VANCOUVER The sun may have set on the British Empire, but many of its traditions carry on. High tea at Victoria's Empress Hotel, for instance, or cricket in Vancouver's Stanley Park.
Then there are the Hash House Harriers.
The Harriers are an international corps of joggers founded in 1938 by a group of British expatriates in Kaula Lumpur. Fitness isn't their main goal - having fun is, especially if it involves beer. Hence the hash motto: "A drinking club with a running problem."
Hashing is a world unto itself, where the normally staid accountants and lawyers adopt the most rediculous and suggestive nicknames and talk in a secret language peppered with phrases like "on-on" and "down-down."
The name was inpired by the dodgy restaurant - or "hash house" - where the founders used to meet. Cross-country runners in Britain are called "harriers," after the harrier dog or hawk. Hence, the runners became the Hash House Harriers.
Hashing Got off to a slow start, then mushroomed in the 1970s. There are now 1,500 hashes in over 100 countries, including several across Canada - in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland.
The first Vancouver hash was founded in the mid-'80s by Anthony Ussher, a brit who picked up hashing in Hong Kong. Ussherhas since moved on to Beiruit, Lebanon, but his legacy lives on in three Vancouver hashes. The Vancouver hash runs ever Monday, while the Howlers (which runs on a full moon) and the Hugh Jorgen Memorial hash (for men only) meet monthly.
The basic setup is like the old children's game of Fox and Hounds. A hare picks out the trail, marking the route with flour checkpoints. in the middle of the run, there is a checkpoint that reads "BC" for Beer Check. (Some hashers eschew the trail and make a direct line for the beer, and are called SCBs, for "short-cutting bastards.") After quaffing a brew, hashers continue to the finish, when they begin partying in earnest.
But it's not a race: hashing is a team sport. The hare lays out a number of false trails (marked with an X), which allows the slower runners to catch up to the FBRs (front running bastards) who surge ahead and scout out the route. When the FRBs find the proper trail, they shout "on-on," blow whistles, and get the designated Hash Horn to toot the good news on their bugle.
"A trail that is well set should allow everyone to reach the finish within a couple of minutes of each other," explains Julie Hunter, who's been hashing since 1991. "There should be enough loops, checks, and false trails that the pack should stay fairly close together."
The trail is usually about 10 kilometers long, and takes an hour or two to run. But it can get fairly involved. Hares take great pride in setting out unique and challenging trails.
For instance, Hunter designed a hash called The Cross-Dresser that required the harriers to start running in Vancouver's West End, make a pit stop at the Dufferin Hotel gay bar, hop on a ferry and run around the North Shore, and take the bus back downtown.
Oh, and they were in drag.
"It was the annual election of the Emporer and Empress for the gay community," recalls Hunter. "They were driving around in their van with posters and balloons hanging off it, and they invited us up to their hospitality suite to join in the festivities."
Vancouver is a great spot for hashing because of its proximity to wilderness. In hashing's Asian birthplace, runners often took to the jungle. Legend has it that a troupe of 40 in Kuala Lumpur once got lost and spent the night in the jungle being ravaged by mosquitoes.
The most memorable Vancouver hashes are the Hugh Jorgen Memorials, where the wildness quotient goes way, way up.
"On a scale of Mahatma Ghandi at one end and Keith Moon of the Who at the other, it's very much towards Keith Moon," laughs Hugh Jorgan founder Peter Frodsham, who sells computer networks in his other life. "Some of them have been very bizarre. We've ended up in a dominatrix's dungeon. Most of it is covered by the Official Secrets Act."
"You can go to virtually every city in the world and there's a hash there," he says. "You can go to a place and you instantly know 20 or 30 people who have the same kind of mental attitude you do."
And what kind of attitude would that be?
"You enjoy life, you enjoy fun," he replies, "and you're not overly concerned with political correctness."
Indeed. Hashers' attitude can be summed up in the nicknames they give to each other, most of which are unprintable in a family newspaper. Balwin's hash non de plume is Horney, and his wife's is So Am I. There's a hasher named Road Kill (because she was hit by a car) and one another named Sex With The Beast (you should hear what her husband is called).
Hunter's husband, Bill Seifert, is called Sheep Shagger, because he did a snowy run in a pair of Wellington rubber boots.
"The whole thing started back in Kuala Lumpur," explains Seifert, who's a plumber. "When they were originally doing the run writeups, they'd write 'John Horton did this and this.' I guess one of the wives got hold of the writeup and things didn't go well for him, so they came up with the idea of givibng everyone a nickname, so if it ever got out the guilty parties couldn't be identified. And it's been a tradition ever since."
In any event, hash names help strip away social barriers.
"It comes down to a level where everyone's just wearing their running gear, and whether they're a doctor or a garbage man, it doesn't matter," says Hunter, who works in public relations. "All the social trappings are taken away."
Hashing is still big in British expatriate circles, but it's taken on an international flavour.
"It's kind of an international freeloading club," laughs Seifert. "I've had a lot of people freeloading off me from Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Far East, the U.S., Europe. Usually I've met them before, but not always."
Hunter and Seifert have hashed in London, Heidelberg, Vienna and Cyprus. Now that they have a six-week-old daughter, though, they probably won't be going anywhere exotic for a while.
Naturally, the couple met at the hash.
"He wrote me a personals ad on a slip of paper at the end of a run and handed it to me," recalls Hunter. "He was looking at me, and he'd write something, and he'd look up, and write something else. Then he handed it to me with his phone number on it. 'Wanted, blond hair, blue eyes...'"
"It struck me as a good line at the moment," says Seifert. "I'd suggested we go out for a run sometime. She called me up, and the next thing you know, there's kids."
For more information, visit the Hash House Harriers international Web site at http://www.gthhh.com/gtbible.htm
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