You’re standing in the middle of a steaming hot Malaysian jungle on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur as darkness descends all around. You’re covered in mud – at least you hope it’s only mud – from tip to toe, badly dehydrated, pouring sweat, heaving almost to the point of hyperventilation and starting to feel the fear reach its ugly, paralysing fingers up your neck and bore into the base of your skull. You have no food, water, cell phone, GPS, torch or even the slightest clue where you are or where you’re meant to be going. All you can think about is spending the night here alone, with all of those things that go bump in the night, and how you have no one to blame for the ridiculous situation but yourself.
Pretty scary, eh?
Now, picture standing in this condition before two Indian security guards in a brand new housing development next to that very same jungle just 20 minutes later and trying to explain what’s happened. You’re from Canada but currently live and teach English in South Korea. You’ve been in the country on holiday less than 24 hours. This morning you reached out to a strange group of men that you’ve never met before and agreed to come with them out here to run through the rainforest together. You managed to lose everyone, just barely made it back to civilization before nightfall and have no idea how to go about contacting anybody or where they could possibly be. Oh, and they have all of your belongings. Picture the looks on their faces.
Pretty funny, right?
Just another mad Monday evening with the Kuala Lumpur Hash House Harriers.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’d be prudent to go back to where these things so often start – at the beginning.
I thought that the kindly British expat, who worked for oil giant PETRONAS and had driven me out to the run after I’d e-mailed him and asked to join as a guest, had been putting me on when he said that two visiting runners who had decided to take on the Mother Hash had ended up spending more time in the jungle than they’d meant to. One was found at 3 am and was surprisingly calm about it, while the other came out at 7 or 8 am the next morning and was (quite understandably, I think) none-too-pleased. The serious look on his face while he recalled these tales put me off a little, but it didn’t really hit home just how serious he was until I saw the assembled runners with their GPS devices, trail running shoes, high socks, bottles of water and other supplies that seemed more fit for a few days with Bear Grylls than a leisurely jog. No matter, I thought. Just stick with the group and you’ll be fine.
But even this seemingly simple task was too much to ask of me, apparently.
Right about now you might be wondering how this bizarre little ritual came to be. The answer reaches all the way back to the mid-1800s and involves some inspired combining of sport, a bit of evolution, WWII and, strangely enough for a running club, loads and loads of beer.
A Hash House Harriers History
The story of the Hash House Harriers – a “running club with a drinking problem” (or perhaps “drinking club with a running problem” is more apt, depending on which chapter you’re hashing with) dates back to 1938, with its origins stretching all the way back to mid-19th century Britain. There, the popular running games “Paper Chase” and “Hare and Hounds” took root. While “Paper Chase” was predominantly a children’s game that involved following a set trail over cross-country terrain, “Hare and Hounds” groups were aimed towards adults and stressed fitness and race preparation. As the name indicates, the spirit of the latter club came from hunting, as hunters often used dogs to help chase down rabbits.
Several “Hare and Hounds” groups already existed in the Federated Malay States (modern-day Malaysia) by the mid-1930′s, in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Johor Baru, Georgetown and Malacca. Then, in 1938, several British civil servants and businessmen in Kuala Lumpur created an offshoot group that combined “Paper Chase” with “Hare and Hounds,” one that placed decidedly less emphasis on the physical fitness aspects of the activity and more on the social side.
The brainchild of A.S. Gispert, Cecil Lee, Frederick “Horse” Thomson, Ronald “Torch” Bennett, John Woodrow and H.M. Doig, the club took its name from the local Selangor Club Chambers, where the members lived, socialized and ate. Affectionately derided as the “Hash House” for its bland and uninspired fare, the new group was dubbed the “Hash House Harriers.”
By 15 August 1941 the group had completed 117 runs, but operations were suspended while the Japanese occupied the Federated Malay States during WWII. The next run was not to take place until August 1946, by which time political tensions had created an atmosphere that made the runs increasingly more difficult to conduct. In fact, in 1950 Kuala Lumpur city authorities declared that all groups must formally register and have a charter – which was drawn up in typical good humour and embodies the soul of the HHH to this day:
- To promote physical fitness amongst its members
- To get rid of weekend hangovers
- To acquire a good thirst and to satisfy it with beer
- To persuade the older members that they are not as old as they feel
The first branch club opened in 1947 in Bordighera, Italy (close to Milan), but lax record keeping and an official folding in the early 1960′s led many to believe that the second hash (known as the “Father Hash”) began in Singapore. By 1965 there were 10 clubs mostly around South-East Asia, and by the mid-70′s there were almost 50 clubs across 14 countries. Multiplying like rabbits over the ensuing decades, today there are upwards of 2000 active clubs running in nearly every country on earth – there are even two chartered clubs in Antarctica.
