A stone's throw and then some to a Guinness record

At 6-foot-2 and 253 pounds, Venango County's Russell "Rock Bottom" Byars is hardly dainty. But that hasn't stopped him from skipping his way into the record books.

This month, Guinness World Records certified Mr. Byars, 43, as the planet's greatest skipper of stones on water.

Most people who undertake this pastime -- one that harks back to childhoods and vacations along lake shores -- are usually thrilled to skip, say, 10 times.

Mr. Byars, a kind of superhuman stone-skipping freak of nature, far bested that. You could say he blew the old record out of the water. His magic number: 51.

"I actually threw 40 stones that day, but that was the first skip that I threw," Mr. Byars said. He estimated it traveled 250 feet. Asked his secret, he replied, "You know what, I really don't know."

Guinness experts analyzed film of his record-breaking effort frame by frame, checking the concentric circles left in the water by each hop -- or, as stone skippers say, by the plinks and pitty-pats.

"It was only a matter of time," said Kurt "Mountain Man" Steiner, the previous Guinness champion. Mr. Steiner, 42, of Emporium, Cameron County, nailed 40 skips in 2002. He equated Mr. Byars' feat to breaking the 4-minute mile.

He and Mr. Byars enjoy a playful rivalry, having competed mano a mano at Franklin's annual stone-skipping contest and in Michigan, home to the Mackinac Island Stone Skipping & Gerplunking Club.

"I knew in my bones that this was in the works, so I've already fully kind of acclimated to the reality of it," Mr. Steiner said after being notified by a reporter that his record had been broken.

He didn't seem too broken up. Mr. Steiner said his own framed Guinness certificate was "somewhere lying around."

Mr. Byars accomplished his feat July 19 where the Allegheny River and French Creek meet in his home of Franklin. That day, the water was perfectly calm. Mr. Byars, a junior test engineer with a local company called Liberty Electronics, arrived with videographers and a bunch of rocks.

Absent was his wife, Renee, his "only groupie." She got there late and thus missed his record breaker. Mrs. Byars said it is tough being married to a world record holder.

"Every so often he says, 'Hey, hey, can you believe that?' "

Mr. Byars was not always the stone skipper he is today. He grew up in Green Tree, where there is not much stone-skipping to be done, although he fished for carp.

When Mr. Byars moved to Franklin eight years ago, he began skipping stones for fun while out with his dog, Bear. Things took a turn around the turn of the century.

"We were just walking through town and my wife saw a sign that said stone-skipping and she said, 'Why don't you try?' "

"I said, 'Nope.' She said, 'You can win fudge.' I said, 'OK.' I said, 'Sign me up.' "

Mr. Byars, who sometimes sports a good-luck T-shirt that reads, "Skips Stones for Fudge," said he won in the amateur division for the first two years he competed. In 2002, he came in second to Mr. Steiner in the pro category, and he's become increasingly dangerous.

Brian Barnett, who is a co-worker at Liberty and the state's High Commissioner of Stone-skipping -- it's a bit murky how he achieved that exalted rank -- has never skipped a stone.

But he knows a winner when he sees one, and Russ Byars had all the makings when he appeared at Franklin's stone-skipping contest.

"His first year, he threw, say a 12, then next year an 18, then a 20, something like that. And last year, right before the event, he was doing a clinic for the kids, and I counted like 50. I got my judges together and said, 'We've got a problem. He has reached a new plateau here,' " Mr. Barnett said.

"You're not supposed to take this stuff serious. But on a serious note, if you think about it, you go from 38 to 40, OK, that's not such a quantum leap. But to go from 40 to 51?"

Ralph Lorenz does take stone-skipping seriously, so much so that the planetary scientist included research on it in his 2006 book, "Spinning Flight: Dynamics of Frisbees, Boomerangs, Samaras, and Skipping Stones."

"That's hard core," Dr. Lorenz said of Mr. Byars' record.

Dr. Lorenz, an amateur stone skipper who hasn't broken 20, has attached accelerometers to stones to measure the per-skip bounce and the bend of the path.

He and other researchers have investigated the science behind stone-skipping. Studies in France, he said, have yielded 20 degrees to the horizontal as the optimal angle for a skipping stone to enter the water.

"At the very simple level, it's understood," Dr. Lorenz said. "I think we don't know enough yet to answer the question, 'What is the ultimate limit a human can throw a skipping stone?' "

If you watch Mr. Byars throw, his style is something akin to a baseball pitcher's windup with a sidearm release. He takes a step forward, brings his arm back above his head and sends the stone whizzing.

Mr. Byars said he throws "real hard" without bending down. He favors smooth, rounded stones, about 3 to 4 inches across, many of which are fetched from various creeks and an island. He thinks the winning skipper came from Erie.

Mr. Byars grips his stones with his thumb and forefinger curving in a wide arc around the perimeter. When he lets go, he puts on a lot of spin and follows through.

"I'm watching in slow-motion and it's like a submarine pitch. It looks like my arm broke. If you slow it down and watch my arm, it looks kind of ugly. It looks like it hurts," Mr. Byars said.

Mr. Steiner, who stands 5-feet-9 and weighs 150 pounds -- though he tipped the scales at around 200 pounds when he broke the record -- uses a different style.

"I lean over way more. Mine's more of a classic style, I guess. I'm almost bent at the waist when I throw. Where I get my power is out of my legs, primarily. I push off really hard with my back leg and I really do a deep lunge. I might step six feet forward as opposed to Russ' maybe three feet," Mr. Steiner said.

Mr. Byars said he was glad to claim the world record but felt a bit bad about knocking Mr. Steiner down a peg. He sent an e-mail so his rival would not find out secondhand, but the message was never received.

Like a gunslinger who's just cut down the fastest draw in the West, Mr. Byars will no doubt become a target for stone skippers after his title. He is one of three who submitted applications to Guinness this year.

Mr. Steiner knows that being middle-aged means he can't wait too long to mount a challenge to Mr. Byars and try to regain his former glory.

"If he hit a 60 I'd probably just say, 'OK, my hat is off,' " Mr. Steiner said. "Right now I just consider that the kind of flame I need under my butt to actually put my money where my mouth is."

Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962. First Published September 30, 2007 4:00 AM


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