Cutting through the freezing wind, the el train shakes snow from the Belmont platform onto a troop of 15 bundled runners milling around below. The Sunday afternoon sun is just a rumor behind a blanket of gray clouds; officially the temperature hovers around ten degrees, but it's more like five below with the windchill. Apparently, though, the Chicago Hash House Harriers are aware of none of this. Single-mindedly, they trudge around in the snow and frozen gravel searching for a red spray-painted arrow.
The troop consists of 15 women and men, including three virgin hashers. Their faces are a wind-slapped red, but only the virgins look like they regret venturing out into this weather. Several veteran hashers bend over sucking air, using the pause to fill their lungs before someone finds the trail.
Eventually, one of them locates an arrow at the base of an el stanchion. "On, on!" he bellows, striking a pose to point out the direction. Then he shoots back down the ice-slicked trail the troop just came up. The rest of the group follow his lead and echo in chorus, "On, on!" They trot off jubilantly on the trail that will take them back to the warm tavern where they started.
But before they reach their goal, Trail 679 will lead them down a couple of dead-end false trails, through and over neighborhood fences, and up three flights of stairs to a hashette's apartment for an alcohol pit stop. Only after five or so miles, and having sweated off several pounds in the process, will the group reach the pub and commence with the on-on--the postrun party of songs, suds, and sociability that goes on and on into the night.
All told, not an uncommon day for a most uncommon group. The Chicago Hash House Harriers--who refer to themselves as the CH3 for short--is only one of approximately 1,200 hashing groups around the world, totaling nearly 100,000 members. The CH3 formed a scant 12 years ago, but hashing has been around since 1938, when a group of British expatriates in Kuala Lumpur created the quasi sport as a distraction between swills of beer at their favorite tavern and restaurant, colloquially known as the Hash House. Today hashers have invaded more than 120 countries and 150 American cities.
Self-described as a drinking club with a running problem, the Hash House Harriers represent a synergistic cross between Animal House, the National Geographic Explorers Club, and a serious runner's worst nightmare. Hashers have successfully fused the high points of both aerobics and alcohol, but with an emphasis on the latter. The point of the runs isn't to finish first, just to finish eventually, and to drink lots of liquor in the process.
Hashers have run their labyrinthine races in the jungles of Indonesia and the deserts of Saudi Arabia. The more unattractive the setting the better, they claim. Swamps and rivers are not uncommon territory for hashers to traverse. And all hashes include the intoxicating revelry of the on-on at run's end.
Hashing rules are few and simple. Find an arrow and follow it. If that's not possible, find other hashers and follow them. Of course, following these rules ensures nothing, because the trail setters (called hares) can fork the route off into any number of dead ends; sadistic hares have been known to construct false trails a mile long. Hashing trails range from four to six miles long and are set with markings of chalk, paper, flour, drywall--whatever works--every half block or so. Hares employ "checks" (Xs within circles) to indicate where one part of the trail ends and where the hashers must search for the next part, which can go in any direction. An average run lasts about an hour and a half and is designed to suit the paces of long-distance athletes and path plodders alike. Checks and occasional beer stops serve to draw the fast and slow runners together into a pack, and the ideal trail results in the fastest hasher pulling into the on-on only 15 minutes ahead of the slowest.
Originally hashing was a male-only activity, but today female hashers (referred to as hashettes) represent a raucous 40 percent of worldwide membership. There are also several female-only clubs scattered around the world, in which men are allowed to participate but only women can be officers, hares, and pack leaders.
Two other clubs also call Chicago home: the Chicago Full Moon Hashers, an offshoot of the CH3 who run the last evening of every lunar cycle, and a group at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management, who hash every Friday afternoon. Several south-side hashers are currently attempting to launch their own group. Members of the CH3 don't mind the competition; they believe the more the merrier. If Washington, D.C., can support nine Hash House Harrier clubs (H3s), some hashers say, surely there is more than enough room for a few more in a huge metropolis like Chicago.
Being the adaptive species that they are, hashers have developed their own unique logic over the years: the longer the hash, the more beer stops there are. Given the choice between a path that involves mud, water, or a dung-carpeted barn--all examples of what hashers call "shiggy"--or a path that is shiggy-free, hashers will always take the first. Winning is encouraged only as a means of getting to drink sooner at the on-on.
