At the sound of a toy plastic horn, a pack of runners jogs down a road to nowhere and onto a faint trail in an undeveloped subdivision in Ypsilanti Township. The front runners point out white dots of flour on the ground and holler “On-On!” to let the others know they’re on trail.
When they reach a floury white “X,” one runs ahead in each likely direction to look for the three white dots that mark the real trail. In moments, “On-on” echoes through the woods from one direction and the whole pack turns and plunges down a steep bank, crossing a flooded ditch on what looks like an old section of privacy fence.
As they disappear into the woods, “On-on”s blend with birdsongs and the squawking of a duck. When they emerge, scratched and dirty somewhere on the other side, there will be beer.
The Motown-Ann Arbor Hash House Harriers describe themselves (as do hashers around the world) as a drinking club with a running problem. Some of the club’s 80 members started hashing for the exercise, but they keep hashing for the camaraderie. Any exercise incurred along the way is somewhat incidental – a side effect of getting from one “beer check” to the next.
“It was started by (members of) the British military hoping to get back in shape when there were no wars,” said Nancy “Mother Inferior” Marcott. “But the active description of a hasher who’s been hashing a year would be someone who can run 10 miles interspersed with swimming, rock climbing and large leaping, and has a huge beer belly.”
But you don’t have to drink beer to hash (we’re pretty sure there were non-alcoholic beverages in the cooler, too, and people were seen drinking water, which they must have gotten somewhere). You don’t have to run, don’t have to be a particular age, don’t have to have a nickname (though if you stick around long enough they’ll gladly give you one you can’t take home to Mother.)
All you really need is a healthy sense of humor (actually, a sick one will do, too) and an old pair of shoes.
Hashes typically cover 4-6 miles on trails that can range from stroller-friendly to “shiggy” (riddled with obstacles including – but not limited to – water, fences and rash-inducing vegetation) with beverage stops along the way. It’s not uncommon to ford knee-deep streams. It’s less common – but not unheard-of – to cross chest-deep, muddy-bottomed ponds. In May.
The pack follows flour or chalk hash marks – dots, arrows, Xs and other signs – to pick out the true trail from any bogus ones the “hare” (the person laying the trail) might have left.
Marcott, who lives in Ann Arbor, has been hashing with the Motown-Ann Arbor group so long that her hash name is often shortened to “Mother” or just “Ma.” She used to be a legitimate runner. After taking some time off she started hashing with the idea that it would get her back into shape. In the 17 years since, Marcott’s role has shifted, nudged along by an arthritic knee. Now she leads a group of walkers at every hash – generally with a copy of the map so they can take the appropriate shortcuts to arrive at the beer check at about the same time as the runners.
There, happy hour ensues – or at least a happy 15 minutes or so – while the day’s designated hare takes off to mark the section of trail that leads to the next beverage stop.
“I’m a competitive runner and I enjoy the not-so-serious nature of this,” said Dave “Diaper Rash” Dysert, from Detroit. “It’s not training, but it’s fun anyway, and there’s always beer afterwards.”
Hashing goes back to 1938 and a group of British expatriates in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It’s popular with expats around the world because of its ability to create instant community out of the shared silliness. Average age tends to be over 45, but hashers range at least 20 years in either direction. Someone in the Motown-Ann Arbor group hosts a hash just about every weekend through the summer.
After the hash, the group of 15-20 gathers at the “on-after” – usually a bar or restaurant – to eat, drink, sing raunchy songs and assess “down-downs” (penalty drinks) for misdeeds real, imagined or blatantly made-up.
Members of the Motown-Ann Arbor group have hashed all over the country and around the world. Larry “Minuteman” Tonda has hashed in Malaysia, England, Ireland, Wales and Costa Rica. Dysert, who runs marathons and ultra-marathons, recently hashed with his wife in Las Vegas, where hashers they’d just met put them up for the night to save them a late 80-mile drive back to Mesquite, Nev.
Likewise, the local hash welcomes visitors from other clubs. Toledo and Bay City hashers were on hand the day The Chronicle tagged along.
“I know people because of hashing that I would never know otherwise,” said Sharin’ Fluids, a registered dietician whose hash name comes from her tendency to encourage people to stay hydrated. (Out of deference to her employer she declined to give her real name, but it’s not Sharon).
When she moved to Ann Arbor in 2006 she didn’t know a soul and says she could hardly walk a block. Someone suggested she try hashing, and through the club she met people of all ages from all over southeastern Michigan, including Mark “Pennsil Vein” Shehan, who’s now her fiancé. Last year, encouraged by other hashers, she ran a half-marathon.
“(To enjoy it) you just have to be an open-minded individual who likes to socialize and be active,” she said. “Your fitness level doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you can only walk, or if you can run six miles. Everyone accepts everyone.”
About the author: Amy Whitesall is a freelance writer based in Chelsea.