Runner's World
November 28, 1997

Dress Code


Dress Code

Runner's World
March 1998

The latest race sensation has simple rules: you gotta wear red, and it's gotta be a dress

By Bill Stump

It's 30 minutes till starting time, and over 400 runners are gathered beside glimmering San Diego Bay. My palms are sweaty in anticipation, but it's not the 6-mile course that's causing my anxiety. It's the size-18 red dress I'm wearing, altered somewhat to accommodate my, shall we say, full figure.

No, I'm not some kind of weirdo. I didn't actually go shopping for the dress myself. I talked my sister-in-law into that. At any rate, I'm no stranger than the other runners - male and female, young and old - who are also preparing to run in red dresses of various design.

Some are floor-length, others are ultra-mini. A couple of young women with the figures for it sport lingerie. A retired army colonel, who decidedly does not have the figure for it, has squeezed into a red bodysuit and matching tutu. Nearby, a burly man with a mustache is having his nails painted candy-apple red by a female friend.

Welcome to the Ninth Annual Red Dress Run, an officially unofficial run sponsored by the San Diego Hash House Harriers, an international group of politically incorrect "beer drinkers with a running problem," as many "hashers" describe themselves. This particular event in San Diego is actually part of a Labor Day weekend of activities including three hash runs and at least that many beer bashes.

Journalists are trained to go where the story is, but I have to admit to having some reluctance about this red dress I'm wearing. Not that it's unattractive - I imagine the sash, if left untied, will trail behind me, giving the illusion of great speed.  Still, I have one major hang-up.

Ever since I agreed to do the run, I've had a recurring nightmare in which my 3-year-old daughter, Kelley, is a grown woman lying on a leather sofa in the cool dim light of a therapist's office. I listen in horror as she explains how everything started to unravel when her father began running in a red dress . . .

I push the thought from my mind, finish my second prerace beer - not to worry, it's light - and pony up to the start. The dress feels slinky on my shoulders. I'm ready to go. Unlike your neighborhood 10-K, hashing is more of a kid's game (it's actually based on one), where runners follow a marked trail through city streets, parks, shopping malls, bars, you name it.

I had heard about hashing several years earlier but only last summer got up the courage to join a Pennsylvania group for a run. I found their social, fun-filled approach - the word "race" is never used, and not winners are crowned - a welcome change from the guys at my local track who prattle on about their stride lengths and resting heart rates. And despite the relaxed atmosphere, I also discovered that these hashers could run (and drink and sing) circles around almost anyone.

Though I found the Pennsylvania hash relatively tame - a 5-mile loop with one beer stop and a party afterward - I soon learned of many special hash events around the country (and world) that can get pretty wacky. The Red Dress Run is perhaps the best-known, but others, such as Palm Springs's annual beer-soaked Betty Ford run or San Francisco's Gay to Flakers (held on the same day as the better-known Bay to Breakers), are gaining popularity. None of them, however, are for the easily offended.

As the Red Dress Run begins and we move away from San Diego Bay, I fell surprisingly comfortable. True, my dress poses some unique chafing problems, but the sky is a flawless blue, and a steady breeze dissipates the sun's heat. Like a huge red amoeba, the hash run ambles past stunned tourists.

"What's goin' on?" asks a young guy in Bermuda shorts.

"It's a fund-raiser for Al Gore," replies a male hasher in a fetching sheath.

"We're running for illiteracy," chimes in another. Finally, someone explains that it's the hashers' annual Red Dress Run.

"Oh, how wonderful," a middle-aged woman coos, lifting her disposable camera to squeeze off a shot.

"Let's go," her husband snorts, pushing at the nosepiece on his glasses. "I left L.A. to get away from this kind of crap."

ON-ON!

As we turn off the main drag, I pick up the flour-and-shredded-paper markings of the hash trail. Three dots in a row indicate that I'm on the trail, but when we get to an intersection, I see a quartered circle. This is called a "checkpoint" in hashing lexicon, and it means that the trail could fan out in any direction  from this spot. The idea is that the fastest runners, who naturally will reach the checkpoints first, are going to get hopelessly lost as they try to figure out where the dickens they should go.

While they explore, uncovering many "false trails" or dead-ends, the slower runners (like me) have a chance to catch up. This simple system gives hashing its universal appeal. Swiftness of foot is nice if you happen to possess it. But in the end, it doesn't net you much.

At the first checkpoint I look around for the runners in front of me. They have fanned out in all directions trying to pick up the "true trail."

"Are you?" yells out a woman in red-sequined sneakers, inquiring if anyone has found the trail.

"Checking, checking," comes the reply as runners scan the pavement. This is hash talk which means, loosely translated, "I'm looking, and if you come help, I may buy you a beer at the next bar." A few find one or two dots - false trails - but within seconds I hear a hearty "On-on," the hashers' signature call to indicate that the trail has been located. The "Hash Horn" a runner designated to carry and blow an ancient bugle, coaxes a tortured bleat from his instrument, and the pack quickly reforms and flows toward Balboa Park.

After a few steps, I fall in line with a navy-enlisted man who is running like a saddle-sore cowboy. "Damned thong," he gripes, reaching under his skimpy skirt for an on-the-run adjustment. "I shouldn't have listened when those women told me to wear this. How do they stand having something, you know, there?" He alters his stride to make the garment less obtrusive and, getting more comfortable, begins to expound on why so many hashers are former or current military members. The reason, he explains, is that hashing was founded by a soldier.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

A. S. Gilbert to be exact. A British officer stationed in Kuala Lumpur in 1938, Gilbert called a group of bored British and Australian colonial officials into regular Monday afternoon runs to purge the toxins ingested over their weekend bacchanalias. After each run, Gilbert and friends would settle into a local restaurant called the Selangor Club - known affectionately as the Hash House -for a big meal.

