In the field of endurance records, two names stand out: Terry Cole, a Londoner, and an American, Ashrita Furman. They have so many records--20 or 30 each--that Guinness publishes only a small selection. They have never met; they communicate by trying to break each other's records. The feats they attempt vary, and it is hard to imagine who conceived of some of them: the record for balancing as many milk crates as possible on the chin, or carrying a brick in one hand as far as possible (with the palm above the brick, so that it is gripped between fingers and thumb). Most share an indifference to skill; they are simply tests of will and endurance.
I went to visit Terry Cole in East London, where he lives alone among a clutter of ornaments, certificates, trophies, and enormous weight-training machines. He also has a small garden, which when I visited was full of milk crates.
His smile revealed a row of gold teeth, and I asked about them.
'No medical reason at all, actually,' he said. 'It's a British record, 14 gold teeth. It was the idea of a manager of mine. He paid for them. Cost him 6,000 pounds.'
One of the first world-record certificates Terry Cole showed me, as he started going through them, was for rolling head over heels for a mile in 24 minutes.
'I saw Ashrita Furman do it on the television in 26 minutes,' he said. 'And I thought, it's feasible to beat that. I'm lucky: I've got a little paved alley at the back of my house. I practice up and down the alley. I put my motorbike helmet on. And away I go. Up and down. A bit of padding on my back. I started off practicing at midday, and I did that for three or four days, and I thought, no, this isn't happening, man. Your coordination goes, and it makes you ever so tired during the day. So I thought, How do you practice and not be tired during the day? And the answer was to practice just before I went to bed. So that's what I did, for about four months.'
'I guess the attempt itself must have been sickening,' I said.
'Oh, bad news. Seriously bad news. It was horrific. It was four times around a track, and you had to concentrate on taking the bends. And people had to push me from the sides to keep me going in the right direction. I was sick, vomiting, the works. I was totally distorted. Focused, though. Totally, totally focused. I was puking up all over the place the last 400 meters.
'Look,' he said, flicking through the certificates, 'I've dribbled a basketball for 90 miles. That was a hard one.'
'What is the most horrific record you've attempted?'
'One-armed press-ups, definitely.'
'How many did you do?'
'I did 8,000, in five hours.'
'And is that record still standing?'
'No. Paddy Doyle beat me two weeks later. Done my fucking nut.'
'It must have been very annoying.'
'Why was that the hardest?'
'Because it was on one arm, basically. That's me when I finished the press-ups.' He held out a photo. In it, someone was standing beside him, actually holding up his exhausted arm for him. 'You had to stay on one arm for the five hours. I was dying. The fingertip press-ups was one of the hardest as well. But I mean, all world records are hard. They're all very, very, very hard.'
'Have you ever gone for a record and failed?'
'My worst one was the crawling record. But it wasn't really my fault. It started to rain, and I had to stop. It was thundering.'
'How far had you gone?'
'Eleven miles. The world record is 31, a lot further. But I'd actually crawled 11 miles on my hands and knees for nothing. I was very pissed off.'
I asked him what lay ahead.
'I'm going to be at an exhibition at Olympia for six days, eating glass. I'm the only guy in Europe who does it. Mr. Mangetout is the expert.'
'When did you start eating glass?'
'Well, I eat light bulbs. It's . . . I mean, I eat glass. Not on a regular basis, but if the work comes in, I'll do it. It's paid work, you see.'
'And what is it like to eat glass?'
'Awful. Yeah, really awful.'
'Does it have any ill effects?'
'Not really. It doesn't cut you, because you grind it very thoroughly with your teeth. As long as you grind it up for long enough, you're all right.'
'How does it make you feel to be a world champion?'
'I am very proud of what I've achieved.'
'One gets the sense talking to some athletes that their sport comes to define their life.'
'This is what I do all day, every day. A lot of my friends say that I train too hard, I do too much. But that is a part of me. It's a part of my life. And when I train for a world record, I train hard. I will carry on until I drop dead. I will die of a heart attack. I know that. But as far as I'm concerned, if you want to be the best, then it's up to you. It's in your hands.'
The telephone rang, and Terry discussed with the caller his forthcoming appearance at Olympia. When he hung up, he was excited.
'Unbelievable. This other agency--because I'm the only guy that eats glass--all of a sudden, it's like everybody wants Terry Cole. He'll eat glass! They're not interested in the world records. They want me to do something totally stupid, totally bizarre, and eat glass!'
'You must have sometimes considered giving it all up.'
'Yeah, I've thought that.'
'Not very often. But when I get kicked down. I get kicked down a lot, you know.'
'In your personal life or professionally?'
'I come across a lot of jealousy in my life. People that I meet. Competitors. That is why I keep it very, very well under wraps what I do.'
'What's the closest you've ever come to retiring?'
'Never. I get very down sometimes. I get very depressed. I mean, now. I'm going through such a hard time. I got a letter yesterday. Do you want to see it?'
'I don't want to pry.'
'I'll show it to you. This came through the post to me, and still I trained.'
He held up a handwritten letter from someone telling him their relationship was over.
'I'm going through a very hard--mentally--a very hard time. Because,'
--pause--'I loved Susie, man. I really loved her. And she thought she could accept the way that I am. But I'm different. And now I know that she was with me because I was different. Because I was exciting to be with. She didn't love me--she just loved what I am. And at the end of the day, you still have to pick up the pieces. I will still train, and I will still fight to the end. I am a fighter, I'm not a quitter. Some people, even my closest friends, like parts of me. But I'm still waiting to find the friend--not a girlfriend--to find a friend, a good friend, who accepts me the way I am. I really haven't found that friend yet.'
'Do you sometimes long to be ordinary?'
'Oh yeah. Ordinary. Yeah. Sometimes I do. But it doesn't last for long. It lasts a couple of seconds. I go, Nah! That's not me. I don't want to be ordinary. You know, I will never be ordinary. And at the back of my mind, I always knew that there would only ever be one Terry Cole. Really. There'll be no children. There'll be no wife. I came into this world alone. And I will die alone.'
'That's a very hard thing to say.'
'Yes. They'll come round one day, and I'll just be on the floor. That is how I will die. But I'm happy in my life. I don't do it for money. I've got some nice things. I've got a nice gym. And everything round here is geared for me. Money is nothing. But if you want a happy relationship, money helps.'
He got down a scrapbook. On the front, he had glued letters cut out from different colors of paper to spell the following:
THERE LIVED A CERTAIN MAN IN
ENGLAND LONG AGO WHO WAS BIG AND
STRONG AND TEETH PAVED WITH GOLD.
'When I die, people will read that. People will read that. I'm preparing myself for death.'
From Granta (Summer 1998). Subscrip-tions: $34 (4 issues) from 1755 Broadway, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10019-3780.