Running Times
January 1992

Hash House Harriers

Hash House Harriers

A Drinking Club With A Running Problem

Running Times
January 1992, pp 61
By Ken McAlpine

As befits the hash, I'll start by saying that what follows is absolute fact; could be true in part; or, more likely, is pure bunk. Since their sole intention is to mislead, hashers have never put much stock in fact. Why should I? If you want facts, watch “Jeopardy.”

To prevent this story from wobbling completely off its axis, a few truths should be passed along. The Hash House Harriers claim to be the largest running organization in the world and, given their erratic habits and dispositions, I won't argue with them. Hash has a storied history, dating back to times no one cares about and coalescing in 1938, when Albert Stephen Gispert organized what's now recognized as the first hash at a British outpost in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Gispert was described by friends as a “short, stout, rubicund fellow with a keen wit.” He was not described as an athlete. Requirements for Hash House membership haven't changed; neither has the hash format. Hashers follow a trail laid by members who are dubbed “hares.” They deposit droppings – paper, flour, chalk marks, foot powder – to mark the trail, making it as confusing as possible. Trailing runners ardently pursue the droppings in a confused fashion, and the trail ends with a keg of beer and even more confusion. Hash runs can take place anywhere, and that's a large part of their allure. On the last weekend of September '91. I drove to Long Beach, CA, to run a hash. I did so voluntarily. There was no money involved. Believe what you want.

That's how I find myself standing next to Wombat, who is standing at the mouth of a sewer drain somewhere in the urban stench of Long Beach. The things being disgorged from the sewer drain defy description; Wombat has just run through them. His feet smell. He's lost. He's far from home. A pleasanter set of circumstances is hard to imagine. Wombat beams. “Good shiggy, eh?” he says, gazing lovingly back into the tunnel from where we came. “Shiggy” is a hash term that refers to any liquid or solid that looks bad, smells worse and impedes forward progress. Sane people – labeled “poofters” by hashers – avoid such gleck, thus, drastically reducing the chances of ruining their shoes and the possibility of contracting boils, lesions and nausea. Several Long Beach hashers once ran through a toxic dump in Philadelphia. Several days later, odd bumps appeared on their legs. A true hasher views shiggy with unrestrained relish.

Wombat is a true hasher; I know this because he told me so. “A true hasher,” bespoke Wombat as we ran casually into oncoming traffic, “runs with his head, not with his feet. Hashing is a thinking man's game.” I like this logic for two reasons; one, I am not a fast runner; two, my feet are already covered with gelatinous goo.

I like Wombat for simpler reasons. He's Australian, and I've yet to meet an Australian that I didn't like. Back home in Queensland, Wombat sells carpet and vinyl, but he's currently touring the world, hashing. He never tells me his real name, and I never ask. In my defense, this isn't shoddy journalism. All hashers have nicknames awarded them by fellow hashers who've hit on some personal quirk, embarrassing circumstance or nothing at all. It's not uncommon for two hashers who have run together for months to know each other only as “Scumhead” and “Captain Naked.”

Whoever Wombat is, he's not given to rushing. He and I stand stock still as a dozen runners slog from the sewage tunnel and burst into the sunlight, scattering bits of yuck in all directions and crying, “On, on” – the hash cry signifying that they're on the trail, which, in moments, they're not. Wombat watches them pass. Eventually, he hitches up his shorts and we give chase – which is to say we proceed after them at a leisurely trot. Wombat doesn't believe in wasting energy. Judging from his waistline, he's quite successful.

“Always put 10 or 15 hashers in front of you,” he says, striding up an embankment.

The brilliance of Wombat's reasoning quickly becomes evident. We catch the leaders within minutes. Having lost the trail, they're milling about in a bamboo thicket like drunks who've just stepped off a merry-go-round. “Waste not, want not,” says Wombat, who promptly begins to sniff about for signs of the flour that marks the trail.

