Running Outside the Comfort Zone: Cheese Rolling in England

Running offers much more than road racing. In Running Outside the Comfort Zone, sports columnist Susan Lacke explores running in its many shapes and forms, taking on running challenges that scare her, push her, and downright embarrass her.

Enjoy this chapter from Susan’s new book!

Chapter 14

And Jill Came Tumbling After

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LIKE MANY AMERICANS, I had built up a dignified image of England over the years, flush with royalty, posh accents, and afternoon tea with crumpets. The hills would be green and rolling; the countryside, dotted with quaint cottages. The ladies and gentlemen—and they could only be ladies and gentlemen, of course—would be impeccably dressed and overwhelmingly polite.

Nowhere in my image was there a boisterous fellow named Mango. I certainly didn’t envision Mango in little more than a “budgy smuggler.” And I definitely didn’t expect to see the scantily clad Mango bounce, arse-over-teakettle, down a hill.

Then again, nothing about this trip was what I had expected.

I suppose I should have done more research on the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Roll. The event crossed my desk every year, usually in the form of an email from a colleague that read: Get a load of this. A round of jokes would ensue, usually some variation of That sounds gouda and You chedda brie-lieve it. A funny little race in England sounded like a refreshing departure in a sport where athletes sometimes take themselves a little too seriously.

And now I had a chance to actually participate. The premise of the race sounded simple enough: chase an 8-pound wheel of dairy down an incline. I ate cheese all the time. I ran down hills all the time. How hard could this be? I made myself a cheese plate and nibbled away as I booked my flight to England, confident that this was one race I was going to nail.

The closer the race got, the more excited I became. I practiced for it by running a grassy downhill at a playground near my house, and it was fun. The concept of chasing a wheel of cheese down a hill was so bizarre, I couldn’t help but giggle my way through every training session. After all, I was preparing to chase after a dairy product! This was going to be the best race ever.

“I grew up in Wisconsin,” I’d say with a laugh, as I told people about my race plans. “Technically, I’ve been training my whole life for this.” When the customs agent at Heathrow scanned my passport and asked what brought me to London, I smiled coyly and said, “I’m chasing a wheel of cheese down a hill.” And when I checked into my hotel in the Gloucestershire countryside, I asked how far of a walk it was to Cooper’s Hill.

“Cooper’s Hill?” asked the front-desk clerk with an amused smirk. “You’re here to watch tomorrow?”

“I’m here to chase the cheese,” I said confidently.

His face quickly morphed from warm hospitality to grave concern. “Do you know what you’re doing?”

I stammered uncomfortably. Was he messing with me? He had to be messing with me.

“Charlie!” He yelled across the lobby to the hotel bar, where a lone bartender was polishing the wood top. “This lady says she’s doing the cheese roll!”

Charlie looked up from his bar rag, glanced at me, and snorted. “You know what you’re doing?”

“Why are you asking me that?” I replied, smiling, trying not to reveal my slowly building panic.

Charlie snorted again and went back to polishing the bar, but not before announcing, “She doesn’t know what she’s doing.”

I looked back and forth at the two men, confused. What could be so complicated about running down a hill?

“Look,” said the front-desk clerk. “I’m finished here in an hour. Meet me at the bar, and we’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

As it turned out, what I needed to know was that I knew absolutely nothing about cheese rolling. Before I even sat down at the bar, my new friend Trevor, the front-desk clerk, had cued up a photo on his phone from a previous year’s event. It wasn’t a photo of a race, a wheel of cheese, or even the hill itself. It was a foot, facing the exact opposite direction a foot should face on the body.

“Is that . . . ?” I gasped.

“It is,” Trevor replied, clearly proud to have evoked in me a perfect mixture of shock and disgust. I didn’t even know a foot could bend like that.

“Holy shit,” I whispered.

Charlie snorted again. They were right: I didn’t know what I was doing. My crash course in cheese rolling was to begin immediately.

