At the starting line of a recent Tetrick Trail run in Griffith Park, it was easy to discern the first-timers from more experienced hands: While novices were decked out with Walkmans and water bottles, old-timers also came clutching their Kodaks.
Ordinarily, of course, runners don't compete with cameras in tow. But veterans of the Tetrick Trail race, billed as "America's only X-rated 8-Miler," knew that the course's fire roads and bridle paths wouldn't be the only au naturel scenery awaiting them.
One of about a dozen "anti-Establishment" runs in Southern California, the Tetrick Trail competition is noted for its nude mile markers who will obligingly pose for snapshots with passing runners.
"It's an anti-race," explains organizer Steve Broten, who doesn't believe in pre-registration or the other trappings of traditional runs. "Just bring $5," he advised a prospective participant. "Cheap is beautiful."
Put off by what Broten terms the "yuppification" of the sport, a growing segment of the country's 23 million runners are turning to such less-traditional runs--among them:
--My Worst Nightmare 10K, a San Diego race that turned out to be aptly named. Because it wasn't carefully marked, explains co-organizer Rick Vandertie, the course measured 10 miles--about 4 miles longer than the usual 10 kilometers.
--Ride-and-ties. Sponsored by Bob Babbitt, editor and publisher of the Del Mar-based Competitor magazine, these San Diego-area events are for two-person teams who alternate biking and running. With no set time for either activity, a runner never knows when his partner will drop the bike, making the event an on-your-toes kind of race.
--The weekly Hash House Harrier runs sponsored by eight Southern California clubs. A wacky version of the old English hounds-and-hares game, the 4- to 6-mile jaunt is punctuated with "beer checks." Participants, who know each other by Hash names (such as "Mr. Spock," "Async" and "Double Entry"), follow misleading trail markings through canyons, city streets and other locales and then relax at a post-run party (a "down-down" in Hasher terms).
--Black Mountain Run-to-the-Top. This 6-mile San Diego-area jaunt turned underground seven years ago. Organizers Vandertie and his partner, Carl Brandt, favor a "self-service" finish over computerized results. "After you get to the top," Vandertie explains, "you write your name on a clipboard."
It would be easy to dismiss such events as California craziness. But according to Don Kardong, president of the Assn. of Road Racing Athletes in Spokane, Wash., "odd or exciting events" are gaining in popularity across the United States.
In Spokane, for instance, there's Let's Climb a Mountain, a 34-mile course in which runners, individually or as part of a team, climb to the top of Mt. Spokane. And in nearby Idaho, a nudist colony sponsors an annual Bare Buns Fun Run, in which participants may compete with or without running gear. "Except for shoes," Kardong adds. "They're mandatory."
In California, these alternative events can attract a handful of participants--or hundreds. The 10th Tetrick Trail earlier this month, for instance, drew 800. Some were marathoners; others strictly weekend warriors. Meanwhile, the Hash House Harriers, which began in Malaysia in the late '30s, now claim about 700 clubs in 80 countries.
No Red Tape
Impatience with the "red tape" of organized events is one reason free-form underground runs have prospered, say advocates. As the popularity of traditional runs has grown, so have administrative headaches, which can include attracting sponsors and celebrity participants, paying for advertising and promotional materials, and convincing radio stations to broadcast on site.
Also costly is liability insurance, a requirement of The Athletic Congress, the national governing body for amateur track and field, long-distance running and racewalking. (The premium for a race with 1,000 participants is $100, says TAC spokeswoman Florence Palas.)
Organizers of alternative runs point with pride to their uniqueness, spontaneity and disregard for tradition. Don't expect souvenir T-shirts, yogurt or low-cal juice bars at the finish lines of their events, they say. And don't look for the Raiderettes to lead pre-race stretching exercises.
"All there is is the run," Vandertie says. "And that's all we want. We've got drawers full of T-shirts."
No Age Limits, Waivers
In most cases, underground runners aren't limited to age groups nor are they asked to sign a waiver attesting to their good health and adequate training for the event.