Today's run is the 360th for the Long Beach Has House Harriers. Hashers might sound like people who aren't much for counting or records, but that's not the case. The Long Beach Hashers have a board of officers, plus an official newsletter that's mailed, weekly, to 200 members whose existence is logged by computer. In keeping with tradition, these missives are addressed to the “Hasher in residence” – a dicey skate on legality's edge, given the colorful names of some members. “Nobody in the Post Office seems to mind,” shrugs one hasher.

The Long Beach Hashers are also punctual. Today's run is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. By 9:30, the parking lot is brimming with hashers and excitement – and the keg is tapped. Ten minutes before a burst of whistles signals the start, I'm dragged in front of the crowd and introduced to a touching chorus of slander punctuated by shouts of “Who cares?” I'm asked to do a “down-down” – a hash expression for doing exactly that, as expeditiously as possible, with some form of liquid. I chose beer because that's what's handed to me. Though the hash is soundly rooted in drink, beer swilling isn't required. Soda and water are often offered as options, and some even choose it. Teetotalers aren't derided, possibly because it means more beer for the rest of them.

Following my introduction, Fruit of the Loom pulls me aside for a brief primer. As a “virgin” – an unspoiled poofter who has yet to slog his first shiggy – I need to know a few things. He's a distinguished-looking fellow who could be a congressman, except for his garish floral shorts and his to-the-point manner. He gives me the basics. Today's run will take about an hour. If I don't get lost, I'll be following a flour trail. The trail will be difficult to follow. Assuming I'm not stupid enough to dash to the front. I'll also be following a considerable number of runners, and that should make my job easier.

I like Fruit; but, like any wise virgin, I don't tell him everything. Like most virgins, I have a secret; I'm not. Once, 10 years ago, I ran a hash in Indonesia. We – I and a troopship's worth of Australians – ran through rice paddies in the pouring rain. The trail was marked with bits of paper, most of which washed away in a sea of mud before we could find them. This didn't faze the Aussies, who crashed through the paddies – mobile mud globs hot on the scent. After the run, we stood around a keg in the dark buzzing jungle, singing songs and drinking beer. The Aussies took much pleasure in dragging me up front and requesting a song, and the only song I could remember was “America the Beautiful.” Each time, the Aussies would drag me up and demand a new song; each time, I'd sing was “America the Beautiful.” Each time, my myopia was rewarded with a down-down. This vicious circle ended about midnight, someone depositing me in the back of a car and murmuring “Good on ya, mate.” I burst into song.

If all this seems rather hedonistic, it is. The written rules of hash – penned, fittingly enough, 12 years after it came into existence – give requisite mention to fitness then go on to laud hashing's regenerative powers, through “acquiring a good thirst and satisfying it with beer.” Questions about hash priorities were neatly addressed at a 1986 global gathering in Thailand, where 2,000 hashers consumed 4,000 gallons of beer. By and large, training is frowned on. Apparently, there may be at least one influential member with strong feelings on this subject. Several years ago, a group of Aussie hashers was struck by lightening while training on a track outside Perth. “One chap standing on the verandah nearby saw 10 of us suddenly jump up into the air,” reported Colin Carpenter, of the impromptu fricassee. Colin escaped with burns on his chest and ankles. Hashers aren't exactly sure of their place I the running world, though one Long Beach hasher is willing to take a guess: “I always thought that real runners saw us as a boil on their butt,” he says.

Stamina isn't a must, but speed is definitely an asset. The Long Beach Hash has dashed through hairdressing parlors, shopping malls and the Los Angeles Marathon Expo. Hashers in Texas dashed through a papal assembly. Jock, one of the founding members of the Long Beach Hash, once ran through a funeral dressed as a large rabbit. Wherever the dash, one thought must be kept uppermost: “You've got to blitz it,” says Wild Bill. “You don't want to be the last person through.”

