New York Times
April 9, 1999

Recipie Calls for Flour


Recipe Calls for Flour, but This Hash Is Far From the Kitchen

The New York Times
April 9, 1999, Friday
Leisure/Weekend Desk
By CHRIS BALLARD

Running on a dirt trail through Inwood Hill Park in upper Manhattan I vaulted over a fallen oak. Landing in front of a puddle, quickly side-stepped it like a running back eluding a tackler, wondering as I did whether I was lost. Scanning the woods as I ran, I spotted a clump of white flour, a beacon amid the mottled carpet of fallen leaves. I was back on track.

I've always considered jogging to be the athletic equivalent of Grape Nuts, good for you but terribly dull. As an ex-college basketball player, I much prefer the free-flowing chaos of a pickup hoops game to the monotony of circling a track. So when a friend said he thought I might enjoy a form of cross-country running called ''hashing,'' I was pretty skeptical. It wasn't until he described the runs as ''a cross between a road race, an Easter egg hunt and a fraternity party'' that I became curious.

Acting on his recommendation, I called the New York City Hash House Harriers, a group of joggers who meet every week to follow a flour-marked trail as it meanders, often looping back upon itself, over four to five miles of Manhattan streets, parks and bridges. At the conclusion of each run the joggers gather at a bar -- sweaty and soiled -- for post-run analysis, food and a lot of beer.

I called Roy Gilbert, a transplanted Londoner who was the approaching run's ''hare,'' the hasher responsible for setting the trail. Mr. Gilbert, a former soccer enthusiast who had converted to hashing after a knee injury, was an affable chap who encouraged me to join the group the next Sunday, assuring me I needed only take along ''running shoes, a sense of humor and $15 for beer.''

Arriving at the start point for the hash outside the 207th Street subway stop on the A train, I joined a group of bare-legged runners who were milling about, basking in the mild weather. Rounding everybody up, Mr. Gilbert explained the trail markings for the beginners.

''Just follow the flour and chalk arrows until you see one of these,'' he said, drawing an ''X'' on the sidewalk with a piece of chalk. ''That means you've reached a checkpoint where the trail will disappear.'' The trick then, he said, is not only to find the trail, but also to find the correct trail: there will also be false trails that end in a floury ''F.''

With that brief introduction, we were off, jogging past Cooper Street north toward Inwood Park. As we passed a pair of basketball courts teeming with young players, I was drawn to the staccato sound of leather on asphalt and fought the urge to bolt over and join the games. Reminding myself that I was here to run, I continued, rounding a corner and slowing as we approached the first checkpoint.

Like satellites, the front-runners broke off from the pack, searching in all directions for the trail. The rest of us idled at the check, calling out, ''Are you?,'' short for ''Are you on the trail?'' After climbing up a hillside path, a fleet-footed hasher gave the green light, shouting: ''On! On!'' The trail located, we followed him up the incline.

If hashing seems a peculiar pursuit for the confined urbanity of New York City, that is because it originated in Kuala Lumpur, in what is today Malaysia, in 1938. As the story goes, a group of British expatriots were hanging out at the Selangor Club, a restaurant known as the ''hash house'' because of its mediocre fare, when they decided that a Monday jog would be a great way to sweat off their weekend hangovers. To spice up the runs they followed a paper trail in the tradition of the English schoolyard game hares and hounds. Afterward, they engaged in enough raucous two-fisted drinking to effectively negate the intended purpose of the run. The idea caught on with other expats in the British Commonwealth and soon spread around the globe. Sixty years later, there are now more than 1,500 hash clubs in more than 100 countries worldwide.

Moving at a brisk pace, we continued on northwest through the park, where, despite a loop in the trail that briefly reunited the leaders with the slower runners, the hilly terrain led to a separation of the pack. Dave Hardy, a 37-year-old software analyst who said he ran the New York Marathon in 2 hours 55 minutes last year, set the pace while a rotund hasher known simply as Timmy brought up the rear.

I ended up somewhere in the middle, and almost lost my way a couple of times as I headed through the woods trying to find the flour markers. Eventually I caught up to a contingent of runners that included Gloria Fu, a 27-year-old real estate agent participating in her second hash. ''I've jogged regularly the last few years,'' she told me as we crashed through piles of leaves. ''But this is a lot more fun, and it's a great way to meet people.'' Her sentiment was echoed by Danny Choriki, 39, a stout hasher laboring behind me. ''Hey, running and beer, what's not to like?'' he said, laughing.

