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Great Court Run reverts to tradition

Trinity Freshers limbering up for the annual Great Court Run on 14 October will be in for some tight corners.

This year the tradition will revert to – well, the original tradition of running on the flagstones, after Trinity Fellows in Engineering, Dr Hugh Hunt and Dr Joan Lasenby, put their feet down against running on the cobbles!

It is a Trinity tradition on Matriculation Day each October for Freshers to try to run the perimeter of Great Court before the Trinity Clock strikes noon, which it does twice. (Since the eighteenth century Trinity’s Clock has chimed twice, first on a low note and then on a higher note.)

In recent years, students have leapt across the corners and run across the cobblestones. Dr Hunt said:

As of this year, the tradition of running only on the flagstones will be respected, a distance of about 341 metres. Corner cutting reduces the distance to about 297 metres and makes the process of taking the four corners faster.

We think it is time to return to the original race and to reset the ‘not on the cobbles’ message. Serious runners will run anticlockwise, starting from beneath the Clock Tower.

Cones and barriers will be placed in Great Court’s four corners to keep runners on the straight and narrow, and race adjudicator, Dr Lasenby, herself a Cambridge Blue in cross country running, will keep a strict eye on competitors this year.

This isn’t intended to spoil the fun. For decades there have been two runs, the serious and fun runners – the latter often in fancy dress. There are prizes for the fastest woman and man in each category. Dr Hunt said:

I have seen a hippopotamus in the past. The fun runners can do what they like. But we’d like the serious runners to revert to what used to be the norm, and stay off the cobbles. That’s what Lord Burghley did.

David Burghley, formally David George Brownlow Cecil, 6th Marquess of Exeter, was Britain’s leading hurdler in the 1920s, winning two Olympic medals and numerous Amateur Athletics Association titles. In 1927, in his final year at Magdalene, is thought to have been the first person to run around Great Court – on the flagstones – before the Clock struck 12. The feat inspired the scene in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire (which was shot at Eton College).

Speed is not the only factor in the Great Court Run. The clock strikes noon twice in about 48 seconds but, explains Dr Hunt, the weather affects the timing ‘by as much as five seconds between a cold, dry winter’s day and a hot, humid summer’s day.’

The timing of the bells is governed by a spinning ‘fly’ – like a paddle wheel. Its speed depends on air resistance and that depends on air density. Humidity, temperature and pressure all come into this. Between the 1970s and the 1990s the time was more like 43 seconds – I’m not exactly sure why – which led to the habit of ‘cutting corners’, and running on the cobbles.

Another variable is when the Clock is wound.

‘Just after a wind the bells go faster,’ says Dr Hunt. ‘It looks like on the upper layer the range is 45.5 to 49.4 seconds (freshly wound) and on the lower layer it’s 47.5 to 50.5 seconds (4 plus days after winding).’

Dr Lasenby is hoping for a Clock timing of between 46 and 48 seconds. ‘Any student succeeding would then be a top-class 400m runner!’ she said. In the spirit of engineering precision,Dr Lasenby used a measuring wheel to check the distance on the flagstones: it is precisely 339 metres around Great Court.

She and Dr Hunt are meeting on Friday to decide if the Clock should be freshly wound before the race. Students might hope not.

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