There can’t be more than a hundred metres to the finish line when I come up on Todd’s shoulder to pass him. You can’t even call it the finish line, because there’s not actually a line – more of an area where a small gaggle of volunteers and hangers-on are gathered. I don’t think the finishes are ever expected to be this close.
It’s the post-Christmas edition of the weekly China Hash: a tactical fun run actually held in Taipei. The run is a combination of orienteering and bush bashing, and always ends with ridiculous amounts of beer. While the Hash is always advertised as a fun run open to all ages and abilities, there are certain cliques within the club. One is a group of American and British male expats who always take it a bit too seriously. And among these few, Todd stands out as especially competitive.
He hears my footsteps and gives me a frightened look over his shoulder. He’d be nearing forty and he has bad knees; I could take him if I really wanted to. But I don’t. I let him pull away in a burst of speed and he wins by a couple of metres. As the stragglers follow us in he struts around like a turkey and proclaims to anyone within earshot that he “took the Aussie kid, eaaasy”. Most of the other men sit around catching their breath with their shirts off. They begin cracking Taiwan Beers and telling loud stories about what they got up to after last week’s run.
The run is a combination of orienteering and bush bashing, and always ends with ridiculous amounts of beer.
The man nicknamed ‘Dick-With-Ears’, a tall and skinny Englishman in the soccer hooligan tradition, recounts the joke he told last week when he was standing on the bar at Carnegie’s. His buddies cheer him on. Most of the local runners and our small Australian group stand awkwardly to the side. About half the Westerners seem to have Taiwanese girlfriends either participating in the run or there for support, but this only becomes obvious when the men become gropey after their third beer at the finish line.
“What does Dick-With-Ears do?” I ask a man named John as he drives me and my Australian friends back to Taipei in his hired Mercedes. John is fifty-something, Scottish and, as it turns out, the head of J.P. Morgan’s Bangkok operation.
“He’s an English teacher at a kindergarten,” he replies. “He’ll be drinking until Carnegie’s shuts at 2 a.m., then he’ll start work at 8 a.m. tomorrow.”
There is no judgement in his voice; maybe just a hint of amusement. He’s well versed in the lifestyle of the Taipei Hasher, having served as ‘grand master’ during the 1980s. He cops much ribbing from the other expats for flying from Bangkok to Taipei every weekend just to do the run.
I’d never really been a serious runner before coming to Taiwan on a student exchange. I did okay at school athletics, joined the occasional fun run and could usually get motivated enough to go for a jog along the beach on family holidays, if only to perve on the girls. I always found running a frustrating sport. Cycling, skiing and swimming were much easier on the joints, while football involved team bonding and a tactical challenge. Running was just putting one foot in front of the other. Upon my arrival in Taipei, I was introduced to a whole new culture I never knew existed: the social running club.
My journey as a regular weekend runner began when I met Justin at The Cat’s Pyjamas hostel in Taipei. Justin was a sprightly Queenslander and a fellow study abroad student. He was also an extremely keen runner who was looking not only for a way to keep fit, but also for people to compete with while he did it. In his opinion, joining the Hash House Harriers was our best option.
“I did a Hash run in Nanjing a couple of years ago, but this one looks better,” he said. “The terrain looks more challenging and the after parties look huge.”
With the website promising us a hangover, Justin, myself and my other Aussie friend Jake all headed up to the designated meeting place in the hills outside Taipei. Upon our 2 p.m. arrival, we were greeted with a bathtub full of beers and sports drink. Depending on whether they were there to win or just sightsee, most runners were chugging one or the other.
The run proved a fascinating experience in every way. It’s not often you find yourself skipping precariously across the edge of a flooded rice paddy while apologising in Chinese to the gawking farmer for the invasion of yourself and twenty Americans hollering behind you. I felt like some goon in a Jackie Chan movie, chasing the Hash leaders through a sunlit restaurant tucked away in a valley; the diners’ chopsticks frozen halfway to their mouths. Most of the Taiwanese sightseers seemed to thoroughly enjoy the spectacle, and shouted “jia you!” (“add oil!”) as we sprinted past.
By 6 p.m., and already about ten beers in, we found ourselves staggering down the hillside, thumbs out in an effort to snag a lift to the famous Hash Bash. The party was held in a big restaurant on the side of the highway, and when we stumbled in the party had already started. The Hash cohort had spread themselves over four large tables and ordered enough beer and greasy food to topple the Taipei 101 building. These particular athletes may have just enjoyed a bout of vigorous exercise, but they were clearly not too concerned with post-match diet and recovery.
I had caught the running bug, and Hash runs were the best way to treat it. They appealed to some primal instinct in me. For two hours a week I chased or was chased by people whose names I didn’t even know, with no prize at the end except the pride in finishing. We crashed our way through thickets of bamboo, leapt over fences and waded through waist-deep streams and fields of grass, guided only by a trail of flour and the echoing calls of the other runners. We sent farm animals squealing in all directions and climbed up an almost vertical staircase to run through an open-air Buddhist temple. Several times I took a heavy tumble down some slippery hillside or off a footbridge. The others rarely stopped to help me up. General etiquette went out the window at the starter’s whistle.
By the finish, everyone was always covered in mud, and often dripping blood from a leg or arm. But it never hurt until the next day. We were too pumped on adrenalin, and when that wore off, the beer was there to take its place.
As we began to feel increasingly fit, and better able to sustain the ninety minutes or so of running that was required on a Hash run, we started to look for ways to keep our legs turning over during the week. Destroying ourselves on the weekend with one long bender of running and drinking was fun, but something more was needed. I started getting that feeling of restlessness that appears when you reach a certain level of fitness but have no opportunity for exercise. I would be studying and drinking coffee in a quiet cafe, when suddenly I’d get this intense urge to go outside and sprint around the block.
