In August of 1992, several undaunted, largely curious, runners set out for a run through the landmine-ridden paddy fields of war-ravaged and somewhat unsettled Cambodia. To cover the day’s costs, which included the allowances of security personnel that accompanied the group, each of them had to fork out a meagre fee.
These days, specifically, at 2pm every Sunday, an unlikely mix of expatriates, tourists and locals, with their heart rate monitors and well-worn trainers, congregate just outside Phnom Penh Railway Station prior to an organised run. A few minutes after they have arrived, a burly man, presumably in his early 40s, approaches each of them and a small fee is seen changing hands.
However, unlike 20 years ago, the money does not go into covering security expenses but to pay for transportation and peculiarly, cartons of beer.
“We are a drinking club with a running problem,” laughs Osayande Sunday, Grand Master, or the equivalent of a captain, of the Phnom Penh Hash House Harriers, better known to the local running community as the P2H3. “And it has been this way ever since 1992.”
The club, with 1,995 affiliated links in 1,304 cities over 185 countries, has been organising runs of eight to 11 kilometres in the countryside surrounding Phnom Penh every Sunday, without fail, for the past 20 years. Some runs take place further away, including the province of Mondulkiri, with its scenic waterfalls, and Phnom Bokor, a former French town popular with tourists.
“I join the P2H3 because there is something to look forward to every week,” says Cambodian Hem Ratha, a post-harvest specialist. “The run sites keep changing from time to time, so we run in many places around Cambodia, which I’ve never had the chance to go before.”
To date, the group has completed 1,091 runs.
“One good thing about the hash is that I might go today and not go next week, but the hash keeps on going,” says Osayande, who has been with P2H3 for the past five years.
Not your regular running club, where timings and calories are measured up to the nearest decimal place, the Hash House Harriers is a group of runners steeped in a colourful history rather than competition. Averaging about 40 members each session, the group is made up of young and old, fast and slow runners, from a diverse range of countries, including Australia, Japan, America, Nigeria and Cambodia.
“We are just a bunch of friendly people who enjoy running and sitting back to have a few beers, talking and making jokes at each other afterwards,” says Osayande, who has been leading the club for the past year.
The club, which sees new faces, or “hash virgins” as they call them, every week, provides an opportunity to meet like-minded individuals from different parts of the world through running and its fringe activities.
“As an expatriate who has recently arrived in the country, I find the hash gives you instant access to a social life,” says 64-year-old Barry Meese, a contracts manager. “You meet people who will tell you everything you need to know about a place.”
In a hash session, a nominated member, or hare, chooses a location and sets the trail prior to the run. The other members, or hounds, follow the set markers, which often includes false trails, short cuts, splits and dead ends, until they reach the finishing line. These features are designed to keep the pack close together regardless of fitness level.
“Running 10 kilometres in the afternoon heat is not easy but the hash isn’t a competition,” Osayande says. “What matters is that everyone enjoys themselves in the process.”
Besides the weekly runs, the P2H3 also organises occasional gatherings and celebrations for the running community. On the last weekend of August, the club will be commemorating its 20th anniversary with a two-day celebration that will culminate in a BBQ with live music.
When asked about P2H3’s future direction, Osayande adds, “We have no specific plans but we will try to make the hash as simple as possible so people will be able to join us.
“One thing is for sure, the hash will always be here.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Calvin Yang at [email protected]