Trinity Great Court Run: The Facts

From the journal “Track Stats” Volume 27 number 3 November 1989, pages 19-22

The release of the film “Chariots of Fire” in 1981 brought to the attention of a wider public a hitherto little publicised endeavour, namely attempting to run round the perimeter of the Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge within the time taken for the College clock to strike twelve. The cinematic treatment was, of course, not entirely factual and further inaccuracies were published on the occasion of the most hyped, only televised, but nevertheless ultimately unsuccessful, attempt by Messrs Coe and Cram (on 29 October 1988). Some notes, as accurate as I can make them, on this peculiar event might be of interest to the sophisticated readership of Track Stats.

(1) The distance. Trinity Great Court contains six rectangular plots of grass, edged with raised cobbles, or in places by kerbing. These plots together form a larger rectangle, and it is around the outside of the combined rectangle that a Great Court runner must proceed. The distance around this rectangle, measured hard up against the edging, is 298 meters, but of course no runner could keep so close; furthermore the ground surface immediately outside the edging is cobbled, and not easy on the feet. About 5 meters out from the edge (although this distance is not maintained exactly all the way around) is a flagstone path. The distance around this path, measured at the inside edge of the flagstones, is 341.6 meters. It is difficult (as Coe and Cram discovered) to keep to the flagstones, because of the four right angled corners. A compromise route involves keeping to the flagstones for most of the four straights, but cutting inside, on the cobbles but outside the grass, at the corners. This route measures a minimum of 320 meters.

(2) The time. Trinity College's clock bells mark twelve by ringing a “preamble" of 8 short notes (taking about 9 seconds) and then striking 12 at one pitch (about 15 seconds), followed by another 12 more slowly and at a higher pitch (about 20 seconds). The overall time taken by the bell, from the first note of the preamble to the initial sound of the thirty-second and final stroke, is currently 42.5 to 44.5 seconds. Qualifications concerning the time taken by the bell are important, because it has to be understood that the clock's mechanism is variable and not altogether predictable. The present clock was installed in 1910, by a bequest from the first Lord Grimthorpe, and incorporates features of his own design. It was intended then to set it to take 47 seconds to mark 12 o'clock, which was the normal time of the clock it replaced, but in fact it began its life taking nearer 49 seconds to do so. Timings between the two World Wars are not known, but indirect reports suggest that the earlier "long~ times changed, after a repair, to shorter ones, closer to those of the present day. The 1927 striking time was, judging from Lord Burghley's finishing time, about 44.5 seconds. Roberts, however, writing at about the same time, said that the clock took 43 seconds. Accurate measurements in June 1982 gave 44.6 to 45.2 seconds, and in January 1984 44.8 to 46.5 seconds. After a renovation in 1986 some much faster times were noted (as short as 42.5 seconds), and a little later the clock stopped and required repair. In summer 1988 the timings were 43 to 45 seconds, still variable and unpredictable; in summer 1989 the range was 42.5 to 44.5 seconds. A factor in the time variations has recently been shown by the present Master, Sir Andrew Huxley, to be the state of winding of the clock, the time being shorter when the clock is fully wound. Temperature and humidity may also have an effect

(3) The strategy. There are three important considerations in any attempt at the Great Court run: what route to take, where to begin (and obviously therefore to end) and whether to run at midday or at midnight (i) On the matter of route, it may be supposed that the “gentlemanly” choice would be to keep to the flagstones, but I believe that all those who have ever succeeded in the attempt have “cut the corners” to a greater or lesser extent. A high speed “corner cutting” run will usually cover more than the minimum 320 meters, because of centrifugally veering wide on the straights. (ii) The most favourable position to start is at a corner, because then only three further corners have to be negotiated before a runner returns to his starting location (on some runs this was marked by a coin left on the ground). But Burghley's run began at the Hall steps, two thirds of the way along the western straight, making his effort appreciably more difficult. Coe and Cram made things even worse by starting in the middle of the shorter northern straight, in front of the Chapel. (iii) A decision on whether to run at midday or midnight may depend on external considerations. Television required midday in 1988; College gate hours probably demanded midday for David Burghley in 1927 because, as a Magdalene man, he could not legally have been in Trinity at midnight (incidentally, at this point it may be noted that Harold Abrahams was an undergraduate at Gonville and Caius College from 1919 to 1923 and was therefore not a contemporary of Burghley, who was up from 1923 to 1927; Abrahams never essayed a Great Court run). The attempts, successful or unsuccessful, by Trinity undergraduates have been almost always at midnight, often following a formal dinner, for example the Commemoration Dinner in March, and therefore frequently in (partial) evening dress. In the 1950s the run was usually anticlockwise, starting in the south-west corner, near Bishops Hostel (as far away from the Great Gate, and from interference by the Porters, as possible). More recently, and since the liberalisation of College gate hours, midnight after-dinner attempts have continued, including mass efforts after Freshmens' dinners and other premeditated or unpremeditated assaults by groups including non-Trinity men. Midday attempts would normally be very difficult because of the tourists, and would also be thought rather presumptuous.