Even though they are all offspring of the same Malaysian ''Mother Hash,'' no two clubs are alike. Some focus squarely on the running aspect and others adhere more closely to the latter part of the founders' vision by quaffing liberal quantities of beer before, during and after their runs. For these groups, the tongue-in-cheek Harriers motto, ''The drinking club with a running problem,'' is an apt description.

The New York City incarnation, which has a number of marathoners and is a relatively ''serious'' hash, was founded in 1984 by Lee Carlson, a veteran of Singapore hashes, and Terry Peek, a fun-loving Australian known as the Pale Whale. They recruited members from the New York Athletic Club for their first hash, which was held in Central Park that first August. Over the years, the ranks have swelled, and summer hashes now routinely draw 60 runners while winter forays attract about two dozen stalwarts. The participants are varied: I ran alongside computer consultants, publishers, brokers, graphics designers and two geologists from the American Museum of Natural History. They vary in age from the mid-20's to the mid-50's, with a heavy concentration of baby boomers.

As we ran we hugged the river bank and curled up onto the Henry Hudson Bridge. Jogging past the toll booths toward the Bronx, we cruised by carfuls of stationary motorists who peered at us from inside their four-door prisons. We probably looked pretty strange to them, but feeling the wind in my hair and the sweat trickling down my neck I was grateful I was out there, enjoying the day, and not trapped in a car. Looking to my left I was afforded a majestic view of the afternoon sun glinting off the Hudson. To my right I enjoyed a look down on the Harlem River as it curved into Manhattan.

The trail quickly veered east after the bridge and we ran down 232d Street past tidy homes, dodging recycling bins and children on tricycles. I kept pace with Vince Cloud, who at 51 is one of the hash's organizing ''joint masters'' hanging back to make sure everyone found the trail. Trim and full of energy, he did not look a day over 40. ''Hashing keeps you young,'' he told me. ''A lot of us use it as a way to blow off steam and relax after a hard week.''

Forty minutes after we began, I arrived at the ''On-In,'' a bar called Pauline's on 236th Street and Broadway that advertised ''the best burgers in the Bronx.'' Inside, next to a sign that read ''Smoking Permitted,'' hard-breathing hashers sucked down glasses of water, poured beers, munched on burgers and discussed the run. The general consensus: a good trail, though maybe a bit short at around four miles.

Sipping a beer, I took stock. My legs were a little sore but I felt pretty good. The hash had not stoked my competitive fires quite the way basketball does; I think I might have preferred a ''live hare'' hash, an alternative version where runners try to chase down a hare who's been spotted a headstart, but it certainly beat an afternoon at the local track. And as I found out, the fun was just beginning.

Once all the hashers had arrived and settled down, Mr. Cloud and David Croft, the other joint master, convened at the bar counter to lead the group in the traditional ''down-down'' ceremony. Singling out the two co-hares, Mr. Gilbert and a giggling woman named Ewa Mobus, they ordered them each to chug a beer. Without hesitation, the two tilted back their cups while the crowd sang, ''Drink it down, down, down!'' The neophytes were next, pulled up to meet a similar fate. I tried to hide in the corner, but to no avail; I was called up twice, once for being a visitor and the second time for surreptitiously ''taking notes during the down-downs.'' I dutifully slugged back the two eight-ounce cups of beer and felt my reporting skills immediately take a turn for the better.

The group shrank as the afternoon wore on, but most of the hashers stayed until 6 or 7 P.M. Talking over beers and thick french fries, I ended up meeting a Scottish first-timer named Bernie, who was a veteran of the Moscow Hash House Harriers, two men who had run together in Bahrain before coming to New York, who said the run had been too fast, and four Englishmen named Dave. One, Dave Hardy, tried to explain the appeal of hashing.

''I've always been a hasher first and a runner second,'' he said while cradling an amber beer. ''Anybody can head out for a run, but it takes a hasher to do it in style.''

Hounding a Hare

Hashes are held anywhere creative hares can lay a trail. In the past, they have run through Central Park, Greenwich Village, Van Cortlandt Park and Times Square. If you are interested in participating, take along $15 in ''hash cash'' and show up at the meeting point on the day of the run. As Phil Kirkland, a Hong Kong hasher, once said, ''If you've half a mind to join the hash, that's all you'll need.''

For times and locations in New York City and Westchester County: (212) 427-4692; www.hashhouseharriers.com is the New York Hash House Harriers Web site with information for hashes in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware.

For travelers in the United States or outside the country, information is provided on the Worldwide Hash House Harriers Web site, www.gthhh.com.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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