No one is entirely sure how the annual Cooper’s Hill Cheese Roll came about, only that it’s been around for about as long as Cooper’s Hill itself. The landmark, which is located just outside the town of Brockworth in Gloucestershire, is not a quaint, grassy incline. Rather, it’s a steep, gnarled beast of terrain, rising 650 feet at a 50 percent grade. Half of the hill is covered in bumps, and the other half, in deep divots. All of it is covered in mud. Overgrown grasses and shrubs make it difficult to ascertain just where you’ll be stepping.

“But it doesn’t matter,” Trevor said, waving his hand dismissively as he showed me photos of the hill. “You’re falling too fast to control where you’re going, anyway.” He should know—that photo on his phone is of his foot. He’s not sure whether it was a bump or a divot that broke his ankle, only that “it fucking hurt.”

“So, you’re retired from cheese rolling?” I asked.

Charlie, who was listening to our conversation as he pulled pints of beer from the tap, snorted again. Trevor smiled.

“Are you kidding?” asked Trevor. “And miss the fun?”

The next morning, I met Trevor and Charlie in the hotel parking lot, along with several of their friends. Although the cheese didn’t roll until noon, they told me we needed to head over there at 9:00 in the morning. As the event’s reputation grew each year, so too did the crowds; finding a spot to watch the race meant getting there as early as possible. But hours before the event, the crowd was already six deep along the course, leaning into the steep hill like a fun-house mirror.

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Trevor grabbed my arm and began pushing through the wall of people. “Come with me. I’ll get you inside.”

“Inside” meant to the base of the hill, where a wall of hay bales formed a de facto finish line for the cheese roll. It was there that I met Sarah, a chain-smoking ball of sass wearing mud-encrusted galoshes. Trevor introduced her as the organizer but was quickly shushed.

“No one is in charge here,” Sarah whispered with a glare. “We’re just having fun. Yes?”

“Right,” said Trevor, taking the hint. “Yes.”

As it turns out, the organizational structure of the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Roll resembles a game of Hot Potato. In 2009, Gloucestershire police cracked down on the event, saying it was too dangerous and a drain on local resources. That year, more than 15,000 people had packed into the countryside surrounding Cooper’s Hill, overloading police forces and blocking traffic in the rural community. Deep crowds made it hard for ambulances to reach injured competitors, of which there were many. Spectators slipped in the mud, got drunk, and occasionally started fights. It was an undignified embarrassment to the town, they said, and it needed to be stopped.

And it did stop—for one year. But then, quietly, the cheese made its way back to the top of the hill in 2011. The police warned that anyone associated with the cheese roll would be held liable for any injury or issues that arose from the event, so an unspoken agreement was made with the town: No one was officially affiliated with the event. When local cheese makers were threatened with legal consequences for providing wheels of Gloucester for the event, someone anonymously donated wheels of foam “cheese” that technically didn’t belong to anyone. Bales of hay spontaneously appeared at the base of the hill every year. And instead of an organized race, with liability waivers and legal responsibility, anyone who wanted to enter the race could simply walk up to the start line on the top of the hill. No names, no forms, no questions asked. There is no official website with information on the race, yet people from all over the world know to show up at Cooper’s Hill at noon on the third Monday in May. The date and time never change. Google Maps makes Cooper’s Hill easy to find, and if not, a local will point you in the right direction. Most locals are heading there themselves; they would be happy to give you a lift.

There are signs posted all over the hill that warn participants and spectators of the potential for danger at such an event. Apparently, a rolling wheel of cheese can reach speeds of 70 miles per hour (who knew?), and if it misses the bales of hay at the bottom, it’s on the spectators to duck out of the way in time. If you go to the top of the hill, it’s your responsibility to get to the bottom. If you hurt yourself, there are no ambulances on the hill waiting to shuttle you to the hospital. This event is, as the signs declare repeatedly and in bold print, ENTIRELY AT YOUR OWN RISK.

