Philadelphia Inquirer
November 25, 1996

When workouts become a chore
It may be time to hash things out



When workouts become a chore, it may be time to hash things out

Philadelphia Inquirer
Health & Science

Monday, November 25,1996.

When workouts become a chore, it may be time to hash things out The sport of “hashing” is “part dash, part bash” -- sort of a cross between a 5K run and “Animal House.” The idea is to put some fun back in to working out.

As post-run gatherings go, this one was mighty strange. The air was thick with cigar smoke and libidinal steam. No one was talking about places or times, splits or PRs. Instead, people were guzzling beer and gobbling tacos and calling each other by raunchy nicknames -- men and women alike.

The event took place at the home of a lanky computer programmer who lives in a modest brick house in a pleasant neighborhood somewhere north of Wilmington. To the rest of the world, he's known as Malcolm Hayes, 63, a soft-spoken, seemingly cerebral man. To his fellow hashers, he was one of the “hares” who'd plotted the devious and diabolical course for the Winter Warmer Hash of the Hockessin Hash House Harriers.

The sport is called “hashing.” It's not for the uptight or squeamish, the terminally earnest or politically correct. It's been called “part dash, part bash,'' part frat party, and part connect-the-dots. It's “Animal House Meets a 5K” -- a rowdy, rip-snorting, rut-boar romp that's like a hunt without animals or guns, a cross-country race without stopwatches, orienteering without compasses, and bar-hopping without guilt.

In short, it's about fun.

If staying in shape and working out have become a grim obsession, one more duty and obligation, just another chore and bore, you need to pick up the phone right now and call the Hash Hotline (302-NEED-FUN).

The Hockessin Hash House Harriers -- H4 for short -- may be your salvation. The outfit bills itself as “the drinking club with a running problem.” “The only rule is that there are no rules,” says Bob Auer, 48, the affable electrical inspector who founded the hash a year and a half ago and serves as its GM, or grand master. “Actually, the only rule that's taken seriously is the one that forbids taking hashing seriously.”

H4 is one of about 200 hashes in the United States (including one in Philadelphia) and about 1,100 worldwide. A degenerate bunch of British soldiers and civil servants is blamed for inventing this perverse pastime in 1938 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, possibly to relieve boredom, possibly to recuperate from weekend hangovers by concocting a weekday excuse to retire to the local hash house to knock back a few. Clearly, hashing's pedigree owes something to fox-hunting, beagling, the English children's game “hare and hounds,'' and the unquenchable desire of kids everywhere, whether age 7 or 70, to search for clues and play in the woods.

At its best, hashing knows no confines or constraints. A typical hash lasts from half an hour to two hours, and may cover from two to five miles. It may meander across field and stream, over the river and through the woods, along railroad tracks, under highways and through storm drains. It may also zigzag through suburban subdivisions, urban ghettos, shopping malls, train stations, and even your local K-mart or the main reading room of the Library of Congress.

H4 is based in northern Delaware and boasts about 150 members. As many as 40 or 50 show up regularly for weekly hashes (Wednesday evenings in summer, Saturday afternoons in winter). “That's a pretty good turnout,” says Auer. “Probably because nobody has a life here.”

The hash is fully coed, and the field for any given hash may include teenagers and grandmothers, lawyers, doctors, stockbrokers, accountants, engineers, students, teachers, professors, housewives, plumbers, carpenters, truck drivers, ex-Marines, and many reformed or recovering SRs -- Serious Runners, those hopelessly compulsive running heads who are addicted to routine and ritual, who log every mile, obsess over every calorie, ache and twinge, who monitor the consistency of their bowel movements and collect and save every race patch or T-shirt.

Many hashers are upstanding white-collar stiffs, pencil-pushing bureaucrats and mortgage-paying suburbanites who relish the hash as a chance to decompress; to shed bourgeois poses, pretensions and affectations; and, generally, to behave in a manner totally without dignity, taste, class or redeeming social value.

Not to mention the undeniable fitness benefits. As one female hasher put it: “I used to drink beer, and I used to run. But I had never done both at the same time, so hashing has definitely changed my perspective on exercise.”

Indeed, hashing is at the cutting edge of current thinking, painlessly combining moderate (?) alcohol consumption and moderate exercise. Add the stress-relieving fun factor, and I ask you: What could be better for your health?

