I like away runs. Designed to discover the hidden side of foreign parts – be they cities or islands, run on Tarmac or trails – away runs always have something special about them. And they usually involve getting lost. My most recent away run did nothing to disappoint.
I was intrigued when researching our current holiday destination to discover the global phenomenon of the Hash House Harriers, and the very strong local chapter on Grenada. Celebrating 30 years and more than 900 hashes in that time, this group of “drinkers with a running problem” is clearly a very well-established weekly way to discover the hidden byways of the island.
I connected to the very welcoming Brian Steele, who runs the Grenada HHH Facebook page, before we set off. And when I asked about the Hash at the concierge’s desk of our Grand Anse resort, I was directed to keen triathlete and all-round local superman Troy. Troy kindly sorted transport, Grenada minibus style, to the off at Bay Cottage, Gouyave, half way up the West coast of the island.
We travelled in the 30C heat, windows open, with a small clutch of much more experienced hashers. A couple from South Africa – who’d sailed up in a boat three years or so back and hadn’t left – were particularly helpful. She was a self-confessed FRB, one of the competitive Front Running Bastards.
There’s a great sense of fun and humour and community about the Hash, particularly (?) the Grenada chapter, on this friendliest of West Indian islands. This was much in evidence as we milled and chilled before the off at 4pm on the beach at Gouyave. As virgins, we were required – like all runners and walkers – to sign in and out on our return. Legend told of one woman who’d gone missing in the bush on a hash in recent memory, only to appear on the other side of this (not-insubstantial) island at 7am the next day.
Hashmaster River Stone Annie commanded the PA system’s mic shortly before four, ordering those with too-new sneakers to down a bottle of local brew Carib from their confiscated right shoe before setting off. Ordinarily I’d have killed for a chilled beer on a Saturday afternoon of a holiday in tropical climes. But the prospect of a near-vertical ascent with a belly full of bumpered beer did not appeal, and fortunately we weren’t singled out.
Hashes are set by hares, members of the community who lay out hour-long running and also walking routes with trails of shredded paper. Checkpoints – at the start and finish and en route – are marked out with circles of paper; false trails can be laid, denoted by crosses of paper demanding you turn back; arrows lead you on, sometimes astray. But mostly, as you trudge, wade and often pick your way along, you want to be looking out for piles of shredded white paper every few yards.
Annie taught us some shouting vernacular. “On! On!” if you’re confident you’re going the right way; “Are you?” for those who may be lost and want those ahead of them on the trail to confirm the way ahead. Expletives are very definitely not deleted; they’re encouraged.
With a rousing cry of “On! On!”, we left the beach and headed up – boy, did we head up – into the densely wooded and bambooed hinterland. I was running, a lot of which I had to walk; S&M chose the walk, some of which they elected to run.
Soon we split, and I was determined – for the first ten minutes at least – to run the whole thing, despite the heat and steep inclines. But I noticed many were Fartlekking. Initially I thought this was primarily to save energy, but it soon became apparent that it’s just not possible to run all the way. It’s either too steep or too precarious or too muddy or – most often – there’s just too much bamboo and thicket.
On one (infamous) occasion, when I was still in perma-run mode, my shoe got stuck under a freshly-felled bamboo pole and I was, well, pole-axed and fell prone into the bush. I got more careful after that, running wherever possible, walking when in a queue of others or – more likely – when the going made running impossible.
As the crowd – of 200, 300? – spreads out, as some walk and others run and their paths diverge – the presence of others is both a comfort and a spur. A comfort, because you’re kilometres from home and the paths are thick and indistinct; a spur because you don’t want to lose touch with others, particularly others who look like they know where they’re going. Who know rather more of the rules of hashing than you do.
It was hot, hard work, up and up and up and up. Not sheer, but grinding. One runner – an islander in his 50s – ran with a football, often doing headers and head-based tricks as he went. Amazing. And while FRBs may head off like mountain goats, you sometimes catch up with them as they head back from a cross and a false trail.
After about 40 minutes – legs lacerated and making me rue the choice of secret socks over long socks – about 20 of us realised we’d become well and truly lost. And while we could work our way back to the last sighted pile of white, shredded paper, in whichever direction of the compass we headed off anew, we couldn’t find any more.
“This is a bad trail!” boomed a regular hasher. “This hare is going to pay!”
By now, we had started to double back on ourselves. Plus we were so high – 300m or more above our start point – that we could see the sea. Logic overruled rules, and we set off – on different paths – that our noses and experience and blind optimism and the promise of beer and curry on the beach suggested would be the quickest route home. As a result, 20 became two or three.
The descent was at times vertiginous, often rough, but ultimately we entered the very heights of the town and started to work our way down. Ad hoc marshals – locals hanging out of doorways, kids playing in the street, and small, yappy-type dogs – directed us down. They’d seen hashers before, and in time, the sound system drew us in.
Once out of the thickets and locked onto the beat, it was downhill and free running all the way. After an hour or so hashing through the bush, the smells of dozens of other runners and beer and BBQ mingled on the Caribbean shoreline and the party started.
Others drifted in, connections were formed and remade, made over Facebook or dozens of previous hashes. The hare was ceremoniously hazed for setting a bad hash, a ceremony involving a noose and a piece of guttering, a toilet seat and a pan of beer. And very high spirits.
As the sun set across the Caribbean Sea, we all reflected on a late afternoon very well spent, and a determination to seek out other hashes at home and abroad.
Throughout my brief, five-year running career, I’ve been a pretty antisocial runner, running alone and often – for many others – unfathomably early. But of late, between the solo runs, I’ve found a new joy in running with others. In the Twitten Run of Lewes, in particular, and now on the Grenadian Hash House Harriers route 924 at Gouyave, errant as our hare may have been.
Until the next time, we cry: “On! On!”