However, the embers still gave off a faint glow. I needed to find something I could do to challenge myself. Considering my limited prowess in most things athletic, and my interest in reading, my two choices couldn’t have been more polarising in nature.
Firstly, I decided to run a marathon.
Secondly, I decided to read lots of books.
The marathon was always an inkling of an idea that I’d had following time I’d spent watching the London Marathon on the television back when I was younger. It was always a pipe dream, one of those ‘things to do before I die’ that always seemed more likely to kill me in the process, if anything. Still, one drunk evening in May, I threw down fifty of my English pounds and signed up for the 2014 Brighton Marathon. With the outlay of money, it was always likely that I’d at least attempt it – I was never letting that money go completely to waste.
It was around this time that I discovered a rather large presence of readers online. This was both a stupid realisation and a great one, as it should have been obvious to me that a great many readers would head online to discuss, debate and recommend books. The discovery of Goodreads, a website where people review books and the algorithms working in the background spit out a recommendation based on your habits, revitalised my reading. I was back to where I started when I was a child – I was a voracious reader once more, primarily due to one thing: The Reading Challenge.
At the start of the year, you could sit there and suggest an arbitrary number of books that you would read over the course of said year. As you accrued titles that you completed, all you had to do was give your star rating (and add the finishing date) on Goodreads, and the book would be added to your challenge. At the start of 2014, I decided that it was feasible for me to read a book a week for the whole year, thus leaving me with a reasonable target of fifty two.
By this time, I’d given up drinking and began to train for the marathon. On top of the money I put down to enter the race, I’d splashed out one hundred pounds on running shoes and bought an ultimate marathon training book on my Kindle. The book I bought (how else was I ever likely to run a marathon without the support of a book?) had me out four times a week, three smaller runs with one longer run at the weekend. The theory was that, by increasing the miles per week, your body was getting used to running, and the long run allowed you to practise effective marathon strategy as well as give you a taste of the reality of long distance running.
Starting the week of Christmas, I began with a three mile run. Easy stuff for most, but it was as much as I’d worked out in the past year. I wasn’t exactly in athletic shape, and the tightness of the running top I wore wasn’t exactly flattering. Just to make it even more challenging, I started my training in Lewes (at the home of my in laws), where their house is set on top of one of the higher peaks around the area. Great on the way down, a bit of a bastard on the way back up. Still, I succeeded, and it was onwards and upwards from there.
I managed to stay off the drink for January at least (Cancer Research was running a Dryathlon advertising campaign at the same time, so it was in part due to this), and generally began to try and be a bit healthier all round. The mileage increased, and my body took a battering, specifically on the long runs. I was hitting thirty to forty miles in a week, and this was in Croydon, the most boring place to run on earth. With my longer runs, I shuttle ran between a bus stop and a big roundabout for as many times as was necessary to fulfill my quota.
As my marathon running kicked into high gear, so did my reading. A book a week – a rate I’d never been near in previous years – was nothing at all really. I read some great books over the course of that year. The aforementioned ‘Stoner’ got a look in, but I also read ‘Us’ by David Nicholls, ‘Dept. of Speculation’ by Jenny Offill and ‘I Am Pilgrim’ by Terry Hayes. Not all my encounters were good; ‘The Maze Runner’ by James Dashner and ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn were two of my lower literary points that year.
Maybe it was the ease with which I was finding this reading challenge that lead me to try and up the ante. That, and my penchant for purchasing books on my Kindle that would otherwise require a small donkey to cart it around for me if I wanted to take it anywhere. I decided, rather foolishly, to type two things into Google.
‘The most difficult books to read in the world’.
‘The longest books in the world’.
As with the previous chapter, it becomes fairly arbitrary that I chose ‘Romance of the Seven Kingdoms’ above several other choices that might have just as easily fit the concept. Within a short window of time, I’d purchased ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace (difficult and long), ‘Gravity’s Rainbow (not as long, very difficult), ‘A La Recherche Du Temps’ by Marcel Proust (exceedingly long) and ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ by Luo Ghuanzhong (ridiculously long, lots of characters).
This is where the wheels came off both challenges, so to speak. I injured my calf muscle on a run, leaving me unable to train for close to two weeks, whilst my reading slowed down as I deliberated, tried out, and quickly dropped each of those individual books in turn. Saying you are going to do something, committing to it and actually doing it are all clearly very different things.
Luckily for me, I was able to cycle and swim in place of the running. Whilst it wasn’t the same, it did at least allow me to retain a certain level of fitness in a low impact sport without risking injuring myself further. The reading…well, they wouldn’t be mentioned if this book if I’d suddenly broke through my reticence and read one of them.
With both challenges I was undertaking at this point, there was an underlying element: a desire to be able to say ‘I’ve done that’. Whilst the challenge and competitiveness that had driven me in the past to directly compete against people didn’t exist in the same way as it used to, there was still a general desire to get a reaction out of people by doing something that a lot of people couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do.
In some ways, it is sad that there is an element of showing off that made me want to complete the tasks. Most people will willingly run the marathon for the fun of it; a challenge only about themselves and the road. A book like ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ will be read by someone for pleasure, and as an opportunity to enjoy one of the greatest feats of literature from another culture.