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So who’s in charge of the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Roll? No one. And everyone. Though the event isn’t formally organized by anyone, somehow everyone who needs to be there shows up: Medics go for a stroll with their bags of supplies and stop by to watch (and hope their services aren’t needed). A few locals with megaphones remind people to keep an eye out for flying cheese. And the local rugby team shows up to practice at the base of the hill.

“Wait, the rugby team is practicing here?” I asked, as Sarah  pointed out the men in black-and-white uniforms. “I don’t get it.”

“You will soon,” Trevor replied. By now, I knew better than to question it. I also knew better than to question where he got his pre-race fuel while I was talking to Sarah: a can of Heineken beer in one hand and a can of Thatchers Gold Cider in the other.

“The men start in 20 minutes. Are you heading up?” Sarah asked him. Trevor chugged the beer and crushed the can before starting in on the cider.

“Yeah,” he belched as he turned to climb up the hill. “I’ll give it a go.”

This is the general attitude of cheese rollers. The hundred or so men and women who race every year aren’t hard-core athletes. Some, like the defending champion (a local named Chris), are competitive and train to win. (Cash prize? No. But the winner does get to keep the cheese.) But for most of the competitors, it’s a lark. That’s certainly the case for Mango, a lanky Australian wearing nothing but a bikini bottom, or “budgy smuggler,” and a pair of boots.

“It’s the best!” Mango buzzes excitedly, adjusting his skimpy bottoms before heading to the start line. “I can’t wait.” I can’t tell if his exuberance is fueled by adrenaline or something chemical—maybe both. Mango, who lives in London, drove out to Cooper’s Hill to watch the race last year and ended up entering on a whim. He called it the most thrilling thing he’d ever done. He also found it to be the most painful thing—for weeks, his scrapes and bruises served as both a reminder of his stupidity and a badge of honor. He proudly points out his scars from the previous year’s race.

“So why do the race in . . . whatever this is?” I point at the budgy smuggler.

“Why not?” Mango cackles. “I’m going to get torn up anyway.” He raises his arms in the air and lets out a loud whoop. The crowd responds in kind. Everyone loves Mango, if only for the added layer of absurdity on an already ridiculous event.

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At 11:55 a.m., the Cheesemaster, a man in a top hat who goes by the name Jem, takes the microphone and reminds everyone to watch out for flying cheese. The crowd roars as last call for the men’s competitive wave takes place. If you want to race, get to the top of the hill. If you’re not sure, there will be other waves to join. And if going down doesn’t sound appealing, there’s also a race up the hill—much slower and cheeseless, Jem tells the crowd, but just as fun.

There’s a countdown and then the ceremonial launching of the cheese. The disc, a white wheel the size of a basketball, barrels down the incline, picking up speed as it bounces off the rocks along the way. Also bouncing off the rocks: 20 gentlemen, including Trevor and Mango.

There’s no way to describe the cheese roll other than to say it’s carnage. Within seconds, the men go from running to tumbling, legs and arms akimbo as they bounce down the hill. Occasionally, one will find himself upright for a few steps, only to catch a foot on a rock and cartwheel again. The crowd winces and groans in vicarious pain. As the competitors plummet to the finish line, the members of the rugby team, moving in unison, plant their feet in the mud and crouch down low. No one hits a hay bale—instead, they launch into a brick wall of strapping young men.

“See?” Sarah points matter-of-factly. “Practice.” Apparently, getting roughed up by a bevy of tumbling cheese chasers is excellent training for the rugby scrum.

The winner, Chris, a lean 30-year-old in worn jeans, a colorful shirt, and a buzz cut, has defended his title. In all, he’s won 21 cheese-rolling crowns, making him a hot commodity for local businesses, whose logos emblazon his sponsored shirt to create a tumbling, muddy billboard. He believes he has torn his left calf muscle, though he doesn’t seek medical treatment. Apparently, he’s gotten off easy this year—in past races, he’s sustained a broken ankle, concussions, and kidney damage. Chris directs the medics to several other men crumpled on the ground. Mango is among them. He, too, eschews medical help, sitting up, then standing, then shaking his head as if his brain is an Etch A Sketch that needs clearing.

