Chase the Cheese: Testing Gravity at Cooper's Hill

Every year a bunch of fearless men and women hurl themselves down a near-vertical English hill in pursuit of a giant rolling cheese. Although gravity ensures they all make it down the slope, not all competitors do so in one piece.

It sounds like a fabulous recipe for bodily harm: Find the steepest hill you can, sprint down it until gravity takes over, and then tumble and bounce until you get to the bottom.

Sounds dumb, doesn't it? Now, imagine that you are pitching yourself down this 200-meter-long hill in order to chase a rolling wheel of cheese. Dumb has now turned to asinine. And when it comes to traditions, asinine often means reality.

Welcome to the Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling and Wake, an event held in the English countryside near Gloucester every May. Dozens of contestants from all over the world participate with the object of the event to catch the wheel of cheese -- which has a slight head start -- before it gets to the bottom.

Running, of course, is the preferred method of chase. But with the hill steep enough that running humans soon end up tumbling out of control down the hill -- and with the cheese reaching speeds of 70 miles per hour (113 kph) -- the victor is deemed to be the first to reach the bottom.

Some of the runners, of course, don't stay at the bottom long. Instead, they are carted off straight to the hospital. This year's race at the end of May was no exception: nineteen competitors were hurt, with one of them being carried away on a stretcher.

But this year's injury tally was by no means a record: that dubious honor belongs to the competition held in 1997 when 33 of the competitors suffered some kind of injury -- a collection of sprained ankles, broken bones or concussions. Luckily for the walking wounded and the more seriously hurt, help is always at hand: several ambulance crews attend the event each year to offer first aid or ferry people to hospital. Thousands of spectators come to watch.

Just how and when this odd observance came into being is unknown, but in one written record from 1836, the cheese race was mentioned in connection with the author's great-grandfather -- meaning, as race organizer Richard Jeffries told SPIEGEL ONLINE, that the event was up and running as early as the mid-18th century.

Jeffries, though, says that many think it could be an ancient tradition based on the summer solstice -- with the wheel of cheese being a symbol of the sun. Some claim it originated in Roman times.

Whatever its origins, the Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling race has become an international affair. Among this year's contestants were people from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

And the prize for risking life and limb? The winner of each race -- there are heats for men, women and children -- gets to walk away with the cheese, a roughly 4 kilogram lump of Double Gloucester.

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