There was a hint of that, but it would be remiss to suggest that there wasn’t more to it. In a life where you potentially have very little time in the limelight, any opportunity to stand out and be special is important. The fact that I saw running a marathon and reading a really long book as an opportunity to rise above the parapet spoke more to my personal interests and desires than anything else.
The weekend of the marathon was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Considering my inability to train at times during the period leading up to the run, I was never going to be able to do myself justice. However, it had never been a case of getting good time – the focus was always on getting around.
I got to eighteen miles before I stopped, the longest singular run I’d ever completed and the mini-hurdle which I wanted to overleap within the larger challenge. I walked with purpose for a mile or two, before committing to another bout of running. The drizzle that had plagued that start of the race disappeared, to be replaced with a bright blue sky and enough sun exposure to burn the top of my head. A second bout of walking was necessary, but it allowed me to do the one other thing I was hoping – to finish the race running.
According to my wife, the way people had passed my group of friends and family before I arrived in the final stretch didn’t bode well. People limped, pale skinned and vomiting as they went. Considering my non-athletic disposition, there was legitimate concern that I could only be worse off than any of these ‘proper’ athletes. To their surprise, I bounded down the road looking, to their eyes, as a fresh as I did when I started off. What that says for my looks at the best of times, I’d rather not contemplate, but it was nice to feel that I looked good. The stops obviously did me good, but you have to whatever it takes to get you through.
The last mile was insane. My wife and some friends had seen me off, so I’d had some contact with people I knew up until around the fourth mile. I then didn’t see anyone I knew for another twenty miles, or over four hours of running. Naturally, people were incredibly encouraging no matter who you were, but it wasn’t exactly the same as seeing someone that meant a lot to you. This distance from those at the roadside didn’t stop me from purloining jelly babies en masse – seemingly the long distance runner’s snack of choice.
As I came down towards where Queens Road meets the coast, people crammed a dozen deep between the curb and the steep drop to the beachside concourse below. Though this mass of humanity was inspiring, it somehow didn’t impinge upon my ability to see my family and friends waving frantically as I leisurely jogged past. The last mile flew by, my weary legs, carried by the roar of the crowd, striving to finish as quickly as I could.
My time was eventually 5.17. I remember walking around a lot after going through the finishing line – the adrenaline and sugar of the energy drinks coursing through my veins. It took over half an hour for my friends and family to find, considering I had no way to contact them by phone, and the Cancer Research meeting point wasn’t easily accessible. I sat down on the stony Brighton Beach and waited, wrapped like a burrito in a foil sheet.
When they found me, it was the legitimate pride that I felt in all their words and gestures that made it all worth while. Sure, I hurt a lot for the next few days (though not seemingly as much as I thought I would), but I was made to feel as if I had achieved something truly impressive, a concept that hadn’t been the case for many years. I also raised over eight hundred pounds for charity, which was not to be sniffed at.
Now, if thousands of people can cheer me on as I read ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’, maybe I’d actually get somewhere.
Books I’ve Almost Read
‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy
In my list of long and difficult books that I’ve barely made any inroads in, one book was absent that I decided to buy around the same time: ‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy. Unlike ‘Infinite Jest’ and ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’, the cost was limited somewhat by the age of the text – I was able to pick up one of the biggest (and some say best) books in history for nothing! I couldn’t turn it down, and it ended up on my Kindle.
There it sat for many months. Finally, my one nod to New Years’ Resolutions saw me set out to tame the beast. The reason I chose it was for the name value: most people know ‘War and Peace’ as a ridiculously long book, so it would make a bigger impact when I said I’d read it. That, and I knew about it longer than the other options.
As I sit here, undertaking another challenge in NaNoWriMo, I’m around five hours from finishing the book. One of the biggest problems I have with the Kindle is that it tells you how long it will take you to read something. During a challenge to read as many books as you can, it is quite easy to put a large book to one side just because it might slow you down.
‘War and Peace’ started at thirty six hours.
I’ve attacked it in fits and starts. I’ve had moments where I’ve completely lost track of what is going on due to periods of time away from the book, and the sheer volume of scope and number of characters Tolstoy attempts to cover. There are areas which are genuinely some of the dullest writing I’ve ever seen – a fox hunting description lasting across several chapters almost led to me giving up the book for good. Even now, I’ve not picked it up since my flight was delayed on return from my honeymoon in August.
I will…will finish it.
Is it the best book I’ve ever read? No, I can’t suggest it is. However, there are moments, manifold moments across the text, where Tolstoy moves seamlessly between the political machinations of the ballroom to the folly of war. There are moments where the ridiculousness of love through the eyes of a young maiden mirrors the stupidity of generals as they send their men to die in vain. Tolstoy is a great writer; ‘War and Peace’ a great book.
Even if I didn’t enjoy the book, it is hard to argue with the sheer scope of what Tolstoy tries to offer us within the confines of a cover; the labour of love that this tome must have become; the vision with which so many lives interact, live and love across the pages of a book. Having got so far, I feel like I need to finish it to do the book justice.
…Telling people you’ve nearly read all of ‘War and Peace’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.