Part 11: The Femur Had Snapped in Half

Ironically, the pain didn't kick in until the ambulance ride. Every jolt and judder down the bumpy hill made the boys moan.

At the hospital, X-rays confirmed just how serious Gareth's injuries were.

Besides the gash on his scalp, which needed eight stitches, his thighbone—the longest and strongest bone in the human body—had snapped in half.

Instead of a long white column, the ghostly image showed two jagged stumps lying parallel to each other inside his thigh.

Fortunately, the clean break had deadened the nerves.

But Gareth's relatively pain-free experience was about to end. To realign the bone, the doctors had to stretch his leg until they could get the two parts to lock into place. It took three people to do it—one pulling on his foot, and two others pushing and shoving his thigh and knee while Gareth writhed in agony.

That night, his legs twitched in his sleep, dislodging the bone, so the whole excruciating procedure had to be repeated.

His operation the next day took five-and-a-half hours—the surgeon had to saw off the ragged ends where the femur had broken, and then run an 18-inch pin through it, fixing it with bolts at either end.

Gareth spent two weeks in hospital, a cage-like contraption around his leg, and another four months on crutches. He was in physiotherapy for the rest of the year.

The doctors warned him that if he broke his thigh again, the pin would bend rather than break, shattering his femur into fragments.

A decade later, though, Gareth says that stark warning didn't scare him. The Smedleys have since moved away from Cooper's Hill to a home near the Welsh border. Sitting in the kitchen with his mother on a rainy afternoon, Gareth admits that he and a friend ran down the slope the following year, after the official race.

True to form, he broke his collarbone.

"You never told me that!" Barbara exclaims, shocked by her son's confession. "You told me you fell down on your way home!"

"Well, I didn't, did I?" A mischievous grin.

To this day, Gareth has an 18-inch scar running halfway down his leg, and if anyone squeezes his knee, he recoils in pain—the bolts holding the pin in place pinch the flesh in his thigh.

His right leg is also shorter than the other, though you wouldn't know it when you see him walking.

After all her family's mishaps, Barbara has become an opponent of cheese rolling. "I would like to see it banned."

However, her son sees things differently.

"I'd like to run it again," he ventures, eliciting the desired reaction from his mother. "Maybe I could finish the race this time."

* * *

©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 10: Sound as a Pound?

At least a dozen paramedics pounced on him.

Despite his injuries and the blood streaking down his face, Gareth wasn't in agony; he was more concerned about his new jeans.

"I started givin' 'em a bollockin', I said 'Don't cut me jeans!'"

His friends huddled round, not so much out of sympathy but curiosity: they wanted a glimpse of the gore—as did the cameras.

If it bleeds, it leads, and Jason's blood-streaked visage, with a fat bandage on his head and a brace around his neck, provided the opening shot for the local TV news.

"Just 30 seconds earlier this teenager was in perfect health. Now he has a fractured hip"—the reporter paused for effect—"and head injuries. Another casualty of the annual Cooper's Hill cheese rolling races."

Cut to the reporter interviewing the winner, a mate of Gareth's, as the paramedics swarmed over the prostrate body in the background.

"That could've been me. You just don't know," the boy shrugged.

"It doesn't bother you that this sort of thing happens."

"Well, yeah," he conceded. "It's unfortunate for him. But you take that chance."

The callousness of his friends—their car-crash curiosity—didn't upset Gareth. Truth is, he probably would have said the same if it had been one of them.

As the medics lifted him into the ambulance, Gareth gave his mates two thumbs up, pumping his arms in the air. "I'm sound as a pound," he shouted.

Unfortunately, his mother didn't know that.

Barbara had watched the debacle from a distance, through binoculars—she didn't think Gareth would run, but she didn't want to miss it if he did.

To her horror, the boy in the black T-shirt flopping down the hillside looked a lot like her son. "I had a feeling it was him—call it mother's instinct."

Mortified, she ran the uphill mile from her home to the racecourse in a matter of minutes.

The medics assured her that Gareth was all right, and Craig Carter soon joined him in the ambulance, having injured both his ankles.

Gloucester hospital had refused to accept cheese-rolling casualties—on the grounds that their wounds were self-inflicted—so the two teens were carted off to Cheltenham instead.

©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 9: It Was Just As If His Leg Wasn't There

There wasn't any danger of lightning this time round, though.

A drought had baked the slope rock hard beneath the deceptively green carpet covering the hill.

Ideally, Gareth would have spent the afternoon limbering up like all the other cheese chasers did—by downing pints in the pub.

But he had to work that afternoon, so he went straight from his job to the hilltop.

