The songs of the runners carried in the night — over the L’Enfant Plaza fountain, past the cooler of Busch Light and onto the rows of federal office buildings.
Some of the singers could be employed in those buildings, and the others would never know.
The newcomers in the group were corralled into the middle of the circle, the vulgar songs and mockery now on the list of the many traditions they had been exposed to on this summer evening: Don’t call it a run; follow the flour; imbibe as you please.
The sweat stains from their hour-long jog were drying as the sky grew darker. A few of the men in the group had ditched their shirts as they filled their mugs with post-run libations.
Singing “Down down down down down down down down,” they watched the newcomers drink and, as instructed, lift their mugs high enough to tip whatever beer was left onto their own heads. A few drops landed on a ponytailed blonde, who had been brought along by her friend, known to the group only as Magnum Be Gone.
“We’re always glad to have newcomers and come often-ers!”
Some say they hate the running, others hate the drinking, but week after week, in the District and around the world, the Hash House Harriers gather for both. They claim to be the world’s largest running club, made up of more than 2,300 chapters.
Hashers meet regularly for running, singing, name-calling and drinking. They’re known for their crass sense of humor and cultlike secrecy just as much as for their mixture of alcohol and exercise. Hashers join because old friends persuade them to, and stay because their new friends are unlike any they’ve met. Where else would they meet congressional staffers and burnouts, doctors and janitors, all in one place?
On this particular Monday in July, the White House Hash House Harriers, one of Washington’s largest chapters, met at 6:30 p.m. for a French-themed run. They gathered at L’Enfant Plaza, made a few passing mentions of Bastille Day and prepared to jog past all of the monuments that a hasher would later point out were “tributes to all the times we saved the French’s sorry asses.”
One of the leaders of the group explained the rules of the hash to two “virgins.” “Hares” lay the trail for the runners to follow throughout the city, marking the way with flour or chalk.
“You will see a ‘BN,’ that means beverage near,” he said. He’s been hashing for 3 1/2 years, meeting on Monday nights after his job as a reporter for a trade publication. His necklace, a token of hash memorabilia, carries his hash name: Pulp Friction.
“If you see ‘ON IN,’ that means you’re near the end.”
Pulp Friction looked up at the two women, both wide-eyed.
“It’s not as hard as it looks.”
After the first round of songs (“We’ve got virgins, we’ve got virgins!”), the 50 hashers took off toward the Mall. The normally crunchy gravel was wet from an afternoon storm that looked like it could start again at any time. No puddle passed without a hasher jumping in two-footed to splash the others.
Such childlike debauchery is all part of the fun. Hash names are the best example of that. When virgins start out, they’re known only by their first names, with a “just” placed in front: Just Jill, Just Tony, Just Mark. When they are deemed worthy of a hash name, after they’ve participated in a certain number of hashes, the moniker is inspired by a probing Q&A in front of the entire group. Nothing is off limits.
The stories behind such names as Hot Tub Slime Machine, Tragic Carpet Ride and Close Your Eyes and Hope for the Breast are not discussed with outsiders (and they’re likely unsuitable for publication anyway).
Once a hash name is given, legal names are never used again. Hashers are their hash name, and the sharing of personal information — place of employment, especially — need never happen again.
The virgin “Just Jen,” who works in sustainability consulting, seemed to be on her way to earning a name of her own. She kept up with the pack on that Monday in July, laughing as she discussed diapers in landfills. Around her, the conversation was classic Washington, with topics ranging from the best place for Ethiopian food to the survival of the U.S. Postal Service.
Haphazardly laid patches of flour led the way around the Tidal Basin. The hashers passed the bronze statue in the Jefferson Memorial of the founding father who believed in the “pursuit of happiness.”
For hashers, happiness is knowing they’ll be hashing at the end of the day. They’ll hash on the hottest day of the year, through thunderstorms and in knee-deep snow. They seek out hashes in other cities when they vacation. They’ll spend thousands to travel to international hash events in Belgium or China.
Heading north again, the group spotted “BN” written in chalk.
The stop was a parking lot, where coolers of water and frothy refreshment foreshadowed what was to come. There were still 10 minutes to run, and the hares who laid the path were already setting up an area for the final round of singing and drinking.
