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JAUNTS : Running a Different Sort of Race : For the Hash House Harriers, the objective isn't to win but to have some crazy fun.

July 01, 1993|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It looks like the start of any other footrace. Runners in fluorescent shorts milling about, recalling the rigors of past runs.

But hold on. One guy is swilling a beer. No one seems to be doing any pre-race stretching. And where's the starting line?

The Ventura County Hash House Harriers don't need a starting line, but the beer, ooh, now that's crucial. This is the group that takes pride in calling itself "the drinking club with a running problem."

They meet every third Sunday somewhere in the county for a "hash," which is a run based loosely on the old English game of hounds and hares. Before the run, the designated hares use flour or chalk to mark a mystery course. Then it's up to the hashers to find the course as they run it, walk it, crawl it, scale it, bushwhack it, or slide down it.

The idea isn't to win. In fact, a fiercely competitive attitude is a no-no. This is a team effort, because the hares can be merciless. The actual course may be five miles, but the hares leave hard-to-find or false clues, causing the runners to put in a few extra maddening miles just trying to find the course.

"The last three were diabolical," says Wendy Lascher, the hare for this hash, which starts in Memorial Cemetery Park in Ventura. A Ventura lawyer, Lascher has been hashing with the group almost two years. After five or six runs, hashers are given their hash names, some of which are too raunchy to print. Lascher's--Bananappeal--is tame by comparison.

At the start of the run, about two dozen hashers, some of them newcomers, take off in all directions looking for the familiar markings, the chalk-marked arrows, little mounds of flour, or the circle containing the X, which means the trail is somewhere within 100 yards, roughly--very roughly sometimes.

The course takes them through neighborhoods, school grounds, parking lots, along railroad tracks, and down a slippery embankment. Along the way, people gawk--with good reason. The front-running hashers carry bull horns or whistles and blow them when they find the trail. Or they scream out, "On-On!" to those still wandering about looking for clues.

Because so much time is spent looking for the course, the slower runners and walkers have a chance to catch up and the pack loosely stays together. About halfway through, in keeping with tradition, they take a beer break.

Hashing is steeped in tradition. It was started in the 1930s in Malaysia by English army officers as a hangover cure. However, the weekly run would end at a Chinese pub called The Hash House where the original purpose would be forgotten amid rounds of beer.

The tradition caught on. Now there are chapters worldwide, including more than 100 in the United States. Some of their zany exploits have become legendary, like the runs through four-star hotels or San Diego's famous sewer tunnel dash.

Walt Hanlon, 59, of Camarillo has been hashing 10 or 12 years, some of it with the Los Angeles chapter. Hanlon, whose hash name is Buttercup because of his yellow truck, was on one hash through Los Angeles International Airport and another through the former zoo in Griffith Park where runners ran through vacated lion cages.

Ventura County's chapter, which formed in 1981, has about 60 members and usually a couple dozen show up for each run. Some say they're more conservative than other party-hearty hash groups.

"We're not that wild--we try to respect private property," said Daryl Hatfield of Camarillo, a seven-year hash veteran who goes by the name Hard Core.

Nonetheless, they have some stories. Like the time they followed markings along the railroad tracks only to discover later they had been made by rail crews instead of the hares. People get lost and have to be rounded up. And then there's the time the stray dog ate the flour dropped to mark the trail.

Back on Lascher's course, the runners wind their way through downtown Ventura streets, ending the 90-minute ordeal with the final ascent of some 30 steps to a picnic area where a cooler of beer, soda, cookies, chips and salsa awaits.

And the induction of new runners, called "boots." The group sings the bawdy welcoming song and the new members are called upon to perform the traditional "down-down" by chugging a beer, or soda. Despite the emphasis on beer, the group believes in responsible drinking and those who don't drink have another option: they can pour the beer on their head. Of the five newcomers, four down soda and the fifth chugs beer.

Only one final ritual remains--the special blooper award handed out after each run to the hasher recognized for his or her stupidity during the event. This time it goes to the assistant hare who accidentally helped a runner stay on course at one point. His trophy? The traveling toilet plunger.

* WHERE AND WHEN

WHAT: Ventura County Hash House Harriers, a fun-running group.

WHEN: Holds four- to six-mile runs every third Sunday, 2:45 p.m. Next run is July 11.

WHERE: Barranca Vista Park, 7050 Ralston St., Ventura. Call 488-9798 for more information.

COST: First run is free. After that, it's $4 per run.

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