When I received an invitation to participate in the Mount Kenya Challenge, I did not know what to expect. I asked a lot of questions but non of them was answered. “Bring your running kit and a thirsty throat." That was all the briefing I got.
The invitation I am talking about came from the Hash House Harriers, Kenya chapter. I knew nothing about the so called Hash House Harriers. The only information I was given is that I would be required to participate in a 16 km run and a night-long drinking spree under the shadow of Mount Kenya. I needed to learn more about the Hash Club and the event but my hash friends kept mentioning running and drinking.
I found out from Google that the Hash House Harriers (HHH) is an international club with more than 2,000 groups around the world. Members meet regularly to run and drink but it seems like drinking is what brings them together. Running is an excuse to form a drinking association. Around the world, Hash is known as a drinking club with a running problem.
We left Nairobi early in the morning and cruised out of town via Thika Super Highway. The group was made up of about 40 men and women. I was driven by the man who happened to be in charge of that weekend’s event. He was constantly on the phone giving instructions to participants and insisting that everyone should be at the starting point at 9:30 a.m. He was hyper. I had never met someone who exhibits so much excitement at 6 in the morning. His Land Rover was artistically designed with extravagant accessories and gigantic tyres.
As we soared towards central Kenya, he was driving at 100 km per hour in 40 km per hour zones and never stopped when traffic policemen signaled him to do so. He was using his phone, over speeding and ignoring the police. I was scared and kindly reminded him that non-compliance to traffic regulations would put him in trouble. He gave me that aristocratic look implying he was above the law.
Most runners were in their 40s and 50s and one white woman was 68. Very few of them were below 40. Most participants were lean and fit but a few of them were plump. We ran uphill through the Naro Moru gate and as we proceeded, the ascending got harder and harder.
The pace was slow at the back of the group as fat runners heaved themselves along the steep terrain. Fit ones were getting away separating themselves from the rest. I pushed myself harder and ran at their pace. The higher we moved, the thicker the air became.
Mount Kenya National Park is a wild animals’ habitat. I saw fresh animal dung and hoped we were not jeopardizing our safety in the name of running. The last two kilometers were the hardest. The trail was marked out in advance with white chalk. Little sign posts were placed along the way indicating the number of kilometers covered versus the number of kilometers left to complete the race.
The race ended at the Met Station. This is the location of the first camp for hikers. Up to this point, the trail is wide enough for someone to drive a 4 x 4 vehicle with a powerful engine. Beyond the Met Station, hikers toil along narrow trails. We were still far away from the summit. It takes 2-4 days to get there. As hikers approach Batian, Nelion and Lenana peaks, they use rock climbing equipment.
The man who offered me a ride from Nairobi did not run like everyone else. Instead, he drove his massive fuel guzzler all the way to the station, 10,000 feet above sea level. By the time we got there, he had turned the camp into a picnic site. BBQ had been prepared and a lot of alcohol was at our disposal. It was time for hashers to do what they can do better than running. When the slowest runner finished the race, some of her colleagues had been drinking for about an hour.
I met new people and had insightful conversations with them. Businessmen, scientists and lawyers were in the group. I didn’t ask anyone what he/she was doing for a living but they have a way of revealing their important jobs and qualifications without being asked. “When I was doing my masters at Stanford University, I used to run three times a week." One hasher told me. "As a senior marketing consultant, I would advise you to consider this strategy." Another proud hasher said.
At some point in our conversation, I differed with one of them while discussing behaviors of baboons. He quickly informed me that he studied Ethology and went ahead to give me a lecture on his animal cognitive behavioral research findings. These discussions took place when bottles were being emptied fast.
In the evening, we were driven to River Lodge near Nanyuki. After dinner, the leader of the group presided over a special initiation ceremony for the newly-recruited hashers. He performed a membership initiation ritual by pouring drops of alcohol on their foreheads. New hashers were baptised and given hash names. For the record, every hasher has a funny hash nickname. Members graced the ceremony by singing funny songs I had never heard before and their own versions and remixes of songs I knew.
This is not a cult. It is a social group whose objective is to promote physical fitness, fighting hangovers, stimulating thirst and making old people feel rejuvenated. These four objectives are recorded in the club’s manifesto dated 1950. The hashers are a diverse group, hailing from many professions, age groups and cultural backgrounds. They have two things in common though - they run hard and drink harder.
I sneaked out of the hall and went to bed without announcing my departure. May be I was freaked out by the hash tradition. I disappeared quietly when the party had just begun and everyone was dancing including the 68-year-old woman. From my room, I could hear them partying until 5 in the morning. Three hours later, there was another run. The Sunday morning run was planed to help hashers get rid of hangovers and restore their thirst. Drinking resumed after breakfast.
This was a great weekend. I got a taste of what it takes to hike Mount Kenya and vowed to go back for a trip to the top. I also learned the hash culture and got inspired by someone’s grandmother who ran 16 kilometers, elevating one third of the second highest mountain in Africa.