Hashing can turn the most mild-mannered teacher or law professor into a globe-trotting hashing junkie. International hashing directories list nearly every H3 and the phone numbers of local contact members. Like the Lions and Rotary clubs, H3s serve as drop-in havens that provide instant social life for traveling members on vacation or business. It's common for the CH3 to host two or three visitors per run, and hashers often devise short road trips and longer vacations around special hashes.
The most renowned hashing events are the Americas' InterHash and the international InterHash, held in alternating years. Last year, the four-day Americas' InterHash, held in Waukesha, Wisconsin, drew nearly 800 hashers. Organizers of this year's international InterHash, to be held in Thailand, expect up to 5,000 hashing devotees to converge on Phuket this Fourth of July weekend; the hash's motto will be the prophetic "Rage until ya' Phuket."
Different H3s compete heartily for the chance to host an InterHash. Erich Bergs, a jocular Chicago hasher, says of these multinational events: "Much like the Olympics, they can tax a country's infrastructure." Bergs, affectionately known as "Sweaty Balls" in hashing circles, speaks from experience, having run in the 1988 InterHash in Bali.
"Lizards, snakes, poisonous scorpions," the 35-year-old recalls (though other hashers cast doubt on his credibility). "Runs through virgin jungle so dense that pieces of paper, like toilet paper, would have to be set every three feet or so. You could be just a couple feet from somebody in the bush and not know it. You become real cognizant of how there were 2,200 missing in action in Vietnam."
Bergs, a chemist for a local drug and diagnostic company, began hashing ten years ago in Madison, Wisconsin. When he moved here in 1985, he looked up the Chicago Hash House Harriers in his directory and has been a regular ever since. Sweaty Balls has used the directory to contact and run with hashers in Atlanta, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Originally christened Sweat Hog by his Madison peers, he was renamed Fire Balls for a 3 AM fire walking performance at a Houston hash. The names were combined to form Sweaty Balls during the '87 Americas' InterHash in Philadelphia.
Hashing has taken Sweaty Balls around the world: to the Bahamas, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In 1983, on two weeks' notice, he joined the Kathmandu H3 for their hash of the Himalayas.
"We were 70 miles west of Everest. We went up to a chain of four sacred lakes at 17,000 feet. We had about 160 hashers on this trail," Bergs said. "It was the biggest trek in the Himalayas except for Prince Charles's trek a year before. It came off like a military operation: hundreds of porters and dozens of Sherpas, and each was carrying two or three cases of beer."
In the realm of hashing truth is best viewed the way Einstein viewed time and space--it's all relative. What may seem true at one moment may later appear to be an obvious canard. The teller of a hashing story may not even be conscious of the fabrication. Hashing tales simply grow tall with time, taking on a life of their own. Even portions of hashing history--the year hashing began, for instance--are not indisputable; rather, they represent accepted conjecture. In the world of hashers, who's to know what's true?
A small amount, though, is verifiable. Every so often in the Chicago Tribune's Friday Go Guide, this announcement is squeezed innocently among running notices for the likes of the Park Forest Running & Pancake Club and the Lincoln Park Pacers' five-mile fun runs: "Chicago Hash House Harriers set hound and hare runs. Saturdays and Sundays, starting from various locations. Times vary. Open to runners ages 21 and older. Weekly fee $3. 312-248-7737."
The phone number links the aerobically curious to one Horn-E--known to very few as E. Foertsch--a 51-year-old unemployed computer repairman generally regarded by the CH3 as "the spirit of the hash." Horn-E explains hashing basics to the occasional inquirer and gives the location of the next run. Apparently, this brief introduction by Horn-E is usually more than enough to discourage most callers. He says few have subsequently hashed. Sometimes Horn-E will purposely deter them.
"I had one girl call who was a born-again Christian. I explained hashing to her, but she was still interested. I told her 'Look, you don't want to come. You don't drink. You won't like it, and we don't want you,'" he says. She never showed.
Horn-E doesn't mind scaring some people off--give him a troop of true hashers or none at all. Although he never was much of a runner, he started hashing six years ago after reading a newspaper article about the group. As he explains it, he'd been looking for a drinking club anyway. "Shit, once I found hashing, I started running just to be fit to hash."
