November 17, 1994

Hashers follow the long path of history, fun

Hashers follow the long path of history, fun

11-17-1994, pp A74

THIS, CLEARLY, was not the kind of terrain the original chaps envisioned when they blazed the first hash trail among the rubber-tree plantations of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

But Hash House Harriers will run through whatever the local topography has to offer. And in New York City on a recent Sunday the local topography offered city streets filled with puddles and a slippery slope in Riverside Park slickened by mud and scattered piles of dog doo.

"On! On!" a group of hashers shouted as they edged down the slope, nervously eyeing the doggy hazards. In the pouring rain, soggy men and women pooled at the bottom of the hill, walking in puzzled circles, looking for a trail marker. Alarmed by the sudden appearance of this shouting horde, a man clutching a black garbage bag moved through the trees like a rag-tag ghost, looking over his shoulder.

"Are you?" some laggard hashers shouted, just reaching the top of the hill. This is hash shorthand for "Are you on the trail?"

"Checking!" hashers at the bottom shouted back. Then Laird Stiefvater, a seven-year veteran of the hash, spotted a small, chalked arrow on a tree, left there by a "hare" (a fellow Harrier who set the four-mile, zig-zag course through the parks and streets of the Upper West Side).

"On! On!" Stiefvater shouted, resuming the run northward through a clump of trees.

The pack splashed off behind him, relaying the call: "On! On!" The man with the black garbage bag watched the mud-spattered entourage run past - some sprinting, some staggering with exhaustion - and shook his head. On? On?

Groups of Hash House Harriers have been carrying on like this for 56 years, trotting through topographical puzzles set in the rice paddies of the Far East and the deserts of Saudi Arabia and the Outback of Australia - as well as the streets of Rome, Paris and New York. Hash House Harriers run - not race - in 130 countries around the world.

Conceived as a way for British expatriates in Malaysia to blow off steam, hashing mixes elements of running, British hunting tradition and beer swilling, flavored with droll humor, elaborate rituals and a vocabulary all its own.

"What it is," says Bob Kleinberg, a geophysicist who has hashed eight years in Connecticut, Westchester and New York City, "is a subculture."

It grew slowly at first, but in the past decade hashing spread like a contagious tropical disease throughout the world. Today the loosely coordinated organization lists more than 1,200 chapters, or hashes, and approximately 100,000 male and female participants.

About 200 chapters have sprung up in the United States. There are hashes based in Manhattan and Brooklyn and several in Westchester, Connecticut and New Jersey. Each chapter runs once a week, every week, regardless of weather, in packs of about 20 people and up to as many as 70 in the summer.

Hash packs don't advertise or proselytize. People find out about them through friends or co-workers, or sometimes simply by seeing a pack dash by and, out of curiosity, running along.

"You don't join," said Ian Cumming, a British native who began hashing in 1959 at the "Mother Hash" in Kuala Lumpur. He later founded a chapter in Singapore, and then began the first New York area hash in Westchester in 1978. "You either show up, or you don't."

The sport, if you want to call it that, was invented by bored British and Australian expatriates in Kuala Lumpur in 1938. They modified a 19th-Century British game of hares and hounds into a running game devised to give them a reason to work off large meals and frequent hangovers. The name of their informal club came from the "Hash House," which is what they called the Selangar Club, where they took their meals.

The original hashers, including the sainted founder Albert Stephen

Gispert (he was killed in World War II), laid their trails through the rubber trees of the Malaysian peninsula. At the end of their slow, meandering runs they drank copious amounts of ginger beer, sang randy rugby songs and generally carried on disgracefully.

Over the decades, very little has changed other than the admission of women to the once all-male hash world. "It is irreverence that counts," Cumming said. For this reason, he said, the transplant has thrived on American soil.

By design, every hash proceeds along a new, quirk-laden trail; the idea is to go where no hasher has gone before and, whenever possible, to confound and irritate the non-hashing world. "We made a decision early on not to ask permission to run across people's property," Cumming said. "If you ask, some lawyer will become involved and you will be told no. So we don't ask."

