confirmed by the organization at weighing 643 pounds, Potter suspects she now weighs closer to 700 pounds.

Although Guinness officials say Eman has never officially submitted an application to be considered for the record, she claims to weigh around 730 pounds and told the British news agency Barcroft Media that, if all goes well, she will hit her current goal of 1,600 pounds when she is 41 or 42.

To many observers, winning a mention in a book might pale in comparison to the health risks and mobility issues associated with being so heavy. And even if Eman tips the scale at a record-setting weight, she won't necessarily be satisfied.

"I'd love to find out if it's humanly possible to reach a ton," she said.

Eman's plan to eat her way into history might be dangerous -- but she won't be the first person who risked death in an attempt to make it into the record books.

From race car driver Marshall Teague, who perished attempting to set a closed course speed record in 1959, to free diver Audrey Mestre, who never regained consciousness after dropping to a depth of 561 feet below the sea in 2002, daredevils have long gambled their lives for a shot at a world record.

But what motivates someone to put their life on the line for a mention in a book and a certificate?

Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Nancy Irwin said she believes people who want to set records often do so to fill a void in other aspects of their lives.

"In a case like this, there is a sense of narcissism that suggests she's desperate for attention and wants to stand out," Irwin told HuffPost Weird News, referring to Eman. "There could be a sense of self-hatred as well. Also, some people just cannot stand anonymity -- especially if they failed at something before."

Although Irwin said her explanation might cover all people who single-mindedly put their lives at risk for a goal, she concedes that some kinds of risky record-breaking could be less of a cry for help than others.

"I think a man-against-nature goal is healthier than trying to gain as much weight as you can," she said.

But even if Eman's goal -- which requires her to eat 22,000 calories a day --may be hastening her death, Irwin said compassion is key to understanding her effort.

"Many times, people have something to prove," she said. "You have to understand that there is a positive intent behind every activity, even if it has a negative outcome."

Irwin sees the desire to risk death as a plea for help or attention. But others, like Hughes, who started out racing motorcycles, sees his record attempt as a numbers game.

"I could win 20 stock car races or do one big jump," he said. "One of the things I thought when I came up with this stunt is, 'What can I do to stand out from everyone else?'"

On one hand, Hughes said he thinks he can do this one big jump and call it quits. But on the other hand, he admits he's not completely sure he'll stop after the jump.

"I do have enough parts lying around to build a rocket motorcycle," he said. "I thought about maybe attempting to break the land speed record."

In some cases, a record attempt that looks risky to the viewer might not seem that way to the person trying to break the record.

That's how it was for skiing champ Grete Eliassen, who set a world record in April 2010 for "highest hip air by a woman on skis" by soaring a whopping 31 feet in the air.

It's not something she can do every day -- or even every week -- but she views her record as the sum of years of hard work doing something she enjoys.

"For me, the record was about finding something I am good at and showing women are as good as men," she said. "I did a lot of prep work for it; starting off with a small jump and then a larger one until finally I was ready."

"Setting the record was the best high," she added. "It was great having the guys tell me I'm awesome. I'm not sure what the next limit to conquer is, but I'm training for the 2014 Winter Olympics and I'm sure I'll find something."

Having confidence in oneself is the key to setting a world record, according to Ashrita Furman. And he should know -- he holds the record for most Guinness World Records.

He currently has 132 records under his belt, but over the years, he's either set or broken 350 world records, including "longest continuous distance somersaulting" (12 miles, 390 yards); "most cucumbers snapped in one minute" (118); and "most jello eaten in one minute using chopsticks (1 pound, 5 ounces).

"Honestly, most of the records I've set haven't been life-threatening like [Eman]," he said. "But some of them, like skipping with a tiger or juggling with a shark were pretty stupid.

"But I think if you're confident of your abilities, you feel in control of your own fate and it doesn't seem like a high risk."

Although Furman said he doesn't understand why Eman wants to be the fattest woman in the world, he said he understands the desire to be tops in something.

"I love the challenge of being the best in the world, but I also want to inspire people and transcend limitations," he said. "But I don't get her -- it's not healthy. I think Guinness would highly disapprove of a record like that."

A Guinness representative said the organization's policy isn't to celebrate "achievements" like the one Eman is attempting, but to simply chronicle the extremes that exist in the world.

Jon Pritikin, who once set a record for the "tightest roll of a frying pan" -- bending the metal pan until it was rolled up like a burrito -- said that anyone attempting to set a new record should question their motivation.

"I basically set the record because I do school assemblies about overcoming bullying and use feats of strength as a selling point," he said. "The Guinness title actually helps you get into places. It might seem silly, but it's nice being in the book.

"I was happy the day I set my first record, but then someone broke it a month later," he added. "It's a real kick to your self esteem, but then you remember, 'What's my motive?'

"Really, once you've broken or set a record, it's always there. However, when you ask why does someone risk their life for a record, it comes down to this: What does anyone want? To be noticed or accepted, and people will risk their life for acceptance."

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