When Horn-E joined, the Chicago group was more of "a yuppie running club" than anything else, he says. Six weeks later, he went to the 1985 Americas' InterHash in Atlanta and discovered hashing in its hard-core form. He immersed himself in the fraternitylike atmosphere, and brought back with him songs, a beer-chugging ritual called the "down-down," and the practice of giving out hash names, which had been largely absent in the CH3. Although the CH3 is still considered a modest hash, Horn-E's omnipresent spirit pushes the group closer and closer to the hashing ideal. He attends most of the CH3's "mismanagement" meetings, sets trails, leads the songs, and continues trying to lessen any inclinations toward moderation he perceives in the CH3.
"A real hasher runs, drinks, sings, gets wild. That's what hashing is all about--doing it all," Horn-E says. "I'm into it all." He won't tolerate a half-hasher--someone who shows up only for the run or the on-on and does not indulge in the entire experience. Not even a bum ankle can keep him from hashing regularly--on a February trip to Ann Arbor he hashed three times in one weekend. The Ann Arbor group's third anniversary even included a Sunday Hangover Hash.
One look around Horn-E's Lakeview basement dwelling and the role of hashing in his life becomes clear. Hashing paraphernalia inundates his living room: hashing songs, programs, yearbooks, travel brochures, videotapes, newspaper clippings, and stacks upon stacks of photos from the field. Alongside his extensive shelved collection of beer bottles and cans hangs a large framed photo of him performing his trademark Double Down-Down (a four-beer chug). In his comparatively kempt bedroom, nearly a hundred hashing T-shirts are stacked ceiling-high on a dresser; an exotic collection of foreign posters and art papers the walls; and a plethora of hashing shorts, patches, pins, and sweatbands jam his drawers. This man lives, breathes, and excretes hashing.
Horn-E has attended every InterHash and Americas' InterHash since he started hashing. His plans are currently jelling for the event in Phuket: he plans to join the Kuala Lumpur H3 for its 2,500th run and then head off to the InterHash, where he hopes to meet enough Aussie hashers that he can make a long tour of that continent at a later date.
He pops into the VCR a videotape he made at Americas' InterHash 1991 in Waukesha. A hallowed tradition of InterHashes is the irreverent and often pornographic skits the various H3s stage during the many on-ons; hashers and hashettes perform bacchanalian spectacles involving beer bongs, breast baring, and various displays of sexual bravura. At one point, the CH3 contingent jump to the stage with a less risque routine, led by Horn-E: the singing of his latest composition, "Jeffrey Dahmer's Diner," to the tune of "Allouette." The crowd can boo unbearably boring skits off the stage Gong Show-style, and the emcee reserves the right to make anyone drop his or her drawers and sit on a huge block of ice. But the CH3 finish their song to a round of applause and with their shorts safely hitched. The Mr. and Miss Americas' InterHash contests follow.
"Basically the guys are waiting for some tits and ass. The women are waiting for some guy to wave his dick at them," Horn-E says, as the video jumps to the outgoing Miss Americas' InterHash using a microphone to exhibit her winning fellatio technique. Horn-E adds with a thigh slap and a cackle, "Anything goes at Americas' InterHash."
The videotape continues to roll, and somehow Horn-E ends up on stage buck naked but for a coating of whipped cream. A Miss Americas' InterHash contestant from Pittsburgh hovers over him licking it off. Horn-E, watching his pixeled image, mentions that he had met her previously, during one of Pittsburgh's infamous naked hashes. Thus begins one of his famous epic hashing tales.
A group of them, including the Pittsburgh contestant, were enjoying a post-hash hot tub, he says, when a Good Humor truck rolled by. "She got out of the tub naked and went over to the truck, and someone else covered her in chocolate ice cream. We licked it off her," Horn-E says, his matter-of-fact delivery building into another cackle. "And there's this 19-year-old kid working his summer job in the truck. He's got the greatest story in the world. Only he can't tell it because no one will believe it."
Rolling off Horn-E's tongue, the story seems like it might be true. Or partly true. Who's to say?