Hashers follow trails through a wide range of locations. In the metropolitan area, Harriers have run through the lobbies of expensive New York City hotels, through the streets of the South Bronx, through an abandoned train tunnel in Jersey City, onto the ferry for Governor's Island, and, most memorably, across six lanes of traffic on the FDR. "Not a good idea," Stiefvater conceded.

But whether in the urban jungle or in the Outback, every proper hash follows the same basic design: A trail-setter, or "hare" selected for the day sets a zig-zag route of from three to six miles, marking the route on trees, rocks or telephone poles with chalked arrows and dollops of flour. The pack sets out along the trail, having no idea where it will lead.

The trail has various checkpoints, false trails and loops. Their purpose is to challenge the runners and give slow ones a chance to keep up with the fit. At the checks, the trail stops, then resumes in any compass direction within a radius of 100 yards. False trails are marked with an "F," telling the runners to go back to the checkpoint and search in another direction. Once a hasher locates a marker showing where the trail resumes, he or she shouts "On! On!" and springs off. Often, a member of the pack will sound a hunting horn.

The runners solve the puzzle together, in a cooperative effort. Short-cutting is both allowed and covertly admired. Because the checkpoints periodically stop all the runners in their tracks, sub-three-hour marathoners and beer-bellied joggers usually arrive at trail's end on each other's heels.

"A really good trail has everybody finishing up at the same time," said John Burke, a New York City hasher who picked up the habit in 1983 while working in Nigeria for a French bank. "It also has everybody finishing at a good pub. The most important thing is to find a good pub and work backwards."

The post-run social gatherings, called the "on-on," feature beer drinking, bad food, and singing of old rugby songs with sophomoric lyrics. The degree of outrageousness of the "on-on" varies from mild to considerable, depending on local custom.

In the crowded confines of the New York metropolitan area, the groups are somewhat sedate. Glasses of water are even provided at the "on-on" for those who don't drink or must drive afterward. There are lots of single men and women, and numerous "hash marriages" have resulted. "It's become my social life, and it's a very good place to meet single men," said Katherine Wandersee, a medical writer who's been hashing in Manhattan and Westchester for a year.

Hashing also offers an introduction to out-of-the-way corners of wherever hashers live. "I think we've run on every street in Manhattan at least once," from Wall Street to Harlem, Stiefvater said.

This is hashing's primary appeal: It's just another winding road to camaraderie, a sort of beer-drinking Rotary Club in dirty running shoes. Begun by expatriates, it remains a club for those without a club, and those who are unlikely to join any other.

"To be honest, I don't like running that much, and I don't like singing that much," said Kleinberg, who has hashed everywhere from Paraguay to Austin, Texas. "To me, hashing is a social thing."

Quite right, Cumming said. That's the point of all the carrying on. That, and "providing a sense of adventure."

A semi-retired businessman, Cumming now travels in search of peak hash experiences, hashing in about 20 cities and countries a year in addition to New York. Perhaps the ultimate hash, he said, came during the legendary Philadelphia "interhash" in 1987, during a gathering of hundreds of hash chapters from throughout the U.S. (There's also a World Interhash every two years; the last, in New Zealand, brought together more than 4,000 hashers.)

To spice up the finale of the Philadelphia hash, the "hare" had his little arrows lead a giant pack of 700 hashers into a train tunnel. "Just as the people ran in, a train moved into the tunnel from the other end," said Cumming. "Lights on, clanging away."

Shouts of "On! On!" gave way to a mad scramble to run back out of the tunnel's mouth. "You can imagine the panic," Cumming said, his face lit up with the memory. The train, fortunately, halted before grinding the fleeing hashers into hash. "To this day, nobody knows whether the appearance of that train was arranged or not."

It doesn't matter, of course. What good clean fun!

For more information about hashing in New York, call (212) HASH-NYC.

Copyright 1994, Newsday Inc.

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