Back in the late 1930s, some Brits stationed in Malaya started a game still in existence today and played all over the world. The witty inventers of this informal running sport were just a bunch of typical English blokes, some in the military and others diplomatic workers, all intent on working hard all week and partying hardy on weekends. But, they realized that the weekends of socializing and drinking were taking a toll on their health. Simply put, they were getting soft and flabby. The solution, they realized, was to come up with a fun physical activity that could get them back into shape, but minus the drudgery. Putting their heads together they came up with an idea for a form of exercise that they first called “Hare and Hounds,” but ultimately became “The Hash House Harriers,” or after years became just “The Hash.”
The basic premise of the game is that one of their numbers, “the hare,” is pre-selected to take off running ahead of the rest of the chasers, or “the hounds,” or “harriers.” The hare’s job is to make a trail for the other runners to follow. That sounds simple enough, but there is more to it than that.
The hare is expected to make his trail twist-and-turn and zigzag through various types of interesting terrain with several delaying areas called “checkpoints.” The purpose of the checkpoint is to allow the slower or older chase runners a chance to catch up with their faster comrades, and to rest while those in better shape range out in search of the trail’s new beginning.
Making a checkpoint is an art on to itself. A good one is situated in an open area with many possible places where the trail can start again. To make a checkpoint even more interesting and time consuming, a clever fox uses “false trails.”
A false trail is a promising path designed to lead unwary hounds off into wrong directions. These fake tracks are the reason why usually only strong runners take off and explore newfound trails at each checkpoint in case they turn out to be false.
The proper blend of terrain, checkpoints and false trails is what makes for a successful “Hash,” but without a means for the runners or “hashers” to communicate, the game is virtually impossible. So, the British creators came up with a shouted language that in time developed naturally of itself as the runners called out to each other on the run. The primary phrase is a hearty, “ON ON!” This means depending on the circumstance either, “Let’s go!” or “I’m on the trail! Follow me!” When the lead runner arrives at a checkpoint he calls over his shoulder, “CHECKING!” To find out if he has found the trail or not, “ARE YOU?!” is yelled out as a question to a lead runner. If the lead runner is still searching he yells in return, “CHECKING!” If he comes to the end of a false trail he runs back towards the checkpoint and informs the others with a robust, “FALSE TRAIL!” Conversely, if he is sure he is on the real trail he bellows out, “ON ON!” over his shoulder as he continues on up the trail.
The Hash ends when all the runners finish following the hare and his trail. Some followers of the Hash actually seek to catch the hare before he can finish his trail, but the real objective of the game is participation. Ironically, one of the most widely followed of the original Hash-House traditions is that the hare must provide libations for all the runners at the end of the trail. Its ironic because it was excessive drinking that led to the conception of the Hash in the first place.
My first acquaintance with running with The Hash was in Sub-Saharan Africa in the city of Monrovia, Liberia in 1977. By that time the game was more than 40 years old and had spread around the globe. We were a diverse group consisting mostly of non-Africans including Brits, Americans, Dutch, and Germans. Traditionally, the Hash is run on Monday afternoons to give the Hashers a way to “burn off” all the drinks they had indulged in over the weekend. As a young marine embassy guard who found running second nature, I took to Hashing like a duck to water, and soon I looked forward to Monday afternoons like I used to anticipate weekends.
I was so taken with Hashing that I started my own group in the U.S. in 1989, and so it is with the Hash that others like me took this charming game with them to even more corners of the world. In fact, a Hash is run here in Angeles City every Sunday afternoon from the Anchorage Inn. I think in future installments I will relate some of the funnier and more interesting things that happened during the many Hashes that I’ve run in over the years. And so, as they say in running the Hash, “ON ON!”