Sunday

Part 3: A Grassy Cliff

When you look down, though, the ground suddenly disappears.

Rather than a gradual incline, the hill drops away at a near 70-degree angle, then quickly shifts to 50 degrees, then plunges again, then levels out, then falls one last time before abruptly flattening out—leaving runners only a few yards to stop before crashing into a cottage fence at the bottom.

The 250-yard racecourse is a short, sharp drop full of dips, bulges, and any number of perils, seen or unseen: long, ankle-twisting grass… patches of slick, decomposing leaves… gravel outcrops lurking under the turf… tufted islands jutting up unexpectedly… eroded foot-traps masked by grass… not to mention big fat Roman snails and the odd duck's nest.

In short, the hill is a natural obstacle course containing just about every impediment Mother Nature could come up with, making it difficult to walk down, let alone run down.

"It's nearly a grass cliff," says Rob Seex, the current master of ceremonies. "It's not quite vertical, but it is steep."

So steep, in fact, that the runners don't dare start the race standing; instead, they sit at the starting line before flinging themselves off the ledge.

There are three men's races and one for women each year. No one ever catches the cheese—the winner is simply the first runner to hit the bottom of the hill.

"The trick is to try and stay on your feet," advises reigning champ Steve Brain.

GPA Images
But very few runners manage that feat. "People literally fly through the air," Seex says. "It just looks insane. You will be amazed that people aren't more seriously hurt than they are."

To clear the casualties, paramedics rely on special rescue equipment, abseiling down the hillside to reach the fallen runners, then strapping them into stretchers and lowering them to the bottom.

For several years, the only group that would perform this service was a team of potholing fanatics—people who crawl into dark crevices for fun. Surprisingly, though, not even these hardcore cavers have ever chased the cheese.

What's more, not even the organisers do it.

Only a few inhabitants of Cooper's Hill (population: 39) have ever braved the event.

Most of the organisers say they're too busy running things to actually run in the race. The emcee claims his height and a back injury prevented him from competing.

"I'm six-foot-two, much too tall. You've got to be nice and short and five foot wide."

©J.R. Daeschner

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