Never mind the beer. The off-color nicknames. The spray paint.
These guys are athletes.
At least, that’s what Eternal Hare, aka Randolph Zóñiga, told me as we trotted off from Mac’s American Bar and Grill last Monday night, just before dark. It was 5:01 when we left the bar, exactly one minute late but still early in Tico time.
“This is about the only thing that starts on time in Costa Rica,” Fancy Pants, aka Millard Farmer, assured me.
It was a motley crew: a couple of Ticos, a guy from Kenya, a Brit, a German, a handful of U.S. expats. Ages ranged from around 25 to 70 or so. Running shoes and jogging shorts were about the only thing these guys had in common – at least at first glance.
Traffic along the old road in western San José’s La Sabana was bumper to dented bumper, cars honking, trucks spewing a powdery black exhaust that seemed to hang in the air, trash here and there along the streets.
The group, about 10 of us total, spread out as we jogged along the decrepit concrete sidewalks. Arriving at the first intersection, chaos ensued.
“Where is it? Where is it?” someone yelled. I looked around, expecting to see an angry dog making off with a piece of the man’s shorts or maybe worse. Then I saw the bright orange arrow spray-painted on the edge of the sidewalk.
“There it is! It’s this way!” yelled someone who’d spotted the “mark” before me. Then the trumpet – a tarnished bronze relic with a booming call – sounded. The group bunched again like an accordion on recoil, gathering around longtime member and trumpeter Fancy Pants. Then they continued on.
That’s the way it went for the next half hour or so: looking for marks, gathering the group, taking occasional breaks from running to walk and talk. It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt – find the “marks,” or course directions spray-painted on signs or sidewalks, then follow them to the prize: the bar.
I guessed the run was a kilometer or so, maybe a bit more, but nothing a typical beer belly couldn’t handle.
The San José Hash House Harriers have been doing this for 29 years. Though it’s all fun and games (and a little exercise), it’s also a worldwide institution with more than 2,200 “hashes” in 150 countries throughout the world, in places such as Singapore, Ireland, Hong Kong and Canada.
It started before World War II with a group of British diplomats in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who had gathered to eat at a restaurant that served huge portions of corned-beef hash. They nicknamed the restaurant the “Hash House.” Someone observed that they’d probably be well advised to exercise a bit, lest they all get fat.
“That was the first group. First it spread throughout Southeast Asia, wherever there were British expats. Since then, it’s spread all over the world,” explained Harrier historian Mike Valldejuli, aka Hooligan. Australia now has the most hashes.
“They’re British descendants and they like to drink beer,” Hooligan said.
This particular group was a mix of two “hashes”, the San José and Escazú Hash House Harriers. The group has shrunk from a peak of 75 members in the 1980s to about two dozen now.
“People nowadays come here on job assignments that last only three or four years,” Eternal Hare explained.
They run on Monday evenings, usually meeting around 5 p.m. somewhere in the Central Valley, and on Saturdays, when their families gather for runs in the countryside and beer and barbecue afterwards.
“Running on Monday is nice; it’s something to look forward to at the beginning of the week,” Hooligan said.
As we ran, the farther we got from the busy highway, down a steep hill, across a basketball court, through a park, the more it seemed a world apart.
“Hello, how are you? Are you okay?” asked a Tico in broken English when he saw us running, exhausted, up what seemed like the steepest hill in Costa Rica.
Someone in the group replied in broken Spanish, and everyone smiled. Sunset lit the distant sky, bathing the west-facing hillsides in diffuse golden light.
“When you drive a car, you don’t see anything. That’s why I love to run. Traffic is so stressful here,” said “No Name,” or Thomas Hemmer, the German, as we trotted along a palm-lined street.We turned the corner back onto the Calle Vieja (Old Road
) from San José to the western suburb of Escazú, and by now the traffic had died a little.
Now for the Beer
After the run, the other half of the weekly event ensued: drinking beer at the bar. Everyone ordered a round of Pilsens and Imperials, hamburgers and fries, too. A few other members showed up conveniently late. Over beers I learned that the San José Hash House Harriers were the first in Central America, begun in 1978. Some of the original members still run and drink (sometimes in the opposite order) with the group.
Events are open to any and all. In fact, they’re actively looking for new members, male or female. To become official and receive your honorary hash nickname, you need only attend three events.
“Throughout the world, there are important people in hashes – diplomats, heads of companies. So we use nicknames. To give you an idea, the director of British Airways got arrested for running erratically on the street during a hash in Moscow,” explained Peter Pemberton (nickname omitted because of adult content).
“You don’t have to like your nickname, either,” he added.
Field trips and special events are part of the fun, too. There’s a bar run, on which members run between 10 bars in the capital city. There’s the World Hash, which can attract thousands of hashers from countries near and far, and a Continental Hash, which was held in San José in 2003 and attracted more than 900 participants. They even keep statistics, to keep track of who does the most runs each year.
“It’s a whole thriving industry,” Hooligan said. “It’s really a great way to meet people and learn about the country.”
This group included a British sailor from Kenya whose father had served in the Indian Army, another man who imported paper milled in Finland to different entities in Central America, a tour-group owner and a vanilla exporter.
There was some debate as to what the club is really about: drinking or running. After a few more beers, the group had hardly reached consensus, other than to say that maybe both are equally important.
Mostly, they said, the Harrier outings – the run, the bocas and a trago (or three) at the bar afterwards – are a break from the rat race of work and San José.
It was true. I felt refreshed, ready for the workweek ahead.
“I told you,” Hooligan said. “Bring some friends with you next time.”
How to Be a Harrier
Anyone interested in joining the Hash House Harriers may contact Fancy Pants at 282-6010 or visit www.escazuhhh.com. Bring a sense of humor and your running shoes.