Fees are usually low (often well under the $12 or $15 charged for traditional runs), unusual (a piece of fruit was the tariff for a recent ride-and-tie) or nonexistent. And some organizers don't bother with permits, believing it would be an exercise in futility. Says Vandertie: "The city would never give us permits to run where we run."
Cash awards, another characteristic of traditional runs, are few and far between at underground events where "conversation pieces" are the preferred prizes. Winners of a spring ride-and-tie received a spring mounted on a piece of lumber. Victorious Hashers sometimes get a plaque with a crushed beer can attached.
While dates for most organized runs are decided far in advance, that's not always the case with alternative events. The Black Mountain Run to the Top fluctuates from year to year, subject to participant whim. "It's roughly the second week of February," Vandertie says.
Bucking tradition means organizers have no one but themselves--and participants--to please. Such freedom makes for some creative and wacky innovations. Babbitt's been known to welcome runners with a banner that reads: "Welcome, Idiots." At Tetrick Trail send-offs, a bow and arrow is used instead of a starting gun.
"If I want to have Spam at the aid station," Babbitt says, "I don't have to go to an organizing committee and ask, 'Do you think this will offend anyone?' "
Spam and Sardines
At a ride-and-tie, Babbitt did indeed offer Spam and sardines on Ritz crackers. Who ate them? Runners who liked the fringe benefit; eating just one allowed them to deduct precious seconds from their time. At other ride-and-ties, Babbitt has encouraged runners to collect dinosaurs, inflatable Easter bunnies, Easter eggs and pumpkins hidden along the course, promising to deduct minutes from their total time.
But the emphasis at most alternative events is less on winning than on how you play the game. As far as the Hash House Harriers are concerned, the more you cheat the better. "Shortcutting is encouraged," one Hasher says.
Deemphasizing winning allows them to focus on camaraderie, underground run aficionados say, many of them marathoners and ultramarathoners who know the loneliness of long-distance training.
Marathoner Jim Brownlow of Palos Verdes, for instance, started "hashing" when his job as an oil company manager took him to Iran. "I use hashes as a way to get acquainted socially," he explains.
Fun to Break Rules
Silliness aside, much of the appeal appears to lie in the excitement of breaking the rules--and getting away with it--two mental-health professionals suggest.
"If you break the rules, you project an independent, cowboy sort of image," observes Jerald Jellison, a professor of psychology at USC. "It confirms your strength. It also conveys to other people that they shouldn't try to control you."
Tom Kennon, a jogger and UCLA psychotherapist, agrees. Underground runs, he says, give participants "a chance to exercise their rebellious streak and their body at the same time. They're a way of breaking the routine, of breaking the mold, of saying 'I don't want to be part of the usual order.' "
Organizers don't dispute those psychological profiles. Says Babbitt of his ride-and-tie participants: "They're the kind of children who threw spitballs. We're all doing something no one else knows about. You know, it's like a secret party."
Mike Kobrick, "Dr. Mikey" to his cohorts and "grand master" of the L.A. Hash House Harriers, has a rebellious glint in his eye when describing the group's range of running locales. "We've run through just about every hotel lobby in Southern California," he boasts. "You get in and get out fast, and security never figures out you're there."
Despite their reluctance to follow the rules, organizers say they've encountered little trouble with the law. "At Black Mountain, we've had some cops come out and just scratch their heads," notes Vandertie.
And to Broten's knowledge, none of the immodest Tetrick Trail mile markers (who collect about $250 for 15 minutes' work) have ever been cited for indecent exposure.
(Lucia Ruta, chief park ranger for the City of Los Angeles Recreation and Park Department, said officials did not know about the naked trail markers when they approved a permit for the recent Tetrick Trail run in Griffith Park. "It's totally against our policies.")
Suppose a police officer wanted to chat with one of the mile markers?
"If they want to run a mile straight up (the park's fire roads and bridle paths)," Broten says, "they can be my guest."