It’s going to be another one of those brightly sun-drenched days, I think, as my steady plodding trot turns to a hike and heads skyward once again on this wide open, sandy trail in desert-like northeastern San Diego County. My legs feel like boulders beneath my hips as they labor up another steep incline, more slowly than I wish they would. My hydration vest has come in handy so far but I’m still feeling a little dizzy from the heat and the effort. The trail continues on an upward trend for three more miles before leveling off, and I have to stop twice to catch my breath. I curse the recent bout of bronchitis for setting back my cardio endurance so much, but despite my struggle I am alright. In fact I’m genuinely glad to be here. I would smile to prove it, if I wasn’t so sure that my squinting into the sun would make it look more like a grimace than a grin.
The best part of this hot, late morning run is that I’m not alone. If I was, I am sure I’d have turned around and headed home by now. I am travelling with a group of forty or so people, stretched for miles across the two trails which have been laid for us that day: the 4 mile “Turkey” trail and the 6 mile “Eagle.” A handful of people I have grown quite fond of toil beside me, as we hike the hills and run the straight-aways together. There is something special about running with these people. There is something spiritual about following these trails, laid in all-purpose baking flour by a different volunteer each week. There is something extraordinary about the entire event called a Hash, something I know each one of us there senses, but never really talks about.
Every hash group follows the common theme a little differently: some will focus a lot on the run itself, and others are more about gathering socially. Some attract single, twenty-somethings and others are populated by a more middle-aged crowd. But despite their divergent outward appearances, each hash has the same history, and the same backbone. It is the gathering of a pack of like-minded individuals, each participating in a symbolic “hunt” through roads, trails and quite often complete wilderness, which concludes in a “feast” for all involved (beer and food provided by the volunteers who laid the trail). It didn’t take me long to realize that a hash is a perfect modern-day symbol of our most primitive of social activities.
The Hash House Harriers glossary of terms found in chalk on trail.
Even though we all run together, the hash is way more primal than your average jaunt through the city with a training group or a trail race with your friends. During a hash run you must chase a trail through varying terrains which are completely unpredictable in nature. You may need to run on roads or trails, up steep hills, down slippery embankments, over ankle-twisting gravel, along drainage pipes, and through hip-high brush or bamboo forests. You might be forced to climb fences, jump off walls or walk across roofs. During the run you may be fooled by a cleverly laid back-track, or lose the trail altogether. But no matter where the flour takes you, you will always have to be thinking while you are running. You must keep your eye to the ground – both for your safety and for the latest trail marking. We may all be chatting jovially as we form groups and seek out trail together, but don’t let this levity fool you – the hash transforms us all into the savage hunter, and our prey is the “hare” that was loosed a mere fifteen minutes ahead of the pack.
Even though we all eat good food and drink craft beer once we reach the end of the trails, the hash is nothing like your ordinary summer barbecue. Strangely similar to that of our ancestors, we are a modern-day tribe of revelers, oftentimes bedecked in costume, knee-socks, kilt and handmade ornamental jewelry that displays the names to which each of us is given by the tribe itself. We have appointed chiefs who lead us in verses that we all know and sing (and sometimes dance) during the ritual called a “circle,” which takes place after the trail at every hash event. This ritual is often humorous, unorganized and slightly debaucherous, but a ritual it remains. At some hashes the circle is so unique and esoteric that it actually resembles something spiritual. Something religious, even.
And if I dare to call this experience religious, it’s because I’ve learned so much more about my inner self as a Hasher than I ever did during my years as a Churchgoer.
Being a Hasher has taught me what my strengths are as a runner and it has taught me to accept my weaknesses. It has taught me that running works best as a social sport, the way it was back when our ancestors hunted for dinner on foot. Hashing has taught me the power of positive motivation and of generosity. It has taught me how to train better for races, mentally as well as physically. It taught me that my body can handle most of the things I’m afraid it can’t, and that my odd sense of humor is not lost on everyone. The hash has gifted me with amazing new friendships that have potential of existing for the long haul. And perhaps best of all, the hash has taught me the value of unconformity: grouping people of different age groups, education levels, socio-economic status, birthplaces, religious and political views, morals and vices, sexual orientation and athletic ability into one running, beer-drinking, laughing, roasting, singing, tutu-wearing, joyful assemblage makes for an impossibly high level of awesome that can rarely, if ever, be achieved anywhere else on the planet.
In the words of my dear, dear friend Caity, the hash is “too awesome to actually be real.” Heh. Amen to that.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go wash the poison oak out of my favorite shiggy socks. On On!
- The Great Big Wild World of Hashers: It’s Not What You Think (barefoot-monologues.com)