(4) The results. Prior to 1910 any runs against the clock may have been something of a lottery. The pre-Grimthorpe clock was installed by Richard Bentley during his Mastership (1700-42), and towards the end of its life was taking about 47 seconds to mark twelve. But it is reported to have varied in its striking time from 37 to 52 seconds, so some successes must surely have occurred. A letter writer to the Times (9 September 1938) recalled that “those of us who periodically foregathered at the (Trinity) Annual Gathering dinners in June will well remember how that fine athlete, the late Hon. Alfred Lyttelton, often used to run round the Great Court while the clock was striking (twice over) the midnight hour on those occasions - no mean feat”. Alfred Lyttleton gained five Blues at Cambridge (but his only athletics one was for throwing the hammer) in 1874-78, played cricket for England in the 1880s and became Secretary of State for the Colonies - his exploits around the Great Court are thus likely to have been near the end of the nineteenth century. At much the same time Walter Morley Fletcher (Trinity 1891-95, High Hurdles Blue 1895 and later Sir W.M. Fletcher F.R.S.) also succeeded in performing the Great Court run but “allowed himself to cut corners on the cobbles and did not restrict himself to the flagged path”. It was the Master of Trinity, J.J. Thomson, who probably gave Lord Burghley the idea for his attempt, by remarking to him at the beginning of June 1927 that “it had been an exploit to run round the court, without leaving the flagstones to cut off the corners, at twelve o'clock; but that repairs had been made to the clock, speeding up the striking, and he doubted if it were still possible” (Cambridge News, 21 April 1981). S.C. Roberts' book, “The Charm of Cambridge”, was published in 1927, and the author says there that Trinity Great Court “is associated with certain traditional tests of athletic capacity. One of these, only rarely accomplished, is to run round the court (outside the grass plots) while the clock strikes midnight. It is true that the striking is an elaborate process, involving 32 strokes and occupying 43 seconds, but the distance is about 380 yards (i.e. 347 meters), and the track is a cobbled one with sharp corners”. It seems unlikely that Roberts, when he wrote, could have known of Burghley's run, so his remarks, together with those of Thomson (who almost certainly knew of Fletcher's exploit), show that successful runs prior to 1927 had been made and were recollected. Lord Burghley's own run, authenticated by a number of reputable witnesses, was at midday on 7 June 1927. His time was 42.5 seconds, and his diary reports that he had just over a stroke to spare (so the clock took about 44.5 seconds). He ran in shorts, began at the foot of the Hall steps, and ran on the flagstones. He recalled later that ~sticking to the slabs was very difficult. You had to just about stop at the corners and start again~ (Sunday Times, 23 October 1988). There is a suggestion that he may have "hurdled each of them, slightly cutting each corner~ (Athletics Weekly, 4 November 1988 and comments from one of the witnesses). Burghley himself believed that his run was not the first, but that he had been preceded by someone many years earlier (presumably this was Fletcher). Lionel Elvin, who won the Varsity match 880y in March 1927 and was a contemporary of Burghley's on the CUAC committee, tells me that the 1927 run became reasonably well known at the time, and was briefly written up in the “motley notes” column of “The Granta” of 10 June 1927, but did not stimulate any particular attempts to repeat it. Around 1950 (Cambridge News, 15 November 1988) midnight attempts at the run by Trinity men were not uncommon; but some of these were only aimed at touching all four sides of the Court within the clock's time, a rather lesser achievement. During the 1950s and 1960s several post-dinner corner-starting and corner-cutting runs are known to have succeeded, occasionally by margins as great as Lord Burghley's. And at least one midday run (on 21 March 1950 in 43 seconds by Gordon Jones - Sunday Times 6 November 1988) was also successful. In the 1970s and 1980s there were also successful runs, but the mass attempts in the post Chariots of Fire years have only produced failures, because of mutual interference amongst the runners. Light relief has often been provided by those who believe that extra conditions need to be imposed, such as the Harvard University Rugby team's nude attempt in March 1976. Sebastian Coe's time on 29 October 1988 was reported by Norris McWhirter to have been 45.52 seconds, but it was actually 46.0 seconds (confirmed by the video tape), while Cram's was 46.3 seconds. The clock on that day took 44.4 seconds (i.e. a “long" time, probably two days after the last winding) and the video film confirms that Coe was some 12 meters short of his finish line when the fateful final stroke occurred. The television commentators were more than a little disingenuous in suggesting that the dying sounds of the bell could be included in the striking time, thereby allowing Coe's run to be claimed as successful. Trinity men know different.

(5) The ancillaries. The Great Court run is not the only challenge offered by the largest court in an Oxbridge College. The “Caucus Race” involves circumnavigating all six of the grass plots individually and in all their rectangular combinations with other adjacent plots. The total distance covered is substantial, and it requires a mathematical brain to plan; it is mainly the province of the Archimedeans and may take much of an afternoon, with refreshments, although it has been accomplished in 14 minutes or less. And Whewell's Leap requires the ability to jump up the eight Hall steps in one bound - the distance is about 2.75 meters horizontally and 1.2 meters vertically. The Marquess of Exeter is also claimed to have been the first to succeed at this (although Roberts again knew of it).......... I am grateful to Mr. Henry Button for access to his great fund of knowledge of this and other matters, to Drs. Richard Glauert and Brian Mitchell for much pertinent information, and to the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge, for the award of a Scholarship (1957).

Christopher Thorne