Again it was Justin who came up with the solution. One day he announced he had found a suitable half-marathon for us to do. It was happening in the city of Tainan in a couple of months, he said, and we should all train up for it.
“It’s not something you can just rock up and do,” he assured Jake and myself, “so we’ll have to be doing at least three decent runs every week.”
The idea appealed, but at the same time it terrified me. I knew the feeling of accomplishment at the end of twenty-one kilometres would dwarf that of finishing – or even winning – a Hash run, but the effort expended to get there would be much greater. At least in the Hash run you could stop to catch your breath if the flour trail ran out. But a half-marathon was different.
We crashed our way through thickets of bamboo, leapt over fences and waded through waist-deep streams and fields of grass, guided only by a trail of flour and the echoing calls of the other runners.
As serious about competitive sport as they seemed to be, we figured a half-marathon was not something that would appeal to our Hash brethren. Finishing in the middle of thousands with very little opportunity for shedding blood seemed to be somewhat lacking in glory. So out we went on our own, in search of suitable training routes.
The obvious choice was the university running track about two minutes’ jog from the apartment I shared with Jake. The surface was bouncy and forgiving and the track was always lit by floodlights until quite late at night, which made it popular with academics from the university. Usually it was so busy we would struggle to go a full lap at a steady pace, so we began to make our visits later and later.
One night Jake and I ran thirty-five laps in the pouring rain at 9 p.m., with not a single other person around. It was boring and I was drenched through, but the pure physicality of it – the lack of intellectual effort required – somehow inspired me to push hard right through to the end. I even managed to sprint the last lap. With just over 400 metres to go, I began to lengthen my stride and concentrate on landing and pushing off from the balls of my feet. I lapped Jake on the last bend and collapsed on the muddy soccer pitch inside the track. As I lay there catching my breath, it was so quiet I could hear his feet slapping around on the other side of the track.
On other occasions we mixed our training up with runs through the city streets. The roof of our apartment had 360-degree views of Taipei, and on warm nights we would sit up there drinking and watching the sun set on the hills that ringed the city.
On New Year’s Day, Justin and I set off with one simple goal: to run to the other side of the hills and back. It was an ambitious feat to attempt, and leaving at 2 p.m. with a raging hangover didn’t help our chances of getting back with our sanity intact. Justin had heard there was a bike path which hugged the river all the way north until it emptied into the South China Sea, so we set out to find it.
Within about ten minutes we were on the path, along with around two thousand Taiwanese exercisers of every type. Packs of roaming wild dogs were joined by more conventional path users: cyclists, walkers and other runners. When the track edged away from the river, parkland took its place with tennis and basketball courts, open air roller-skating rinks and baseball fields as far as the eye could see. The entire northern part of the city seemed to be dedicated to casual sporting pursuits.
We pushed on for about forty-five minutes, until parkland began to give way more steadily to river. A high concrete wall enclosed us from the other side. It was getting dark and cold, and we’d only had four hours sleep the night before, so I suggested we turn back. Justin agreed. Stupidly, we decided to seek a new route and follow our noses home through the suburban streets.
We first realised we were lost when we couldn’t see the city skyline. Taipei 101 used to be the tallest building in the world, and if you are in Taipei and can’t see it you are in trouble. After scouring the streets on the northern side of the hills for thirty minutes, we came upon a tunnel. It had a ridiculously narrow footpath on one side; the rest of the space was reserved for the traffic which roared through and spewed fumes into the confined space. Holding our breathes, we sprinted in.
As we emerged out the other side, we were greeted with lights of the city spread out across the basin. We gulped in the fresh air and stopped to admire the view. It was almost dark and Taipei 101 stood twinkling before us. Emblazoned in neon across its side was a message to the people, a sort of national New Year’s resolution: “End Polio”. We shook our heads, bemused, and began to weave our way slowly home, with the enormous skyscraper acting as our homing beacon.
Four weeks later, I duly staggered over the finish line at Tainan, completely drained by the oppressive humidity. My condition wasn’t helped by a preparation that included pork floss on toast for breakfast and a Chinese New Year fireworks show outside my window all night. But despite my exhaustion (or maybe because of it), I felt like I deserved to reward myself.
There must be a bar here somewhere, I thought, but all I could see were sensible athletes doing warm downs, stretches, and rehydrating with sickly sweet sports drinks. It was all a bit serious.
Over the next four years I kept up a solid running regime, regularly competing in organised distance events in Melbourne and around Victoria. They were challenging and enjoyable, and often run in aid of charity, but I couldn’t help being put off by the slightly sterile, corporate feel. Perhaps I really did miss sprinting through the humid jungle while an overweight American hollered at me with his beery breath.
Then one day, when I was working as a journalist up in north-east Victoria, I made an interesting discovery. There was a Hash House Harriers club there, formed by a bored soldier based at the barracks in Bandiana about thirty years earlier.
Intrigued, I went along to a run. Like the Hashers in Taiwan, this group also had nicknames. Unlike the Hashers in Taiwan, there were barely half a dozen in the group, with no-one below the age of forty. The now former soldier had one arm and was referred to as Bandit, “for obvious reasons”. Others in the group included Bobcat, Gunna and Trout. Although they set an exceedingly slow pace through the quiet country streets, the banter and insults flowed freely. We finished the run on a university soccer field as the late spring darkness fell. As everyone pulled out deckchairs, Trout began cooking a chicken stir-fry on a portable stove.
“Beer?” Bandit offered, holding out a can to me.
Now this was the perfect recovery.
Nick Fogarty is a writer and journalist based in London. He previously worked as a radio and multimedia reporter for the ABC and has been published in Crikey and Voiceworks. Follow him on Twitter here.