John Babb, 27, wears boxer shorts, a wife beater and a rubber tire around his waist. His hair is coiffed like one of Dr. Seuss' Whoville citizens. And he's running down a Bethlehem street.
Babb hasn't just escaped from Allentown State Hospital. He's a Hash House Harrier, one of many misfit runners who believe socializing's as important to one's well-being as exercising.
The group was founded in 1938 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, by A.S. "G" Gispert, a British officer serving in World War II. When they weren't hanging around the "Hash House" (the nickname given to the social club for British civil servants and businessmen), he and his buddies passed their free time playing "hares and hounds," where a group (the hounds) chases a leader who sets the trail (the hare). Afterward, they'd kick back and share stories and laughs over a few beers.
Though "G" died in combat in 1942, his idea to combine recreational exercise and socializing persisted. Soon, Hash House Harrier chapters began popping up throughout the world, in 160 countries. Today, more than 1,200 active chapters exist, one being right here in the L.V.
Each month, roughly 30 runners ranging in age, profession and ability, meet up at a local watering hole. Most of them have bawdy nicknames — among them, Ateapuss Complex, Mangina and Cavity Search — that have been assigned by the others.
They down a pint, stretch haphazardly and welcome "virgins" with a song and ritual that involves the newbies drinking as much beer as they can in a gulp and dumping the rest over their heads.
Then, a few leaders, or "hares," run ahead of the group to set the path by bouncing a chalk-covered tennis ball. The pack departs shortly thereafter to follow the hares' path, which ranges from a paved road to a woodsy trail with mud, rocks and streams. Sometimes there are even false trails intended to throw runners off.
The three-mile run is divided into legs with several "Beer Checks" along the way where runners can refuel with water or, more often, brew. Depending on the path, the beverage stop can be a bar such as the Old Brewery Tavern or J.P. O'Malley's, or a cooler hidden behind a tree.
At the end of the hash, the runners join "The Circle," where those who committed a hashing faux-pas (such as running too fast) are encouraged, though never forced, to drink beer.
An apres party follows, where songs are sung and stories are swapped. And though anyone rarely gets sloshed, this is where the heaviest drinking occurs.
The chapter has been doing this for nearly two years, still it remains a relatively underground group. They don't advertise who they are or when and where they meet; people learn about them through word-of-mouth or by looking online.
Few outsiders recognize the name and even less understand what it's about. Some peg it as "a drinking club with a running problem." Others, such as one Lehigh Valley Roadrunner, think it's all about "sophomoric fun."
In a sense, it's true. Though the group comprises well-respected professionals (teachers, pilots, business consultants, tech gurus), they check their seriousness at the door of pub at which they meet. They don't care if you're fast or slow, how many marathons you've run, or if you've ever run before at all.
"The thing about hashing is it takes all kinds. You have FRBs (Front Running Bastards) and the DFL (Dead F*cking Last), and everyone in between. I wasn't a runner when I started, but you don't have to be one," says Babb.
In fact, overachievers who show up in Aardvark gear or new kicks are asked to "shoot the boot" (drink beer out of their sneaker) after a race.
Despite the fun factor, the group's not all about boozing up any more than people playing softball at a picnic grove or a round of 18 on a golf course. "It's more about the chase and the experience," Babb asserts.
Still, criticism they've received from a few people in the community has kept some members quiet about their recreation. Even the group's leader refused an interview.
Kari Pichora, a 23-year-old who works with the mentally ill, on the other hand, has no shame speaking out about it. "The biggest misconception about hashing is that it's mostly based on the drinking — that you're just running to drink beer. I do enjoy drinking beer, but I also enjoy running and socializing and that's why I go. If I just wanted to drink beer, I could sit at home and do it," she says.
She sees far more good than harm in hashing; especially the possibilities to form new friendships. "I moved here, didn't have any friends and was looking to meet people," explains the transplant from Pittsburgh. "I just joined in February, but everyone welcomed me right away."
Babb, who hashed in his home state of Delaware and has been running with the L.V. chapter since last spring, also cites socializing as the main motivation. " I really enjoy hanging out with people that I probably wouldn't have met otherwise because we're all so different."
He also digs the exercise element and getting to know the lay of the land. "It's a good excuse to burn off some calories ... then put them back on," he says. "And it's nice to see different parts of Allentown and Bethlehem; no two hashes are ever the same, and I've been places that I didn't even know existed."
Plus ... he could argue nothing beats the bragging rights that come with running three miles with a tire on your torso.
THAT HARE: Hash House Harrier
trail markings TRUE TRAIL ARROW: Indicates the pack is on the right track; good for quick or sudden turns or when guiding the pack through shiggy they might otherwise avoid
TRAIL MARKS: Used between checks or arrows to indicate the direction of the trail; made by bouncing a chalk-covered tennis ball (or, in shiggy, leaving piles of flour)
CHECKS: Indicate the trail splits off in different directions; some of the splits may turn out to be false trails
FALSE TRAIL: Indicates this is not the true trail and directs the pack to go back to the check and explore other directions
WHICH WAY?: Indicates the trail can split in two directions; often one path is easier than the other
BEER NEAR: The last mark before a beer check; indicates the beer check is close by
HHH: Indicates the trail's end and the completion of the hash
Source: www.lvh3.com DRINKING (AND RUNNING) SONGS
Post-run, the Hash House Harriers take breaks between beers to sing songs celebrating their social club.
Learn these lyrics and you'll be belting them out, with beer mug held high, before you know it. "We've Got Virgins" (to the melody of
"Frere Jacques") "We've got virgins/ We've got virgins/ At our hash/ At our hash/ Gonna get 'em drunked up/ Gonna get 'em drunked up/ Down the hatch/ Down the hatch. "
"Down Down Song" "Here's to (name)/ He's so blue/ He's a hasher/ Through and through/ He's a pisspot, so they say/ Tried to go to heaven/ But he went the other way/ So drink it down, down, down." JOG JIVE
Apres: Hash after-party, usually held at a bar Auto Hashing: Hitching a ride to the trail's end in a car; a major violation of Hash etiquette
Beer Check: A beverage stop; indicated by the BN (Beer Near) trail mark
Checking: A call made when a hasher is looking for the continuation of the trail
Circle: The post-hash gathering of the pack where certain members are awarded prizes or given demerits based on their actions
Down-Down: Chugging beer; if you don't get it all down in one gulp, the remainder is poured over your head
Dry Bag: Contains dry, warm clothes to be worn after the hash
False Trail: Traps set by the Hare (person setting the course) to throw off those leading the pack
FRB (Front Running Bastards): Hashers who place importance on the running aspect and lead the pack
Hare: The person who sets the trail
Looking: A call made when the trail has been lost and the pack is searching for it
Mismanagement: Hash House Harrier officers, elected yearly
On-On: A call made when you are on the trail; helps those in the back of the pack know they're on the right path; the official Hash House Harrier motto
Shiggy: A trail with thick vegetation, rocks, streams and mud; messy terrain
The Lydia Award: Bestowed upon a hasher who exhibits stupid behavior, in honor of a Morning Call reader who wrote a letter to the editor condemning the LV hashers.
Source: www.lvh3.com Upcoming Hashes
Get a move on (and your drink on) at the following events:
May 20 -- 3rd Saturday hash: 2 p.m. @ Scherersville Baseball Field parking lot on Mauch Chunk Road, Allentown. $5.
June 3rd -- 2nd annual Reading-Lehigh Valley interhash in Kutztown
June 9 -- World Hasher Day
June 17 -- 3rd Saturday Hash
For meeting locations and times, go to www.lvh3.com and click on "Next hash."