Unquestionably, some hashers are bona fide athletes and have accomplished much. Among them is Graham Douglas, who trekked the Himalayas numerous times without mishap, then suffered multiple fractures in his wrist and elbow when he fell through the roof of his home. Some hashers can even run. A hyperkinetic fellow with a spry moustache and manner, Wild Bill has run a 2:58 marathon. He probably would have cracked that time on another occasion, if he hadn't stopped for beer at 20 miles. He'll display this speed later in today's hash, performing some nifty fartlek work across four lanes of fast moving traffic. After that, he'll turn to me and say, “We try to discourage things that are really, overtly stupid.” Pause. “Well some things.”

At the moment, though, no one is dashing anywhere. Wombat, Wild Bill, On Call and a dozen other hashers are poking about in thick brush looking for signs of a trail that has abruptly vanished. Several dispense with the search, crash through the shrubbery and out onto and adjacent golf course. I stay put. Taking short cuts is an honored hash tradition, but it often leads to another honored tradition – getting lost. Hashers routinely go astray, sometimes in grand fashion. Once, an entire club got lost in the Malayan Jungle. When word eventually reached the wife of one of them, she was sick with worry” “Well it serves the stupid old bastard right,” she said.

I may be a semi-virgin hasher, and thus ill-informed in most matters, but as a Southern Californian, I know one thing; getting lost in Long Beach, where certain neighborhoods make Hell's Angels look like the Welcome Wagon, isn't a good idea. “Say, Hi! Could you tell me where I am? Maybe scratch the directions in my chest with that knife?” I'm also told that going onto the golf course could be equally dangerous. Golfers are peevish folk; real poofters – plus, it's difficult to outrun a golf ball.

Eventually, someone finds what we need: an almost indistinguishable blotch of flour on a rotted log. Our group charges off again. The trail skirts the golf course, crosses several streets, cuts through and industrial lot, then drops down a short incline to parallel an enormous storm drain. At the moment the drain is empty. This disappoints Wild Bill. If it weren't, we'd probably be wading in it. He cheers up when the trail points to the mouth of yet another disgustingly smelly culvert. I hesitate at the entrance. A pert-looking woman in her forties brushes past and ducks into the dark. “I hope you didn't bring new shoes,” she says. Later, she'll introduce herself as “Ménage a Toe.” Don't ask.

Yes there are women. Hashing was once an all-male pursuit; in some places, it still is; but for the most part, women are as much a part of the hash as shiggy. (I imply no direct parallel.) Plenty of women belong to the Long Beach Hash, and they aren't the least bit prissy. At one point during the run, I'm running with Ménage a Toe. We're trotting down a dirt path lined with the remains of city buses. Looking about, she declares this a perfect place for a keg stop. “Would we have to chug?” I ask. She looks at me puzzled. “You don't have to,” she says, “You get to.”

Women can also come in handy. Long Beach's Grand Mistress, a sort of club president, is a pretty woman called “on Call.” Having a sweet demeanor, On Call also does most of the talking when the Long Beach Hashers run afoul of the law. Hashers don't make a concerted effort to break the law, but, by definition, they aren't poofters either.

I run the last part of the hash with On Call and a half dozen others. We exit a storm drain, climb a fence, cross a final street and trot around the back of a Kmart. No one uncorks a finishing sprint. Someone has uncorked the beer. The two hashers who finish first are asked to drink beer from the business end of a rubber chicken. “We discourage competition,” explains Wild Bill. Wombat doffs his had during the proceedings. “Out of respect, mate,” he says.

Wombat leaves tomorrow for Hong Kong, where he'll hash before he returns to carpet selling in Queensland. The rigors of the morning have taken their toll. Wombat's eyes have become quite small and his speech comes in short, dozy bursts. True hasher that he is, he wants to get in a final word. Hashing is wonderful, and because it's wonderful, it has grown quite big. Why, at the 1988 global gathering in Bali, Indonesia, 86 countries were represented. “only 97 countries,” says Wombat, “were at the Seoul Olympics.” He nods. “Yup. Very popular.” He climbs into a waiting van. He pokes his head out and has one final admonition.

“Never trust the facts, mate.”

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