A local TV reporter was interviewing runners at the starting line.

One of Gareth's friends, Craig Carter, had finished fourth the previous year. "I think I'm gonna win it this year," he told the camera, brimming with confidence.

Gareth, on the other hand, looked awkward, his wide-set eyes ducking and diving as the reporter asked him why he was taking part.

"Summink to do," he shrugged, flashing his braces. "It's a good laugh, runnin' down there."

"How are you going to avoid hurting yourself?"

"I dunno—I'm not."

Another grin: the recklessness of youth.

Whereas old pros leaned back as they ran, Gareth bolted headlong down the incline, leading the pack at the start. Hey! I'm still standin' up! he thought. I'll be alright here—I'm miles ahead!

But suddenly the hill flattened out, and he slipped, pitching him into a somersault that banged his head.

Hurtling downhill, he did half a dozen side rolls, his right foot hitting the slope with every turn until his legs flopped beneath him like a messy pretzel.

After a final back flip, he landed at the bottom, only yards from the finish line.

Determined to win, he got on all fours and started crawling, but his right leg gave way.

My shoe's come off—I'll just keep goin'.

He tried to get up again—so close!—but then he collapsed. He didn't feel any pain; it was just as if his leg wasn't there.

"Then I could tell it was a bit more—a bit more than that," he laughs. "So I stayed there and thought I'd better not try to crawl any further."

©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 8: Jinxed from Cheese Rolling

As crippling mishaps go, it would be hard to top Gareth Smedley's.

When he was seven, his family went to watch the race on a hot Bank Holiday Monday in 1982.

Rather than jostle with the crowds, they decided to watch from a field further down the slope.

Just as the Cheese Roll began, though, a storm broke. The Smedleys and another family ran for cover under a tree.

In hindsight, it was a stupid thing to do—but as his dad said, "It always happens to someone else, doesn't it?"

There was no bang or flash when the lightning hit.

Gareth's mother, Barbara, woke to find herself lying in the wet field, dazed and unable to move. A bomb's exploded! she thought.

But then she looked up and saw the races continuing as normal. That's when she realised: both families had been blown several feet from the tree, forming a ring of bodies around the trunk.

None of them could get up—the electricity had contracted their muscles so violently their limbs were useless. Her husband had a singed spot on his leg, and little Gareth had a hole burnt in his T-shirt where he had been leaning against the tree.

Someone alerted the medics, and they were rushed off in an ambulance. All eight of them were released later that day, but it was a full week before they fully recovered.

Barbara has been wary of Cooper's Hill ever since. "I felt that we were jinxed from the cheese rolling."

If only Gareth would have listened.

Every year he and his friends would watch the race, and every year he would tell his mother he was going to run in it. Somehow, though, his youthful bravado had never materialised into action.

So when he told her at the age of 17 that he was going to do it, Barbara didn't believe him. Little did she know that he had secretly taken a test run the night before and made it to the bottom without a scratch.

"I was gonna win all three cheeses, wasn't I?" he recalls, grinning.

Despite his confidence, the timing of his debut didn't bode well—it happened to be the 10th anniversary of the Smedleys' first ill-fated experience on Cooper's Hill.

©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 7: Perhaps We Were a Bit Thick

Still, some of the injuries are just as bad as they look.

And cheese chasers aren't the only ones at risk; bystanders have also been hurt—by out-of-control runners… and bouncing cheeses.

Rob Seex does his best to make sure the VIPs who roll the eight-pound Double Gloucesters aim for a midpoint at the bottom of the hill, which, whether by coincidence or not, lies right next to the media's bullpen.

"This year there was a camera stand there, so I said aim for that," the emcee smiles.

"But if the cheese hits a bump in the wrong place, it can take off and it can go well up in the sky."

Iris remembers dodging the cheeses as a child.

"Nowadays everybody gets a bit paranoid about the cheese. But in the old days, you didn't seem to worry about it—perhaps it was just that we were a bit thick; we didn't realise then that it would hurt!"

And then some.

By the time they hit the bottom, the cheese wheels are spiralling unpredictably at up to 70 miles an hour.

"That's gotta be a bit of a whack," says Jason, whose mother was hit in the leg by a hurtling cheese. "She had a humongous bruise and couldn't walk for a couple of weeks."

More recently, a spectator banged his head and fell 100 feet down the slope after trying to dodge a wayward cheese.

Fortunately, he didn't suffer the same fate as a fabled bystander from long ago.

His epitaph read:

Here lies Billy, if you please
Hit in the stomach with a cheese
Cheese is wholesome fayre, they say

* * *
©J.R. Daeschner

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