EXCEPT among athletes and college men, interest in the minor athletic sports is, comparatively, confined to so few people that it would not be strange if many young Americans had never seen, nor even heard of, a hurdle race. Hence, perhaps, it is advisable to begin by briefly describing one.
As the name implies, the race is run over hurdles. The hurdle is of wood, and consists of two uprights and a cross-bar. This cross-bar is either two feet six inches or three feet six inches from the ground, according to the distance to be run. The longer of the two distances commonly run by hurdlers is two hundred and twenty yards, and for this the hurdles are two feet six inches high; the shorter distance is one hundred and twenty yards, with the hurdles three feet six inches high. There are generally ten hurdles, which are set across a track, or path, made either of fine cinders or of turf. When arranged for the race, these ten hurdles are technically known as a "flight." The contestants are drawn up in a line a few yards from the first hurdle, and at a given signal they run and jump each hurdle in -succession, the one who first reaches the finish-line being the winner.
* Herbert Mapes, of the class of 1890 in Columbia College, was drowned while bathing in the surf at Fire Island, in the summer of 1891. He was a young man of rare promise, distinguished in his college, and much beloved by his classmates and a wide circle of friends. His record for scholarship and in athletics was equally high, and his work at the hurdles was almost phenomenal. This article on hurdling, written by him, is here reprinted by permission of his father, Mr. Charles V. Mapes, and of the St. Nicholas magazine, in which the article originally appeared.
Now, hurdling, being merely a combination of running and jumping, might appear to require no special ability. Some people foolishly believe that any boy who has long legs must be a fast runner; and, more reasonably, those of better judgment might be led to infer that a good runner and jumper must necessarily be a good hurdler. But experience has shown that this is not the case. Not every good runner and jumper makes a good hurdler; and, strangely enough, some of the most celebrated hurdlers have been neither very fast runners nor exceptionally good jumpers. For, besides skill in running and jumping, other qualities are necessary; and it is in these that the true genius for hurdling seems to lie. Without special skill, which can come only after long practice, success in hurdling is not to be attained.
The Finish of an Intercollegiate Hurdle Race. (From an instantaneous photograph by A. H. Mostly, of Yah.)
It is difficult with few words to make clear in just what this skill consists, or why so much practice is necessary. Perhaps the best way to explain matters is to indicate some of the difficulties that appear before the new hurdler when he begins his training. Suppose, for instance, he is training for the shorter race of a hundred and twenty yards, where the hurdles are three feet and six inches high, and are set ten yards apart.
Like all other athletes, the hurdler must undergo a regular course of training in order to acquire strength and endurance; but from the very beginning he concentrates his attention more especially upon his "style." The first particular to be considered is, naturally, the manner of jumping over the hurdle. As the race is one of speed, it is of great importance for him to learn to clear the hurdles with as little room to spare as possible.
He must learn to "take" the hurdle without changing his stride or stopping his speed, - in such a way that jumping the hurdle comes as near as possible to running over the hurdle. With this end in view, he sets up a single hurdle and betakes himself to practising the jump. When in this he has succeeded to his satisfaction, he sets up two hurdles, and practises taking them in succession. And here a new and very important question arises.
The hurdles are ten yards apart; and after he has jumped the first and run to the second, he very often finds himself coming before it with his wrong foot foremost. In order to jump, he must slacken his pace and change his stride. Here is a difficulty. He must devise some way of jumping the hurdles in succession without hesitating between them. There are two or three methods of doing this, though one method has come to be regarded as the right one.
In the first place, he may practise jumping from the wrong or awkward foot, and so be prepared to jump in whichever way he may come to the hurdle. But the hurdles are too high to make this plan practicable, and it is generally abandoned after a few days' trial. (It is, however, only in the shorter race that the hurdles are so high as to prevent this method from being successful. The low hurdles, two feet six inches high, used for the longer race, have been jumped from alternate feet with notable success by A. F. Copeland, the American champion.)
With the high hurdles there is but one good method. A hurdler must either shorten his natural stride and learn to take five steps between hurdles, or he must lengthen it considerably and take only three. In either case he is brought to the sue-cessive hurdles with the same foot. But taking five steps makes the stride too short to allow of fast running; and, although many of the poorer hurdlers have used this method, it cannot be regarded as successful. So there is nothing for the hurdler to do but continually to practise taking three long strides, until this becomes natural to him.
Even when the hurdler has learned to jump low and fast, and to take three strides between the hurdles, the development of "style" is hardly more than begun. There are a thousand and one requirements in the turn and twist used in the jump; and it is in the methods of taking the hurdle that the marked differences between advanced hurdlers are shown. Here the individuality of each hurdler asserts itself. After he has attained a certain degree of proficiency, his attention is confined almost wholly to perfecting his "turn," the aim always being to clear the hurdle as closely as possible without interfering with speed or stride