“Whooo!” Mango raises his arms in victory, revealing a body tattooed by mud and blood. The crowd goes wild. He high-fives the other competitors, including Trevor, who somehow has made it to the bottom in one (very muddy but largely unscathed) piece.

I’m strongly reconsidering doing this race. Someone reassures me that the competitive wave is much riskier than the casual “fun” waves yet to come, but I can’t help but think about what Charlie and Trevor told me the night before: The women’s cheese rolls typically have more injuries than the men’s.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Girls don’t know how to fall” is Charlie’s explanation. “Boys grew up fighting, playing rugby, getting dirty. We know how to take a hit. Do you?”

“I think so,” I said, recalling the many times I’d tripped and skinned my knee while trail running. In training and racing, I had proven that I had a high pain threshold. In fact, I had always thought of myself as a tough cookie. Charlie and Trevor looked at each other with raised eyebrows. They didn’t say it, but I knew what they were thinking: She doesn’t know what she’s doing.

That evening, my crash course in cheese rolling also included a crash course in falling. If I felt myself losing my footing, they instructed, I should try to fall backward into the hill, not forward. Try to land on my bum instead of putting my hands behind me. And if I lost control, I should go limp. “Don’t tense up,” Trevor warned. “It only makes things worse.”

At the time, I thought they were preparing me for the unlikely event I might take a tumble. Now, at the foot of Cooper’s Hill, watching wave after wave of mayhem, I was beginning to see that falling was an absolute inevitability.

I tried to talk myself into doing the cheese roll. I tried to talk myself out of doing the cheese roll. I tried to do something other than freak out behind a bale of hay: Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck fuck fuck.

Finally, I made a compromise with myself: I would go down the hill but not competitively. I’d stick to the side of the course, go slowly, and slide down on my ass if necessary.

As it turned out, several other women had the same plan. While the men were perfectly happy to fling themselves down the hill, the women took a more sensible approach to the cheese roll—namely, one that wouldn’t end in a neck brace. As our wave congregated at the top of the hill, the women organized into two groups: a small-but-competitive group, which included last year’s winner, and the rest of us bucket-listers who were perfectly okay with giving up our right to dairy victory.

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Cheesemaster Jem counted down from 10 and then bowled the wheel down the hill. The competitive women barreled down after it, throwing elbows and shoving each other out of the way. As they landed at the base with concussions and dislocated shoulders, the rest of us held hands and carefully sidestepped down the incline. One by one, we slipped on the mud, squealing as we skidded down the hill. Our rear ends awkwardly and painfully bumped over rocks and divots, yet we couldn’t stop laughing. At the base of the hill, we slid to the feet of the rugby players, who gamely scooped us up and carried us over their shoulders to safety behind the bales of hay, revealing our torn-up backsides to the cheering spectators.

Did I cop out? Absolutely. Joining an ass-sledding flotilla of women wasn’t what I had set out to do. But remember, I originally came to England to drink afternoon tea and jog down a gentle grassy incline. Instead, I got my new friends Trevor and Charlie, double-fisting morning beers and teaching me how to fall. I came for a silly run and would leave with a scar on my butt cheek and the craziest story to explain it. There was no race medal or T-shirt, but as far as souvenirs went, this was a pretty good one.

When I got back to my hotel that afternoon, I threw away my torn, muddy shorts and soaked my bruised rear end in the bathtub. My phone buzzed with a text from Neil.

How was the cheese chasing? Neil asked. Was it everything you dreamed it would be?

Hell, no. I replied. Nothing at all like I expected.

No?

No. It was even better.

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Running offers much more than road racing. In Running Outside the Comfort Zone, sports columnist Susan Lacke explores running in its many shapes and forms, taking on running challenges that scare her, push her, and downright embarrass her.

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