The hares covered a plastic folding table with the necessary post-run goods: Pringles, Pop-Tarts, Wheat Thins, spray cheese and Cheetos. Cheetos are a favorite of Just Miles, who has been to many hashes and is still without a hash name, because he is a dog.
The pup trotted past the hasher who had been “volun-told” to pour the Busch Lights at a table covered in the tin mugs that are communally used during the end-of-run ceremonies. The mugs look as if they came from an old English pub, a tribute to hashing’s origin as a game played by Britishex-patriates in Malaysia in the 1930s.
Before long, Just Jen was pouring the contents of her mug over her ponytail.
“Down, down, down, down, down, down.”
It isn’t legal to drink in a public place, which is partly why the White House Hashers change locations every week. Most police, the hashers say, don’t mind their festivities because they always clean up after themselves. The group members are all of legal drinking age, some by more than 40 years. They’re not bonded by age, race, gender, finances or background of any kind. It’s all about personality, one hasher said.
“It’s your thing or it’s not,” said District 69, who became a hasher after she moved to the District from South Africa. “You have to have a certain lack of reverence and solid sense of self.”
By the end of the run, she said, you can always tell whether if a virgin is right for hashing.
The smile on Just Jen’s face as the last of the beer poured out is a tell.
“May the hash go in peace!” someone yelled.
The cooler rolled to the truck. Tennis shoes were traded for flip flops. Just Miles the dog was thrown a few bottom-of-the-bag Cheetos.
And away they went, past the federal buildings to their homes and kids and jobs. Until the next week.
What is hashing?
The Hash House Harriers is a running and drinking club that operates internationally, with more than 500 chapters in the United States alone. Each chapter usually meets on a weekly or monthly basis and spends an hour running along a pre-marked trail. A “hare” marks the trail with symbols in chalk and the rest of the runners follow, jogging through any environment and in any weather. At one point along the trail and again at the end, the runners stop and drink — usually beer.
Hashers are known for their crude sense of humor, which can be observed in their nicknames, songs and initiation process. Their traditions are not for the easily offended: Everything from the choice of trail to physical attributes is on the table to become the subject of mockery.
Who came up with this?
According to group lore, hashing began in Malaysia in 1938, as entertainment for men in the British Colonial service. Its founder, A.S. Gispert, was an accountant.
Do I have to be an experienced runner?
The group sees itself as more of a social club than an athletic endeavor, meaning there are runners of all abilities. It is also perfectly acceptable to walk, but highly unacceptable to attempt to race anyone. (You’ll be called a “race-ist” if you do.)
Do I have to drink?
Drinking is the distinguishing characteristic of the running group. Many of the songs and initiation traditions involve alcohol. Still, hashers are adamant that drinking is not a requirement to join.
How do I join?
The Washington and Baltimore area is home to 17 chapters of Hash House Harriers. Their schedules, contact information and participation costs (generally $5 to $7 per hash) can be found at www.dchashing.com.
If hashing sounds a bit too intense for you, there are other ways to combine alcohol with exercise in the area. Check out these groups and events:
Lagers & Joggers
Port City Brewing Company in Alexandria hosts a Monday night running group that offers one-, three- and five-mile runs. Registration is free and the brewery’s tasting room is open for post-run libations until 9 p.m. www.portcitybrewing.com.
Baltimore Beer Run
Along with a 5K, this Oct. 12 event — part of Charm City’s beer week — will feature a one-mile run in which participants will drink four 12-ounce beers before the finish line. Winners will receive gift certificates to Birroteca or Heavy Seas Beer. Cost is $25 for the one-mile beer run, $30 for the 5K. Register at www.t3run.com.
Shake Shack Track & Field
The restaurant that brings you burgers and fries is now bringing you exercise, too. The group meets at 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of every month. They start at a Pacers running store near Pentagon Row or Logan Circle, then run to the Shake Shack in Dupont Circle, where you can get back those calories you burned with ease. www.facebook.com/ShackTrackAndField.
Right Proper Beer Run
With City Running Tours, you can see the sights, run and drink all at the same time. Get a tour of the Shaw neighborhood and Chinatown, then end up at Right Proper Brewing Company. The 4.4-mile run happens every Saturday and costs $40. Book online at www.cityrunningtours.com/washingtondc.