Chauncey Whitehead wanted quiet at the start. So the people who gathered at the Druid Hill Family YMCA for his world-record attempt didn't know what to think or say.
Some read books and wrapped Christmas presents in the third-floor aerobic room as he sought to surpass the mark of 8,555 sit-ups in one hour.
But when Whitehead, 42, began to cramp up 29 minutes into his quest - part of a fund-raising and holiday-toy-drive effort by the YMCA - he knew he could count on his onlookers for their support, for their voices.
"I need some energy!" he yelled.
How Whitehead responded to the cheering, the clapping and the chanting that followed may very well land him in the Guinness Book of World Records. As the Baltimorean thanked his some 40 supporters just moments after he lifted his 5-foot-6 frame off the hardwood floor, a judge announced Whitehead's unofficial total at 9,291.
"Once the crowd fed me, that sped me up," said Whitehead, adding that he will now "carry myself as the world champion."
That, of course, will be decided by the judges at Guinness. American Ashrita Furman holds the record, which he set March 24 in Paris.
Yesterday, members of the YMCA staff videotaped the event, timed it and counted the crunches. That information will be sent off tomorrow to Guinness, Whitehead said. He hopes for a response within 60 days.
The mentality that enabled him to even try such a Herculean feat was developed early on by his parents and their fitness habits. His mother was a physical therapist at a veterans hospital in Toledo, Ohio, and his father served in the military.
Whitehead, a former sergeant in the Air Force, started volunteering at the Druid Hill YMCA two years ago and joined the staff last year, said branch director A. Antonio Coffield Sr. Whitehead, its fitness coordinator, teaches abs classes four days a week.
"He's very popular," Coffield said. "Sometimes there's a waiting list for him."
His easygoing, quietly inspiring personality has been a hit with those he instructs. They, in turn, have pushed him to do what was once thought impossible. Whitehead hosted and competed in a "Crunch-A-Thon" in June at the Druid Hill Y, and he rolled off 5,004 crunches. But those were done without a support device that can increase crunching speed while providing neck support. (Guinness required that he use the device to attempt the record.)
His students pushed him to go for the mark. "Without the class members, it never would have happened," he said.
Three Marines who attended yesterday as part of the Toys for Tots Foundation were most impressed with Whitehead's conditioning for the event, developed over months of aerobics, swimming, weight training and Pilates.
Whitehead, who "on a good day" weighs 143 pounds ("on a bad day, 146"), also completed the Baltimore Marathon in October in 3 hours, 59 minutes.
When Marines go in for their twice-a-year fitness test, the sit-up standard is 100 in two minutes. So for Whitehead, "that's pretty simple," said Lance Cpl. Tim Hendrickson.
But during his record-breaking attempt, when Whitehead reached an estimated 4,500 at 10:53 a.m., he began to cramp near his hips - a first since he began training.
Fourteen minutes later, he began to slide off the 6-foot-long mat. DeBorah Better, a YMCA volunteer, who was on her knees imploring Whitehead to continue crunching from a few feet away, shoved another mat under Whitehead's head.
His son, Brandan McNeil, 16, came up from Alexandria, Va., to cheer him on. He sat a good 20 feet away for the first half-hour, then took a place up close near Better for the homestretch. "I knew he was going to need me. ... Every time I was talking, he would speed up," he said.
The once-passive crowd began to sweat right along with Whitehead as he fell into a fast, tidy rhythm. The three judges would count a crunch, each using a hand-held device, every time he lifted his chest a few inches off the ground while keeping his knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Based on his unofficial total, he recorded about 2.5 sit-ups a second.
"I was very fortunate to survive that," said Coleman Adams, one of the counters.
All that rocking soon produced a gap between the two mats, and for the final few minutes, until the clock stopped at 11:24 a.m., he persevered without a mat under his back. "I came too far to stop," he said. "I didn't care if it was concrete."
So after this accomplishment, will Whitehead take the rest of the weekend off?
Not a chance: He's going to run four miles today.
"No big deal," he said.