Why do we run after the cheese?

Down the Hill in one of the world’s most stupid events

It’s a clouded May Monday afternoon in Cooper’s Hill, Gloucestershire (a county in the south-west of England). Almost 4 Kg of cheese jump happily on the grass, down a hill. A beautiful ballet of human bodies fall behind it, like ragdolls. Well, ragdolls aren’t able to get dislocated shoulders, broken legs and cracked ribs, but people are, and people can also only stop rolling at the end of the hill, where a group of rugby players volunteer to hold the competitors and take care of more severe injuries. The person who rolls until the end first, wins the cheese.

look! that’s me!

The Cheese-Rolling Race is an annual and historic event. The tradition is centenary and no one knows exactly why it started. It is believed that the event was part of spring celebrations. Reports also suggest that rolling after things on a hill was a pagan habit. Some say that people roll after cheeses at least since the 15th century.

From 1941 to 1954, due to food rationing because of the Second World War, the festival organizers had to build a wooden cheese with a small piece of real cheese inside – The only permission granted at the time by the Food Ministry for the race. When real cheese could finally be used again, an 18 Kg one was specially produced for the event.

The tradition continued year after year, being organized by volunteers and made for residents nearby. But in 2009, when more than 15000 people showed up for the event, health and safety issues started worrying local authorities who decided to officially cancel the cheese event of 2010.

The enthusiastic sports community was outraged. The race was becoming one of the biggest tourist attractions in town and cancelling it caused general disappointment. However, as history constantly shows, It’s very hard to contain human stupidity, therefore, It’d be very hard to avoid people from going up a hill, throwing a cheese, and rolling after it. So as expected, without the official event, the “sportspeople” unofficially organized the rolling and carried on with the great tradition.

The non official organizers, however, claimed to have suffered many interventions and threats from the local police. Letters were sent to the man who set up the website and the cheese manufacturer, highlighting that they could be legally responsible for any incidents which could occur during the races. To the participants, police asks every year, weeks before the race, for common sense and caution when going down the hill after the cheese.

But year after year, the cheese continues to be rolled. The cheese, by the way, is a typical Double Gloucester, a semi-hard dairy provided by the same manufacturer since 1988: Diana Smart, 88 years old, uses milk from Brown Swiss, Holstein and Gloucester, her own cattle. She’s the only person in Gloucester who still makes cheese using the traditional methods and that’s why, in 2013, she received the threatening visit of three police officers who asked her to stop making the motivator of the race. She still disobeys authorities’ recommendations.

So, on a Monday (May 15th, 2015), an audience of 4000 people gathered around Cooper’s Hill to watch the race. Climate conditions were ideal: Rain from previous days had softened the soil but on the day of the race, it didn’t rain. The police closed many streets around the field and exhibited several warnings which made the public and the runners aware of the dangers they could find. The main lane was carefully inspected during the previous week by the organizers, who removed fences, stones, trunks, and other dangerous objects that could cause a more serious accident during the race. When I got there, the audience was already sat on the hill, anxious for the race to start.

There are four main races: three male ones and one female – which shows that there are at least three times more dumb men than women. About twenty people run in every race, without even having to sign up before. People only have to show up on the starting zone – which, by the way, has a limited access by the event organizers.

If that wasn’t enough, to gather courage and improve their abilities, many competitors prefer to get drunk before the race, which makes the hill to be full of cans, bottles of alcoholic beverages and people who can barely stand up even though they’re trying to stand on flat grass.

I was able to get a spot on the second race of the day and stood – carefully -, next to a french man and a guy dressed like a banana. From the starting grid, It’s possible to get a sense of the inclination that the competitors face: in its steepest part, the hill reaches an angle of 70º, lightly dozing at an inclination of an average 50º in the middle, of about 200m to be followed.

The M.C., an old man wearing a white suit and a topper with blue and red ribbons on it -, gives us the basic instructions: “ I scream ‘One’ for you to get ready, ‘Two’ for you to prepare, ‘Three’ to release the cheese and you only start running when I say ‘Four’! If someone starts running before I say so, this person will NOT win the cheese!’’ he warns, soberly, making it clear that this is a task to be taken seriously. The competitor also wins if he (or she) catches the cheese on the way down – which never happened since the round motivator of the race can roll as fast as 100km/h.

“The secret is trying to stand as much as you can”, is a common tip the winners from previous years share. But I must say that the task is a little harder than it seems. As soon as the race started, I ran with everyone who was around me. At least I was able to take two steps before seeing a competitor fall next to me. I couldn’t think about the cheese, I could only think about not falling down. So I took a few more steps and, without anything to hold on to, I fell on my knees and rolled down the hill. I felt my back going backwards (if that’s even possible) in a very uncomfortable position, so then I tried to throw my body ahead, making a very stupid movement. Then, I fell on my shoulders and continued rolling, tumbling down the hill on an amazing speed. While the floor threw me back to the air, I felt like I was floating for a few seconds, that before hitting the soft grass again, of course. The world revolved around me as I rolled uncontrollably, as a cat in a washing machine. I repeat: There was nothing I could hold on to. What I was able to do, was to hear the audience screaming, but I could not tell if that was for me or for the other falls that were happening all around.

At one point, the slope slightly softened. I grabbed something and could finally get up, but could not be up for long: I tried to run, but I was completely dizzy from rolling down the hill, so, after three steps, I started rolling again, this time, for many meters, with my whole body stretched, until someone was finally able to stop me.

Volunteers are always strategically placed at the bottom of the hill, so they can catch the competitors who running at a very high speed, cannot stop. Two English rugby players held me, put me up and demanded me to get out of the way… fast… so they could catch other falling competitors. Still completely dizzy, I took a few steps ahead and then stood for a while, trying to get my balance back, while I saw the other falling competitors around me. The winner was set, being taken care of by a paramedic’s team of St. John Ambulance, who volunteer to take care of the wounded. In 1997, a Record occurred: They took care of 37 people, including 7 non competitors. In 1990, a 59 year old lady fainted after being hit by a cheese on the head.

On this year’s run, nothing but a suspected broken ankle. No records of serious injuries.
Even though I wasn’t able to win the cheese, I, at least, finished the run with nothing besides an scratched arm and a stick stuck on my hip.

The big winner of the day was Chris Anderson, a local resident, who won the first race, got up the hill again and also won the fourth race. In the last 11 years, he has won the total of 15 cheeses. Historically, the biggest winner was Stephen Gyde, who competed between 1978 and 2006, taking home 21 cheeses. However, now that Stephen has retired, Chris has everything it takes to become the recordist of the Cheese- Rolling. I mean, if the authorities don’t take more drastic measures to prevent the event from happening. The organization guarantees that the historic event won’t end, after all, there are still no laws which forbid people from going down a hill after a cheese. Yet.