Washington Post
November 28, 1997

A Running Party


Hashers: A Running Party

The Washington Post
Friday, November 28, 1997
By Dallas Hudgens

THE HASH HOUSE Harriers full-moon run was supposed to start 20 minutes ago. Fifty people have gathered in a muddy Damascus field to take part in the event, an after-dark run through pumpkin patches, creeks and briar-infested woods. The moon is up, and the trail has been marked. Everyone is present and accounted for. So, what's the delay?

Among other things, one runner has yet to finish his pre-race cigarette and another is polishing off aglass of wine. Hey, it never hurts to hydrate and warm up the lungs before a run.

Further delaying the start is one of the event's organizers, Pam Sapyta, who is trying to decide if a male runner should be penalized for wearing new shoes.

"Just when did you buy them?" she asks the accused. "They're so clean!"

Cigarettes? Wine? Punishment for wearing sensible shoes? Make no mistake, a Hash House Harrier run (more commonly referred to as a "hash") is not your typical 10K race. In fact, it isn't a race at all.

"We consider race to be a four-letter word," says Al Hendricks, another of the full-moon organizers. "This is strictly a social gathering. We just happen to have a theme, which is running on a trail."

Though you won't find running and fitness magazines pushing the Hash House Harrier agenda of fitness, fun and a little excess, hashing is a global phenomenon. An international directory lists 1,600 Harrier groups worldwide. Whether you're in Malaysia, New Zealand or Europe, there's always a chance you'll come across a merry band of runners shouting such harrier speak as "are you? are you?" "on! on!" and "beer near!" Washington is no exception, home to nine Harrier chapters who organize hashes throughout the year.

The original Hash House Harriers group (referred to as the mother hash) was founded in 1938 by a group of British expatriates living in Kuala Lumpur. The Brits, all men, drank nightly at a bar and restaurant they called "the hash house." In an effort to work the excesses out of their bodies, they started playing a weekly game of Hares and Hounds, a British schoolboy game whose rules call for one member of the group (the hare) to run ahead of the others (the hounds) and leave behind a trail marked with flour. The hounds then set off in pursuit of the hare. In the case of the Hash House Harriers, either a pub or a keg of beer usually lies at the end of the trail.

"If you catch the hare, you get to pants them," says Sapyta. "But they can leave false trails and try to throw you off their track. So, the intellectual challenge is in trying to think along with the hares and outwit them."

Each of the local groups holds a weekly hash. Several times during the year, all of the area hashers come together for a special event. The most popular of these is the annual Red Dress Run, which is held in September. According to one hasher, the sight of 400 people -- both men and women -- dashing up the Capitol steps while wearing red dresses is only rivaled by the cherry blossoms in spring.

"Hashers are fun-loving individuals who don't mind having their dignity deflated by humor," says Bill Panton, who founded the D.C. Hash House Harriers (also known as D.C. 3) in 1972. "We don't take ourselves too seriously, especially when it comes to running. In fact, we've most often been described as a drinking club with a running problem."

D.C. 3, like the mother hash in Malaysia and many around the world, is an all- male crew. The group is small and the turnover slow, like a long-running Wednesday night poker game. The other D.C. hashes are coed, and each tends to have its own personality. Some appeal to singles, while others accommodate married couples, couples with children and people who enjoy running with their dogs.

The White House Hash House Harriers boasts the largest battery of local hashers, often drawing more than 100 people to its weekly runs, which are typically 3- to 5-mile jaunts held in or near the city and finishing up at the front door of a bar or restaurant.

"We have lawyers, waiters, stockbrokers and college students," says Sapyta, who is a member of the White House Harriers. "We also have a lot of foreign service people. But it doesn't matter what you do for a living, as long as you have a sense of humor. So in that regard, it's a great equalizer."

By all accounts, White House is the hash for singles, having inherited the distinction from the D.C. Hash House Harriers and Harriettes (D.C. 4), all of whom according to one hasher "got old, got married and had kids." The old fogy rap has left D.C. 4 with a new title.

"They call us the Baby Jogger hash," says Larry Cohen, a D.C. 4 member. "We'll have anywhere from 12 to 20 people for a hash, and about a half-dozen will run with their children in baby joggers. We're a smaller, close-knit group. We have the same traditions, but we're generally less bawdy than some of the other hashes. And we almost always meet at someone's house rather than a bar."

All Harriers are given a hashing name, which they answer to in the company of other hashers. The monikers almost always point to a quirk of personality or a less-than-flattering trait.

The Full Moon Hash is a conglomeration of local hashers, a monthly party under the stars. In Damascus, the hounds slog through a pasture and into the woods, following the flour trail left by the hare. Among the briars and timber, it's easy to lose sight of the trail. Laggards shout "are you? are you?" and front runners answer "on! on!" to lead the laggards back on track.

The hounds emerge from the woods and make their way up a winding country road. One runner sports Cat-in-the-Hat headwear while another wears a T-shirt displaying a topless Jessica Rabbit. Another hound, bearded and wearing jeans, runs beside his Australian shepherd. The headlights of a car appear at the bend in the road, and the passengers turn their heads to take in the hashers. Brows furrowed, it's like they're not quite sure what they've just seen.

Almost four miles from the start (no one is really sure of the trail's distance) the hashers can suddenly hear the finish line. It's Ted Nugent, a man who favors running through the woods in a loin cloth. The hounds follow the sound of "Wango Tango" until they reach the backyard barbecue that is already in full swing.

As with all hashes, the runners paid an upfront fee (usually $3 to $5) to cover the cost of the food and beer. Tonight, the spread includes a beer keg and a picnic table groaning with chicken.

The hashers fill their Gatorade cups with beer and then gather in a circle. They sing, initiate first-timers and generally heckle anyone in sight.

Despite the drinking and the teasing, there is a communal feel to the post-run party, a unity more along the lines of a Deadhead gathering than a fraternity party. Standing in the shadows of the bonfire, Bob "Hair Ball" Sheck tilts his Cat-in-the-Hat lid back on his head and tries to describe the hashing philosophy.

"We're not competitive runners, and we're definitely not an exclusive club," he says. "We'll take anybody who shows up and pays their four dollars. If you have half a mind to hash, that's really all you need."

INDIVIDUAL HASHES meet weekly to socialize and run. The full moon hash is held monthly and draws runners from all of the local hashes. The best way to become a Hash House Harrier is to show up for a hash. Bring $5, and be sure to wear dirty shoes. Don't wear a T-shirt from any genuine races you may have completed. If you do, you'll be sorry. For information on all local hashes, call 202/783-5260.

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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