As your health-and-fitness ambassador, I felt duty-bound to experience the benefits firsthand. So I showed up for the Winter Warmer Hash (H4's 88th hash), for which the suggested attire and accessories were cigars, smoking jackets, brandy snifters, cummerbunds, etc. Hockessin hashes often have a sartorial theme, to wit: togas, red dresses (for everybody), bras and boxer shorts (for everybody). I wore a sweatshirt but ornamented my bare neck with a festive bow tie.

It was not the most propitious day for me, inasmuch as I'd just thrown out my back. So keeping up with the pack of “hounds'' -- about 40 men and women hashers showed up at the parking lot of the old Brandywine High School -- was out of the question.

Kindly, Auer, wearing a gaudy flowered shirt (“my Jimmy Buffett smoking jacket''), faded peach swim trunks and torn-up blue tights, agreed to hang back and be my escort, thereby enabling me to learn the fine points of hashing from a true expert.

With hunting horns a-blowing and whistles a-tweeting, the pack set off at an easy pace. We lagged behind, watching for marks left by the hares -- in this case, splotches of flour. Pretty cinchy, I thought. But then we reached an intersection where the flour formed a circled X, and Auer told me about the real fun -- all the false trails and checkbacks that are designed to fool, befuddle, frustrate and generally ensure that the FRBs (Front-Running Bastards) don't zip too far ahead of the pack.

Hashes are vocal, convivial affairs, with the hounds constantly baying “RU'' (as in “are you on the trail?'') and the FRBs bellowing in reply either “checking'' (translation: we're not sure where we are), “looking'' (where are we?), or “On-on'' (full-speed ahead, you slouches and slackers).

Auer and I were so far behind we had to rely solely on visual cues. This became somewhat problematic once we left the pavement and ventured into the wild -- what hashers fondly call “shiggy.'' Here, with my legs cut and bleeding from prickers, brambles and thorns, Auer casually informed me that he can't see too well, that actually, in the woods, in this kind of crepuscular gloom, he's half blind. On the plus side, since he's been hashing for more than a decade (he picked up the sport in Saudi Arabia in 1985), Auer has keen hashing instincts and a sixth sense about false trails and where to look for the next mark.

A good thing, too. I was barely able to walk, the sun was slipping behind the trees, the dusky air was refrigerating, and we had crisscrossed the same muddy creek about 20 times, as my wet, formerly white running shoes amply attested. “Those dogs!” Auer exclaimed several times, partly in annoyance, partly in admiration of the hares' devilish ingenuity. We were so far behind we missed the mid-hash beer stop entirely (a pickup truck with coolers of brew), and when we reached Hayes' house, all the beefy taco filling was gone.

Still, there was a big, boisterous crowd at the traditional “apres” so I had a chance to talk to such die-hard hashers as Barbara Barone, 34, of New Castle, Del., who rhapsodized about hashing in mud so deep she had to use duct tape to hold her sneakers on, and Stan Cherim, 67, of Wallingford, who's run 18 marathons, including one on Mount Everest, but who loves hashing because of the jolly folks and let-your-hair-down camaraderie. “It's such a refreshing change,” the retired Delaware County Community College chemistry professor told me. “No numbers, no starting lines, no finishing chutes, no times. Hashing helps keep me young.”

The Hash Circle, the quasi-religious ceremony that highlights every apres, took place in Hayes' backyard, illuminated now by floodlights. To the accompaniment of lusty cheers, jeers and ribald lyrics, various members of the hash were saluted and penalized for such offenses as finishing first, taking shortcuts, or wearing T-shirts from road races.

In every instance, the punishment meted out was a “down-down'': Being compelled to publicly chug a mug of beer. If you can't drain it in one suckdown, you must pour the remainder over your head. As a virgin hasher, I was duly sentenced to a down-down, which I performed in an exemplary fashion, thereby earning a souvenir Hockessin Hash House Harriers plastic mug bearing the memorable motto “Beer -- It's not just for breakfast anymore.''

Truth to tell, in keeping with the laissez-faire spirit of the hash and its strictly enforced no-requirements requirement, you don't have to drink. Several H4 members are teetotalers, and it's not held against you in the least if you prefer water, Pepsi or Hawaiian Punch -- even for the down-down.

Still, beer does tend to make things a mite merrier. As Auer so aptly phrased it, “The hash is just like a fraternity -- only we're older, we've got more money, and we can buy better beer.”

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