Light on your feet or ‘A Hobbit Steeplechase’

This really is as silly as the second part of the title makes it sound. If not more so. I’d also be amazed if anything quite like this has ever been written before. On we go then…

A thought occurred recently while jogging to Euston, specifically after being briefly airborne across part of the forecourt to expidite my way through the masses. It’s important to be light on your feet for steeplechase, as well as just plain light.

Writing this now makes me think of that section from the hobbit, when Gollum, after being leapt over by mister Baggins, ‘threw himself backwards and grabbed’, but Bilbo escaped, and ‘falling fair on his sturdy feet, sped off down the new tunnel’.

If I seem unusually familiar with the verbatim text, it’s because one of my favourite things to listen to growing up was a BBC radio full cast adaptation of Tolkien’s novel. Years have passed, and I’m much better at running, somewhat taller and with many more words in my head, but it’s still among my best loved sounds. I often have it in my ears when I drift off to sleep, or occasionally if I’m immediately cast adrift into sleep after a particularly hard day’s training, in which case I don’t take much in!

Tolkien also spares a moment to illustrate the specific character of Bilbo’s bound: ‘seven feet forward and three feet in the air’. I was trying to work out how this corresponds to the height of the men’s steeplechase barrier (definitely unfair, but I’m sure there’s no specified Hobbit height), and it’s quite a likeness – three feet (assuming six feet as roughly 180cm), comes to 90cm, or almost exactly the right height (that being 91.4cm)

On less slapdash calculation, a foot is twelve inches, and an inch 2.54cm, which would make ten inches 25.4cm, and twelve, or a foot, 30.48cm. Brilliantly that comes to 91.44cm, with the Hobbit clearing the horizontal obstacle by a mere four millimetres! But then again Bilbo is only about three and a half feet tall, so in human terms it’s closer to a high jump than a barrier!

[Edit: just before publishing this, I googled ‘Bilbo height’, as you do, and was rewarded with the information that Hobbits are three feet and six inches on average. I only wish that had come up in a pub quiz, or rather less plausibly, on university challenge. As a segway within a digression, I was only a week and a half ago on a pub quiz team with a champion of said academic trivia program, and felt suitably awestruck.]

Seven feet forward is a fine bound, but equally not to the order of a proper long jump – it’s the equivalent of a human jumping 2.3 times their height, or 4.5 metres, assuming the human is six feet tall. Seven feet would be 205cm, which isn’t enough for the Hobbit to literally clear a water jump, as the water reaches out 3.66 metres from the foot of the barrier. Disappointingly, although our fictional leaper’s vertical deftness is almost flawlessly suited to clearing a normal barrier, he would need to either step on the water jump and prepare for an impromptu bath, or perhaps leap onto and over an airborne competitor, were his timing as impeccable as his airborne height.

Having written this, in the interest of fairness it must be emphasised that Bilbo wasn’t wearing any shoes, running or otherwise, and the surface of the caves under the misty mountains can’t have been the most conducive to either optimal takeoff velocity or absolute fleetness of foot. It seems fair to credit Tolkien’s diminutive protagonist with a bit of extra springiness in respect to height and length on a regular track surface, which may help with that pesky water jump.

To jump over Gollum, assuming it was a leap clean above the ‘miserable and wicked creature’ rather than past or alongside him, with three feet at the apogee of the Hobbit’s jump, (also assuming it was timed perfectly) means that Gollum was probably some combination of: crouching (very possible), in an extremely hunched position (almost certainly, if his posture in the films is anything to go by), and unable to stand to his full height due to malnutrition and all that crawling around in caves and tunnels. I reckon that last bit is almost certain.

In conclusion, both the whimsical abstraction of Bilbo running a steeplechase and the much more narrative bound practicality of leaping over Gollum seem acceptable, within the parameters of such a ludicrous way of passing two half hour tube journeys on a rest day when all I can think about is running! I wrote this last week (on the 31st of January) and subsequently spent most of today’s return leg tidying it up, but no doubt I’ll find further delays in the pipeline somewhere.

I do find the coincidence of the Hobbit’s leap and the barrier height somewhat ominous. Though this might be dismissed by a wiser person as mere happenstance, I can’t help but see it as part of the subconscious preconditioning that has taken me to the precipice of attempting to leap my way to 8:43, and Australia in 2018.

Or perhaps, for those readers familiar with the story, I might be asked a set of riddles to get to the Commonwealth Games, with the price of failure similarly high. I can’t say I fancy being eaten, but it may be that riddle steeplechase has the potential to join chess boxing among the most implausible of combined activities. Or perhaps not. Just as well, I suppose, as any International riddle steeplechase would probably be rightly played in Swahili…