Hares, Hounds, and an Unlikely Superfan

It’s been about two hundred years since the students of the Shrewsbury School in England invented a new game in which they pretended to engage in an epic rabbit hunt. A couple of students took off running through whatever winding path they wished, carrying with them scraps of paper to drop along the way and lay down a trail. These were the hares.

This guy looks like he’s ready to catch
some rabbits. R.H.Moore: All about dogs; a book for doggy people New York,J. Lane,1900. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/
item/75529, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After giving the hares about a ten-minute head start, the next wave of students took off in hot pursuit, doing their best to follow the paper trail “scent” and locate their prey, like good “harriers.” These hounds were usually the younger of the remaining students because older, bigger students rarely tolerate being referred to as dogs.

At last came the field. These were the oldest students who really got their wriggle on and went in for the metaphorical kill. At least I assume it was metaphorical. The whole thing was designed to resemble the traditional hare or fox hunt. It was also a pretty good way to get some exercise.

In general, I approve of exercise and as I’ve mentioned once or twice before I have an almost irrational hatred of rabbits, so it might seem like this game would be right up my alley. Except that it isn’t, because I also have an entirely rational hatred of running. I’ve mentioned that once or twice, too.

The game of “hare and hounds” (referred to sometimes as “paper chase”) certainly does require a lot of running. In fact, it wasn’t long before this game became a competitive sport at public schools throughout England and soon after Oxford and Cambridge. By 1876 the sport held an English national championship.

Ok, no there weren’t really 25,000 athletes. But it was a lot. And not one of the runners you can see in this picture is my son.

Eleven years later it had come to the United States. By then the imaginary rabbit had long been abandoned and the sport had become known as cross country. Today it shows up all over the world with lots of crazy people (referred to sometimes as “runners”) who just run through the countryside. For fun, I guess.

It’s definitely not my kind of sport, but I have been working on becoming a superfan because my youngest son has decided he would like to spend his high school years as a crazy person. He started this past spring surprising me, and possibly himself, by deciding to run distance events in Track & Field. Turns out he’s pretty good at it, and improving rapidly.

I, however, have discovered that cross country is a difficult sport to spectate. His first meet of the schoolyear occurred earlier this week at a very crowded park with what felt like about a thousand other schools, each with at least twenty-five runners. I exaggerate, of course, but only because I rarely could pick out my son in the pack.

I may not love running, but as long as I bring one of these to the meet, my son is happy enough to grant me superfan status.

I lined up with thousands (probably) of parents along the start and saw a mass of runners take off. I really can only assume he was among them. Then I shuffled along with the crowd to another part of the course, held up my camera to catch a picture of him running past, and failed to find him before the horde of spectators began once again to shuffle into a new place and I missed him again.

I did see him cross the finish line, right at his goal time for the event. I caught up with him afterwards to give him his special sport recovery drink I’d been keeping cold for him and to tell him how comfortable he had looked on the course. I assume that was probably mostly true since he was smiling. At least it seemed like the kind of thing a superfan parent should say.

I really am proud of him, though I’m not sure where he got his love for the sport. It’s probably safe to assume that is wasn’t from his mother who mostly thinks running is stupid. But just maybe it stems in part from a shared innate drive to hunt down rabbits.

A House Divided

In the first century, Pliny the Younger wrote from Rome to his buddy Calvisius in order to defend himself. Apparently Calvisius had previously questioned Pliny about his determination to stay inside and study his books while living in the most exciting city in the world. Pliny’s response, roughly translated into modern English, was: “Ew. Sportsball.”

The Younger Pliny Reproved, colorized copperplate print by Thomas Burke (1749–1815) after Angelica Kauffmann; c. 39 x 45 cm, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I admit that may not be my finest translation work, as he did go into a little bit more detail than that. In the letter (9.6), Pliny expressed his complete failure to understand how grown men could be so obsessed with athletes standing up in their chariots and being dragged around by horses. But what was even more perplexing to him than that was the dedication of these same grown men to a particular color of uniform, to the point that, he claimed, if the charioteers were to trade colors mid-race, they would also end up trading fans.

He probably wasn’t wrong. Chariot racing was big business in Ancient Rome and had been for hundreds of years. The sport was organized into different stables or factions that competed to obtain the best charioteers, who then often coordinated to help one another win. There are references in historical writings to at least six different factions that existed at one time or another, each represented by a color. The main four seem to have been Red, White, Blue, and Green, with Blue and Green eventually having become the most dominant and even serving as a flashpoint in the bloodiest riot in history.

Charioteers in the red tunics of their faction from the Charioteer Papyrus (c. 500), Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Fans of the races, which was pretty much every Roman except for Pliny the Nerd, were exceptionally dedicated to their faction, and I kind of get it. I mean, I’ve never watched a chariot race and I don’t consider myself a huge fan of sportsball in general, but any baseball player who wears a Cardinals jersey is my favorite baseball player until he’s traded to another team and becomes more or less dead to me.

The human desire to rally around and lift up a team seems pretty ingrained to me. I’m sure I could do a deep dive into the history and psychology of that phenomenon, but I don’t really have the time. My life just got a whole lot busier, because suddenly it’s sports season at my house.

My sons are now both in high school (a freshman and a junior) and for the first time this spring, both will be participating in high school sports. Both are on the track & field teams for their schools, which because of the complications of rapid community growth and district expansion, are completely different schools. Fortunately, my sons do different events so they will not be in direct individual competition with one another, but because track meets tend to be large, regional events, their schools will often be competing at the same meets.

I have tried to explain to my children that running is stupid, but here we are. 12019 via Pixabay.

Of course, there is a friendly rivalry between both my sons and their schools. One school has well established sports programs with a history of successes. The other has a shiny new facility in which to train the very first athletes that will ever wear the jersey. And of course, each school has its own mascot and school colors. The question is: how is a mother to show her support for each of her children when her house is divided?

It turns out I have a friend who has a gift for creating custom tee shirts. We’ve gone back and forth a couple of times about the design, with my children weighing in when they thought one school was getting more emphasis than the other. I think we’ve figured out something that will work. I don’t have it yet, but it will include the names of each school in that school’s colors, a heart, and the words: “A House Divided.”

I’m not sure the average Ancient Roman sportsball enthusiast would approve, but perhaps Pliny the Younger would. He’d probably also approve of my plan to take a book for the hours and hours of track meet time in between cheering at my sons’ events. But he still probably wouldn’t come to watch.

Speaking of boring track meets and books: March 6th is the first day of “Read an Ebook Week,” which I recently discovered is a thing. To celebrate, I’m giving away five ebooks. If you sign up by midnight (CST) on March 12th to receive my email newsletter (which I promise will not clog your inbox), you will be entered to win the ebook of your choice. Well, as long as it is one of the four written by me.

Sign up at this link: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1

Or if you are one of the handful of wonderful people already receiving my infrequent newsletter, you can still enter. Just drop me an email at s_angleton@charter.net to let me know you’d like to participate.