There are some damned stupid feats in the Guinness Book of Records. The heaviest chocolate rabbit. The fastest half marathon dressed as a vegetable. The largest gathering of people dressed as leprechauns. Indeed, some would assert that this best selling book has dumbed down so much over the last decade that to earn a place in its pages is now utterly worthless. But there is one damned stupid feat which still excites the hearts of many here in the capital, and that's the record for the fastest time to travel to all London Underground stations.
This is a record whose conditions regularly change, as new stations open and old lines close. Shoreditch, Ongar and Aldwych no longer have to be ticked off, which helps speed things up, but Terminal 5 now has to be reached, which slows things down. Meanwhile challengers are getting better and better at planning their routes. Twenty-five years ago (today), Robert Robinson managed to get round all 272 stations in 19 hours, 51 minutes, 14 seconds, whereas the current record is 15% quicker. Can today's time be broken? There's many believe it can, and all that's needed is the perfect route under non-disrupted conditions.
One such tube challenger is Geoff Marshall, former joint holder of the aforementioned record (275 stations in18 hours, 35 minutes, 43 seconds). His place in the Guinness hall of fame endured for two years before being narrowly pipped, by just five seconds, and he's been attempting to grab back victory ever since. But a tube challenge isn't undertaken lightly. It requires planning, and research and several dry runs, plus a support team to ensure that things could possibly just maybe run smoothly enough. Dedication, that's what you need, and Roy Castle would have been proud.
This time last Thursday Geoff was at it again, on his 13th attempt, careering round London via a top secret route. Somewhere out in the wilds of zone 6, I dropped in. All the telltale signs of a tube record attempt were present in the carriage. Three athletic souls were standing around in sports kit flexing their leg muscles. One was pointing their camera out of the door at every station to take a photo as official evidence. Another had a notebook for the scribbling down of times to the nearest second. I noticed several bottles of energy drinks - full, empty or refilled - essential for keeping everyone appropriately hydrated. Much technology was evident amongst the support team, including a laptop and a walkie talkie, ensuring that everybody was up-to-date on what was happening elsewhere on the network. And there were smiles all round, because you have to, even when things aren't going great.
A piece of paper was thrust into my face, the top half of which explained what was going on to bemused bystanders, while the bottom was a tear-off slip for witnessing purposes. My signature and email address would be used later by Guinness to confirm that any successful attempt had been genuine, and hadn't been deceitfully concocted by Geoff with the aid of fake photos and a fictional notebook. But it didn't look like my verification would be necessary. The Piccadilly line had played up earlier in the morning, scuppering best laid plans, and then the District line had stalled, scuppering the back-up. Alas tube challenge attempts only succeed if every connection works smoothly, so a signal failure or even "minor delays" can mess the whole thing up, and they had. "But I reckon we can still get back to Olympia if we go via Shepherd's Bush, later on, that might work." It's no use sticking to your perfect plan if the network won't play ball, so adaptability to prevailing conditions is the key.
I didn't stay with the team for long, because they were getting off a few stations later to go for a run. You don't get a record-breaking time by staying on the train all the way from zone 1 to the outskirts and back again, you find a shortcut from the end of one line to the end of another via public transport. In this case Geoff & Co were running it, which I thought was insane, not least because the temperature was sweaty-warm and the distance was "how far?!" Off they charged (out of a perfectly-aligned door), up and over the footbridge, then disappeared through the gates in search of station number 78. I followed by bus, which took simply forever, and by the end of the ride I was so far behind that their decision to jog had been firmly vindicated.
I caught up with Geoff, Vicki and Anthony later in the day, on a completely different line. They were going to Cockfosters, I was going to Cockfosters, so it made sense to share the journey north. A little more perspiration was evident, although I bet nowhere near as sweaty as things would be later in the day. By now one of the team had an injured foot, no doubt from all that jogging, which wasn't going to make careering between future platforms any easier. Never mind, everyone's sense of optimism still prevailed. Until, that is, the driver unexpectedly announced that this train would be terminating one station early. Rude words were spoken. My photo shows the team discussing their untimely options after ejection at Oakwood, which is somewhere that no tube challenger ever wants to alight. There were only a few minutes delay before the next Cockfosters train rolled in, but that would likely be enough to destroy a series of crucial connections and wreck the entire attempt. And so it turned out.
Better luck next time, Geoff. So much can be planned in advance, but the tube's random quirks and breakdowns mean that a winning time is also down to pure chance. Will the Mill Hill shuttle be in the platform or are there 18 minutes still to wait? Will the Hainault Loop require one train or two? Will a good service be operating on all London Underground lines or have you unwittingly picked a day of tube hell? And you'd better hurry up, because beating the record's going to get hugely harder in December when the District line timetable changes. There'll be no more trains to Olympia on weekdays, apart from a couple of services early morning and mid-evening, and if you miss those you're doomed. I'd wager that whoever holds the Guinness chalice at Christmas is likely to keep it for some considerable time. Eight months remain, whether you're Geoff or another team convinced you can do better.