Rituals for Fun and Fitness

The city of Victoria is, of course, named for the former queen (1837 – 1901) of the United Kingdom, and Canada. It’s certainly no surprise, then, that the city has a Victorian flavour you can taste by taking a stroll around the harbour or afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel. But Victoria is also home to a social club that contrasts its British colonial heritage and the social mores you might associate with Victorian England. Times change.

We gather at 3:30 on a grayish Saturday afternoon just before Thanksgiving. A group of joggers – 12 men, five women (and a two-year-old girl) – at the Horner Park parking lot, a kilometer from University of Victoria grounds. Inside the circle stands the group’s acting “religious advisor,” (AKA the RA). These are the Victoria Hash House Harriers (VH3), the local chapter of an international affiliation with almost two thousand chapters all over the world (two in Antarctica). Members publish newsletters, directories, and magazines and organize regional and international Hashing events.

Members get a “hash” name after a particularly notorious escapade, a personality quirk, or a notable physical feature. I find out later that it’s not cool to ask someone’s real name. Double Hump, middle-aged and stocky, in his sky-blue shorts and scarlet VH3 running jacket is the RA. We begin with introductions, and as a virgin participant, I’m invited into the circle to introduce myself. At the RA’s request, I take off my hat, and I tell them how four weeks earlier I’d first encountered hashers when, among a hundred or so awed Saturday shoppers, I gawked at a group of about twenty men (and a few women) descending the Bay Centre escalator wearing red dresses, a few of the men with wigs of shoulder-length black hair (including one with a full beard). It’s called “Red Dress Run,” an annual traditional hasher event. The Hash House Harriers (abbreviated to HHH or H3, or referred to simply as hashing) is an international group of non-competitive running social clubs. An event organized by a club is known as a hash or hash run, with participants calling themselves hashers or hares and hounds. Each chapter is called a kennel.

The hare for this “Turkey Run” (I guess we’re the hounds), is Premature Evacuation (Preemie for short). Slim and fit, with a referee’s whistle around his neck, he comes into the circle holding a black plastic water bottle with a squirt spout. He squirts white flour markings on the ground inside the circle and reviews examples of the symbols he’s drawn out on the trail just before. A circle with a dot in the middle means look around 360° to figure out which way to go; an X means go back, you’ve gone the wrong way; an arrow tells you what direction to take; two short parallel lines indicate go back to some earlier point in the trail; a large capital E with an arrow off to the top corner means this is the trail you want if you are an “ego” runner; a T with a direction arrow means this is the trail you want if you jog like a turkey; BC stands for beer check (drink beer); and HH means Hash House (everyone gathers).

Stroke Alone, a svelte and lanky man in his 40s has arranged my day with VH3 after our first encounter at the Bay Center. One of the hashers tells me Stroke Alone always runs ahead, although he often doubles back to encourage stragglers; “and he always runs alone,” I guessed. Deep Shit got into the habit of saying “I’m in deep shit” so often the RA tagged him with a new name to match his proclivity for getting into trouble. As we leave the park and head for UVIC grounds, I notice the 60-ish looking pudgy hasher wearing a red T-shirt with white capital letters “DFL” on the front and “FRB” on the back. The gray-haired wisp of a woman with the tights and knee-high white socks that say “ON-ON” vertically on their sides tells me DFL stands for “dead fucking last” and FRB stands for “front running bastard” (which sometimes extends to FFRB, or “fucking front running bastard.”)

Hashing started in 1938 in what is now Malaysia, when a group of British colonial officers and expatriates would meet on Monday evenings to run in the traditional “hare and hounds” event. Their aim was to purge the excesses of the previous weekend. The name “Hash House Harriers” comes from the “Hash House” (cheap restaurant) where several of the founders dined. The objectives of the Hash House Harriers were recorded on the club registration card in 1950:

  • To promote physical fitness among our members
  • To get rid of weekend hangovers
  • To acquire a good thirst and to satisfy it in beer
  • To persuade the older members that they are not as old as they feel

 

Hashing fizzed out during World War II, but was restarted in 1946 by some of the original group. Then, in 1962, a second chapter sprung up in Singapore, then many more throughout the Far East and the South Pacific. Westerners heard about it and set up chapters all over Europe and North America. The movement expanded greatly during the1970s.

We’re in Mystic Vale and I walk beside 65-year-old diminutive High Beams. With a pleasing smile, grey hair in a pony-tail, and a steady gait, she seems glad to have me for company. (We are the only ones walking; about every 15 minutes the rest of the hashers gather and wait for us.) A few years before, on a New Year Polar Bear Hash at a local lake, she had, along with other hashers, high-stepped into the lake. When she ran out of the icy water one of the men looked at her and shouted “high beams.” At first, I’m puzzled. “Well,” she explains, “When I come out of cold water my anatomy changes.”

High Beams says she’s been coming out to Hash events for ten years, though she’s missed a year to rehab a badly torn hamstring. For High Beams, “hashers are family.” HB feels safe enough with this family to act like a child when she feels like it. As we crossed Henderson Road and walked on the chip trail, she stopped at the clearing with the metal exercise equipment, just to play around. We then stepped up the pace to catch up with the others, and she yelled out “Are you?” which is what you do when you fall behind and you want to make sure you don’t lose contact with the group.

With clouds dispersing and the sun making an appearance, we caught up with the others at Henderson-Gyro Park, in the parking lot, for the beer check. Preemie lifts the lid on the beer cooler and invites me to have a beer, although he is pleased to tell me there is water in the cooler too. An eight-inch white logo on Preemie’s red running jacket looks like a raging granny in full stride hoisting a beer mug up in the air. This is the VH3 “kennel” logo. Queen Victoria (“Vicki”) in a skirt, knickers showing, proudly hoisting a mug full of foamy beer. On the run.

