The Subway Challenge might sound like a sandwich eating competition, but it's actually a contest open to anyone in which every single station on the New York subway is visited in the quickest time possible…and a new Guinness World Record was set just a few weeks ago.
Matthew Ahn, 25, is an attorney originally from Cleveland, Ohio, and like that day spent dashing around the subterranean labyrinth, in just a short while he's rushing off again to catch a flight to Chicago. However, he found a few precious minutes to meet before jumping on the subway once more.
"I've always been interested in transit infrastructure," he explains. "I was a big geography nerd as a kid so it was a natural fit once I'd moved here."
There are specific rules and regulations to this challenge should you want to take it seriously and attempt a world record. The participant must log the time the subway doors open and close at each station, provide a time stamped photograph or video proving they stopped at every station and finally they must have a documented witness at every station. And there are 469 in total.
"Either people that rode along with you or if you don’t have anybody doing that then you have to ask random people on the subway to sign this book saying that they saw you on the train, which is always a fun thing to do on the subway," laughs Matthew.
Sometimes called the 'Rapid Transit Challenge' or the 'Ultimate Ride', Matthew has held the record since January 16th 2015, with a time of 21 hours, 49 minutes and 35 seconds. However, with the opening of the 7 Subway Extension to include one additional station, Hudson Yards, in September 2015, his record became invalid. So naturally he had another go.
The Amateur New York Subway Riding Committee (ANYSRC) created by Peter Samson in 1966, states that all rides must be completed on a single fare, which would mean an awful lot of backtracking. However, the Guinness rules allow for "transfers between subway lines made by scheduled public transport or on foot. The use of private motor vehicles, taxis or any other form of privately arranged transport (bicycles, skateboards, etc.) is not allowed."
Prior to Matthew's attempt in 2015, the record was jointly held by a team of six made up of Andy James, Steve Wilson, Martin Hazel, Glen Bryant, Peter Smyth and Adam Fisher. The first three names in that group, Andy, Steve and Martin, are seasoned veterans of this sort of thing as they've held the equivalent record of (currently) all 270 tube stations on London's Underground several times. That said, Matthew is no rookie.
"This was my fifth attempt, but the first three were unsuccessful. However, I did break the record on my fourth attempt, which was in January last year."
As you can imagine, a certain level of fitness is required. The faster you can run between stations, the quicker your time. "The first time I tried this two years ago I did it with a friend and neither of us was in particularly great shape at that point, so we realized how fitness can affect your time. My route this time had about seven and a half miles, that’s like 12.5 kilometers of running over the course of the day through long transfer tunnels as well as over ground. So it is quite important."
By coincidence, Matthew had been contacted by Neil Collier, a reporter from The New York Times regarding his record last year. "He'd seen a story about the time I previously broke the record and wanted to talk to me about it and we realized it was no longer valid because of the opening of the Hudson Yard station last year." At that point, after a little contemplation, Matthew decided to give it another go.
"It took about a week before I caved in," he laughed. "I was interested in doing it, giving it another try, seeing what happens, but I'd have to take time off work and put in the preparation. I decided there was this narrow window of time in which I thought I could do it if the service changes work out during that period of time I’d try and they did."
Neil met up with Matthew three times during the challenge, something which Matthew says wasn't easy to coordinate. The result is a short, fun video on The New York Times website.
The logistics of mounting such an attempt are surprisingly complex. For instance, the route that is taken is a very closely guarded secret. "Oh yes," Matthew says in a serious tone.
A previous record holder of London's Tube Challenge has told me in the past that he wrote a specific algorithm to work out his route. However, Matthew's approach was to just use his head and a spreadsheet.
"I know the team that held the record before me used some sort of algorithm, but my attempt was completely by hand through trial and error. So, it took me about probably like seven attempts going through, trying to pencil it out, make sure I hit all the stops and then going through the MTA timetables and try to figure out best start time and then just calculating it all out through how many transfers I had.
Then there's the issues of eating, staying hydrated and inevitably, relieving oneself. "I'd buy bottles of water during the course of the day so I wouldn’t have that weight to carry and I just had granola bars to eat."
The day of Matthew's attempt was Friday July 22nd. "The high was forecast at 96 Fahrenheit, 35 Celsius," he says. "I was not drinking enough water the first half of it and got fairly dehydrated at one point. I felt light headed. I was not hitting the right buttons on my phone to take pictures, things like that. So I was like OK got to drink more water. So from the second half I probably drank four full bottles of water, just because it was so warm."
Unfortunately, what goes in, must come out. "There are 45 subway stations that officially have bathrooms, but only a third of them are functional," Matthew says. "I marked those ahead of time and around the half way point I planned go to the restroom. I saw on a transfer that I had 10 minutes till the next train, so I went to a convenience store, brought some toilet paper and went to the restroom.
Matthew set off from Far Rockaway-Mott Avenue Station at 2:02am after having only slept for about 45 minutes the night before as a result of nerves. "Setting off at that time definitely has its advantages," he says. "There's hardly anyone around at that time, which means the doors open and close much quicker." On the other hand he says, the service isn't quite so frequent, so it's a question of balancing these factors. The same is true for rush hour, the trains are more frequent, but it's much more crowded.
Matthew arrived at the end of his route, Flushing Main Street, 21 hours, 28 minutes and 14 seconds later, beating the previous record by 21 minutes and 21 seconds. Guinness officially recognized the record just a few days ago.
Would he would mount another attempt if his record was broken? "Honestly, the time posted was much better than I expected. I’m not planning on doing it again...but never say never." Of course, Matthew's record will also become invalid once again when the 2nd Avenue line is opened, the first section of which is supposedly scheduled to open at the end of this year. So what advice would he give any budding challengers?
"I think the two most important pieces of advice I would have are to a) try a dry run ahead of time, so you know what it's like trying to collect proof; and b) not to get flustered if you fall behind, because there will be delays no matter what."