Last Sunday, crowds descended upon Corpus Christi College, eager to enjoy glasses of Pimms, variable weather and, most importantly, the battle between over a dozen thick-skinned reptilian competitors. They had come for the wildly anticipated annual Corpus Tortoise race, with this year’s profits going in aid of the DEC Nepal earthquake appeal.
The race, organised by Corpus’s Arthur Harris, involves a circle of lettuce, at the centre of which stands a phalanx of competitors and trainers. The first tortoise to reach the lettuce is victorious, cementing his or her position in racing history. As in previous years, a human ‘tortoise’ also joins the race, with this year’s entrant hailing from Balliol. To account for their evolutionary advantage, a handicap system requires the human tortoise to eat an entire iceberg lettuce before being able to join the race.
Behind the scenes, while getting in some last-minute training before the event, Wadham’s Archibald Manshella looked astonishingly fast (by tortoise standards). His trainer, Ruby, tells us the key to his training regime: it apparently involves “lots of sunlight for his shell” and being outside as often as possible. Meanwhile Worcester College’s Zoom, winner in two previous years, seemed quietly confident, although upon closer inspection, Zoom was actually asleep. Worcester’s other tortoise, Shelly, also hoped her prowess would make a lasting impression, having grown significantly since the last race. Shelly’s trainer explained that these speedy leopard tortoises can find the event overwhelming – particularly Zoom, who is allergic to lettuce – and have a game plan consisting “more or less of running and finding cover”.
Spectators clamoured to place bets on which tortoise would win, with Wadham’s Archibald Manshella and St. Peter’s Aristurtle proving the most popular with the punters. Due to wet weather earlier in the day, conditions underfoot were treacherous for the competitors, yet the tortoises remained undaunted. As the race began, the tortoises set off at a paint-dryingly fast rate, with Zoom and Foxe racing ahead of the rest. At first, it looked very much as though Zoom would reclaim his title for the third year running, but in the critical final moments, faltered – perhaps due to his allergies or from ‘shell-shock’ – and turned away from the lettuce, allowing Foxe to take the crown.
It was a proud day for Foxe’s tortoise keeper Arthur Harris. He was “absolutely thrilled” by Foxe’s win, and told our reporter that “Foxe himself is speechless”. This result is all the more welcome because Bishop Foxe, after a string of wins in the early 2000s, was disqualified from last year’s competition for attacking another competitor. Zoom limped into second place, and in third place was yet another Corpus entrant, Harry. Fourth position was held by the steadfast Emmanuelle, from Regent’s Park. A valiant effort was also put in by Meg Peyton-Jones, Balliol’s human entrant, who was the first of her kind to successfully complete the lettuce-eating challenge. But after a dazzling comeback, Corpus seem set to dominate the event for the foreseeable future.