HB Beams flew like a six-year-old on the swings in the adjacent playground. The rest of us spent about fifteen minutes chatting and drinking beer, and then we returned to Horner Park, where Double Hump gathers everyone for the “after” circle. The woman with the toddler finds out where the “after after” event will be and drives off. It soon becomes clear to me why she skips this part.

I learn later this circle is an opportunity for the “down-down,” a fun way for rewarding or recognizing a hasher for eccentric behaviour or notable talent. Down-downs also serve as punishment for misdemeanours real, imagined, or blatantly made up. Such transgressions may include: failing to stop at the beer check, pointing with a finger, or the use of real names. Stroke Alone tells me hashers who wear new shoes to an event have to drink from one of their new shoes (which he did at the last run).

DH calls me into the circle to commemorate my loss of virginity and invites me to tell a dirty joke or sing a song. He asks me to take off my hat, again. I don’t have a joke or a song, but the hare’s assistant hands me a cup of water (I’d had a beer at the beer check) to toast the group and be recognized now as one of them. To enthusiastic shouts of “down it, down it,” I gulp it all down in one swig. And someone starts to sing a bawdy song, and they all join in. I’m flushed. Then DH calls five or six hashers – one at a time – those deemed by DH to have committed a serious offense on the trail, to come in to the circle to be chastised. The wispy woman with the “ON – ON” socks, for example, is guilty of snobbery for drinking her own beer instead of the beer supplied by the hare. They guzzle their beer from the super-size plastic cup in a long, drooling swig. Then they fling their hand with the empty cup back over their shoulder as if to spray any last drops of beer behind them. Here are the lyrics to the song (more of a chant, really) for the wispy snob, bellowed with extreme zest by hashers, while all I could do was etch out a barely-perceptible smile.

 

FINGER IN YOUR BEER

How would – you like – my finger in your ear?
How would – you like my finger in your ear?
Not fucking likely! Not fucking likely! Not fucking likely!

Second verse: substitute “rear” for “ear.”

Third verse: substitute “beer” for “ear.”

 

As he sings, Deep Shit gesticulates and points his finger towards the mentioned orifice or object (his own ear, rear, and beer). With the shout of each “Not fucking likely,” they all put their beer cups on their heads and twirl around. Slowly. No one topples over.

Members often describe their group as “a drinking club with a running problem,” indicating that the social element is as important, if not more so, than any athleticism involved. When the hash officially ends, hashers may continue socialising at an “on-after” at a nearby pub or restaurant. Family hashes welcome children (sometimes called hash house horrors or ankle biters) with soft drinks replacing alcoholic beverages and drinking songs toned down appropriately.

For today’s “on after,” we haul over to the 1550s Pub Style Restaurant on Cedar Hill Cross Road. More beer, this time with food. I sit to the left of Cockaleeky. She got her hash name at an event where hashers brought food for soup to share, and her contribution had been a leek pinned to her shirt. I didn’t need to ask why the “cock” preceded the “leeky.” We chat about travels and I mention my excursions to Australia and New Zealand. Her eyes widen. With a minimum of coaxing, she tells me her New Zealand story; how it happened that a few years ago she’d spent two weeks in Auckland. Seems 170 years ago her great-great-great grandfather was a missionary to the South Pacific, sent by an English religious society founded by evangelical Anglicans and Nonconformists. Tragically, when he arrived he was killed by cannibals. Descendants of the cannibals had felt cursed all these years because of the actions of their vicious and voracious ancestors. When UBC anthropologist Carol Mayer found out, she helped arrange a reconciliation and forgiveness ceremony, which was held in Vanuatu in 2009. Cockaleeky, together with seventeen family members, had been in Vanuatu for the reconciliation ceremony when she fell stepping down a rocky path and broke her leg. She hadn’t missed any of the ceremony, but had to fly to Auckland for surgery and a two-week hospital stay.

By a quarter past seven, beer lovers, diners, and sports fans pack the restaurant. Hashers eat, drink, chat, and laugh. DH tells me he loves to travel and incorporates hash events into his travels. On his first run in Malaysia, he had run with about 125 hashers, mostly ex-pats and all men, in Borneo, up a steep hill on a one-foot-wide trail twisting along treacherous jungle escarpments. It’s not unthinkable for someone to get lost or fall off the side of a cliff, so before they set off everyone chucks their car keys into a barrel. When it’s over, they check the barrel to see if there are any keys left inside, and that’s how they know if they need to go on a search. DH still remembers the look and feel of the jungle. Vivid greens and yellows and reds spread out in a panorama of foliage, amid a plethora of screeching birds and wildlife. Squishy terrain softened by days of pummeling rain had caused a few slips, but the highlight had been the 12-foot crocodile staring not-so surreptitiously at potential prey. “I can still hear that song we were all singing throughout that two-hour run,” he told me with a grin, “A one-word song. Over and over and over. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”

For DH, hashing is all about fun. “If you look at photos of hashers anywhere in the world,” he said with pride, “You will always see smiling people.” VH3’s 200 hashers, aged 19 to 82, welcome kids of all ages. The international symbol for hashers is “ON-ON,” which is what a hasher on the trail yells out to those following as he passes an arrow direction marker. “Wherever you might be, anywhere in the world, if you see a symbol of a bare foot with the words ON-ON, you’ll know you’re looking at a hasher.”

By 8:30 the restaurant is almost empty and the hashers have all left except for Double Hump and High Beams. We say goodbye. Double hump shakes my hand and High Beams hug me snugly. I take my time putting on my jacket and hat. Sling my backpack over my shoulder and step out into the chill darkness of the city. I wonder how Double Hump got his hash name. A bet over camel species? Or maybe he’s known for being able to run and run without drinking water.