As iconoclasts of the puritanical running world, hashers embrace the apparent contradictions of run and rum, jogging and jocularity. From on-ons to InterHashes, hashers have just plain too much overindulgent fun for any self-respecting serious runner to join. Serious runners may be scared off as well by the CH3's dictum that anyone caught hashing in new shoes must drink a down-down out of them.
"I think the hash is very childish. That's what I love about it," says Special Head, a special-education teacher and an eight-year CH3 member. She asks that only her hash name (a play on her profession) be used for fear that her school might take exception to one of its teachers consorting with such a lascivious gang. "We're a very irreligious group."
Irreligious it is. Hashers have blitzed through funeral processions, masses, and weddings crossing their trail. The Full Moon Hashers wove a trail through the rubble of the January gas explosions on the near-northwest side. International television captured hashers in Kuwait who happened to be reveling at an on-on the day in 1990 that Iraq invaded. Chinese officials arrested several Beijing hashers on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre for wearing hashing T-shirts that sported antigovernment sentiments.
Special Head herself is a co-organizer of the CH3's annual Big Prick Hash, the fifth installment of which was held February 29. Special Head and her friends invented the event in response to Houston's Big Tit Hash, and it has become a Chicago tradition. Special Head helped design the memorable shirt for Big Prick IV, which boasted four erect penises spouting like geysers and the slogan, "Come One! Come All!"
A veteran of five Chicago marathons, Special Head is unusual in that she has a foot in the worlds of both serious running and hashing. She was introduced to the CH3 by a couple of friends six years ago. In 1986 she hash-toured Southeast Asia and China for a month, and she hopes to join the CH3 contingent going to Phuket. Although it has been five years since her last marathon, Special Head plans to intensify her running schedule in preparation for the Chicago Marathon in October.
Occasionally Special Head attempts to interest friends and serious runners in hashing, but few ever stay. Some years back she invited a serious running club that ran the same night every week as the hashers. "They ran with us but they were pretty stuffy. They didn't sing, do down-downs, or try to have fun." They were never seen again. She's also tried to interest her boyfriend, who jogs, but the drinking element of hashing turned him off. Although the many long-distance runners in the CH3 enjoy the workout of the hash trails, they enjoy equally the revelry of the alcohol and off-the-wall antics. And while it's becoming increasingly popular to jump on the wagon, even teetotalers must find something redeeming in a group that has the gall to disturb the delicate sensibilities of Beijing functionaries.
Back on wintry Trail 679, the Chicago hashers shoot through the parking lot of the Lakeshore Athletic Club. Except for the occasional health-club member sprinting frenetically from his or her car to the entrance, hashers are the only runners out on this frigid afternoon. The health-club members don't seem to notice the hashers until finally entering the climate-controlled club, and they throw querulous glances back at the troop, who are blowing their whistles and shouting madly "On, on!" The hashers disappear down Fullerton, leaving this brief encounter in their frosty wake.
Generally, the world of running is composed of two groups: the fashionable and the fanatical. Hashers represent but a minority of this world--an extremist, crossover minority.
Members of the all-too-conspicuous fashionable breed are marked by their attention to their attire. The neon trail of their chic, radiation-resistant Lycra leotards traces their paths. Then there are the fanatics. They keep ardently in step with the canons of their arcane religion, which offers fitness as if it were salvation, all the while ignoring the toll the asphalt paths take on their knees. They quote their workout schedules proudly in miles per week, as if the figure were translatable to days added to their life span.
Serious runners, says Horn-E, always whine, "'It wasn't such a good run for me. I didn't get my second wind until three and a quarter miles.' We say, 'Man, remember when I climbed that fence and tore my shorts?' Now that's fun.
"Some of those people are addicts. They are addicted to running. We're not addicts. We may be drunks, but we're not addicts."
Maybe not of running. But hashers are addicted to endorphins, and to living life to the hilt. They defy conventional thinking--that tourism is for traveling spectators, that intoxicated burlesque is best left on the college campus, and that running requires discipline. Hashers say, "What's the point?" Tomorrow never comes, and the past can never be recovered--so they fill the present as interestingly as possible with the tools they have: a runner's high and the lost weekend. Who's to say if they're on the right trail? On, on.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.