The typical trail is anywhere from 7-12 km in length, but as with all hash clubs this is just an approximation as everything varies from group to group. Marked with paper, chalk, flour, sawdust, spray paint etc., runs can take place across an array of terrains and in any weather conditions, from downpours in urban city streets to jungles, mountains, rice paddies and everything in between. While some trails are set “live,” with a “hare” heading off 10-15 minutes ahead of the pack to set the course, others are set “dead” well ahead of time. Several “checkpoints” along the way snake off in all directions, with a handful of false trails leading runners astray and one true trail continuing along the correct path. The idea is to give the “hare” in live runs a chance to stay ahead, to give stragglers in the back an opportunity to catch up and, of course, to give inexperienced runners a chance to get completely lost.
At least that’s how it felt when I looked up from tying my shoe at a checkpoint about 2/3 of the way through the trail to see that the runners that had seemed so close to me had vanished.
Back to My Run
As the familiar calls of “on-on!” (which are frequently bellowed out from the front-running bastards so those lagging behind can find the correct route by voice), and the sounds of the blaring horn began to fade from up ahead, I put my trust, as I had been strongly advised, in “following the paper” that marked our trail. I followed this mantra admirably, I thought, but unfortunately no one saw fit to mention that several different hash groups existed in Kuala Lumpur and that one of them had recently conducted their own run through the very same jungle, with their course coming perilously close to ours at one junction.
So as daylight descended and dusk drew near, I found myself “following the paper” as my eyes fought to adjust to the diminishing light. After 5-10 minutes, the calls and the horn had disappeared entirely and I bent over to pick up one of the pieces of paper marking the trail I was on. It read “G7 Hash,” and I recognised the name and the symbol were completely different from the one I’d been following up to that point.
As my breathing grew more rapid and shallow and my frantic cries of “on call!” elicited no response, three thoughts entered my head: just follow this trail, even if it is for another group it will lead you out eventually; that was an idiotic first thought, if this is just the beginning of the other trail instead of the end you might be headed back in to the jungle, so just sit down and wait for someone to find you; they really weren’t joking with me when they said they’d lost two guests before.
So it was not without a significant sigh of relief that I stumbled out of the forest and onto the side of a steep hill beside a housing development just after 8 p.m., approximately 2 minutes before total darkness set in. So I’d gotten myself out…now all that was left to do was find everyone else.
It was then that I met the security guards who, to their credit, saw through the highly improbable story and realized I actually needed some help (I’m guessing the look of utter defeat etched on my face combined with my ghastly appearance did the trick). So they called their Chinese manager – who of course spoke perfect, fluent English – and at that moment my brain finally began to function on some sort of basic level as I remembered that several members had their mobile phone numbers listed on the group website. So he looked up the site on his smart phone, called the gentleman who had brought me, and approximately 45 seconds later he came around the corner to pick me up.
“What the hell did you go and do that for? We were just over there.”
The post-run circle, a staple of the social side of H3 groups everywhere, was already well under way, and the reward for my harrowing experience was an immediate good-natured chiding of “Where have you been?!?!” and a few consecutive down-downs, where I had to finish a frosty adult beverage in one go or risk pouring the remaining contents of the cup onto my head. Other members were subsequently called up by their ridiculously lewd hash names – which are earned for notorious episodes or physical/personality traits (or sometimes simply after completing a set number of runs) – and recognized or chastised for a number of feats or offenses both real and (more likely) imagined in the same way, with more down-downs and drinking songs.
By the time I’d finally calmed down (and had taken a shower with cold water and shampoo, having decided to throw all of my clothes, socks and shoes into the jungle and do the next 25 days on the road with only a pair of flip-flops) it was time for the on-after, a huge cookout of incredible homemade Chinese food. And as people sat around, eating, talking, laughing and drinking, the only thing I could think about was just how alive I truly felt.
How to get involved in the Hash House Harriers
Interested in hashing but no idea how to start? Nervous that you’re not fit enough? Not to worry. There’s a plethora of information everywhere and clubs for everyone. Your best bet is a quick Google search, as websites, newsletters and magazines with hash news are in abundance. Many major international cities have at least one chapter, with many having several. There are men’s groups, women’s groups, co-ed groups, even runs for kids and families. Every H3 club has their own style, with some focused more on running and others on the social aspect. Just look one up, or talk to someone, and jump right in.
Better Run Through the Jungle: A Cautionary Tale from the Kuala Lumpur Mother Hash
By Alex Rathy
Story originally appeared on 11 March 2013 in the online travel magazine Departful (www.departful.com)