To liven up the exercise, the men began to patter their runs after an old English children's game called "Hares and Hounds."  First, a trail is set by a "hare," using flour and bits of paper. Then the pack of "hounds" follows the markings along the challenging course, trying to find the hare. Before long, Gilbert's group adopted the name Hash House Harriers (a "harrier" being a hound who chases hares).

The group grew steadily, thanks in part to the enterprising restaurant owner. To ensure that this new boon to his bottom line would continue, the owner began carting tubs of iced beer to the halfway point of the group workout. The runners would take a break for a beer, complete the run, then hustle over to the Hash House to get on the outside of a few more chilly ones.

The postrun parties, known as Down-Downs, were filled with jokes, limericks, ribald songs and ceremonies, where new hashers were knighted with horrible nicknames, a practice that continues to the present. Everyone had such a good time that they soon forgot about Gilbert's original intent - to have a drying-out period after the weekend.

The original group was small, but as the soldiers were reassigned back to England and the British Empire, and as new recruits rotated in, the tradition of the Hash House Harriers expanded around the globe. Chapters can now be found in nearly every major city in the world, from STockholm to Tokyo. There are an estimated 900 chapters and 100,000 hashers worldwide.

OOOOOOOOH, NICE!

As I chug up an impossibly steep hill toward Balboa Park, the pack has thinned, and I begin to tire. I feel a little odd running by myself as I approach an older Hispanic woman sitting on a bench in a pink housecoat, a Chihuahua with a rhinestone collar perched on her lap. As I pas, I nod hello. "Ooooooooh," she purrs with a wide smile, "nice." Feeling downright pretty, I surge over the crest of the hill and into the park for our second refreshment stop.

I had passed up a shot of tequila at the first refreshment stop, opting instead for a cup of water. I reasoned that I had already tempted the gods of gastrointestinal distress by having a breakfast of huevos rancheros (with jalapenos) at a sidewalk cafe in Coronado. But now, at the second stop, I'm ready for another beer. I quickly wheel into the shade of a huge palm tree and pluck a Miller Genuine Draft from a cooler.

Plenty of other hashers join me, bantering about the course and commenting on each other's attire.  I strike up a conversation with Pete Whitby, a computer specialist known as "Wet Meat," and his wife, Becky, an accountant whose moniker is "Hot Pink Hooters." They were one of three couples I met in San Diego who had a hash wedding, complete with a "flour" girl to lead the way down the aisle.

"I think a lot of hashers are fairly conservative, buttoned-down people most of the time," Mr. Meat tells me a he drains his beer. "This is just a great outlet. The people become like a second family to you." Well, I think, a second highly dysfunctional family, perhaps.

Hooters, an amazingly normal woman for someone who hangs out with these nuts, fills me in on the history of the Red Dress Run. She explains that it was founded in San Diego by a group of hashers who, after traveling to Los Angeles for a run, were kicked out of a bar and wound up in someone's hot tub. One of the guys brought along a young woman wearing a red dress - and little else - who happily joined the party. All night long, she was showered with attention by Pat "Zulu Boy" Holmes and his pals, whose dates were not amused.

The slightly annoyed dates, and some other men who had heard about the hot-tub caper, decided this was the perfect time to take a not-so-subtle jab at Zulu, so they all showed up at the next hash wearing red dresses. A tradition was quickly born, and Red Dress runs are now held all over the world. "It's really taken off," says Zulu Boy himself, wearing a Scarlet O'Hara number with lace and an open back. "I tell you, I'll never forget that girl in the red dress."

THE DOWN-DOWN

After finishing my beer and tossing the empty bottle into a trash bag, I move off along Balboa Drive, past a playground where kids stop to gawk and volleyball games come to a halt. I cut down an alley and enter the Hillcrest District, a predominantly gay neighborhood, where our support picks up.  "Of course they love us," says one hasher running nearby. "If it weren't for those of us who are straight, they wouldn't be gay."

"It relates to what's so great about Hashes," adds Richard "Wanker" Saxby, a native Brit who now lives in Long Beach. "When we're hashing, we all get along because we pick on everyone equally: Arabs-Israelis, Catholics-Protestants and gays-straights." )Memo to Madeleine Albright: sign up Arafat and Netanyahu for the Jerusalem Hash.)

After another mile or so, we have our last beer stop at Mission Bay Park before hitting a downhill stretch to the end of the run - a United Auto Workers' local union hall. As I jog to a stop beside the squat cinderblock building, I feel great, more like I've run 2 miles instead of 6. Inside is a huge buffet with carved ham, chick, rolls, potation salad, coleslaw and, you guessed it, several kegs of beer.

After eating our fill, we all head outside to watch the run's two grand masters,

Mark "Bushtrimmer" Lawless and John "Who the . . . ." Graf, lead the traditional postrun "Down-Down." For the next 30 minutes, hashers are singled out for various "infractions" - such as getting lost or having a birthday - and are required, among other things, to sit on a block of ice bare-bunned and chug beer out of their shoes. As a journalist, I'm singled out and blamed for the death of Princess Diana. I get off fairly easy, though. I drain my plastic cup of beer while the group sings one of its signature toasts:

    Here's to Bill, he's a real fine guy.

    Here's to Bill, he's a real fine guy.

    So drink, chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug.

    Here's to Bill, he's a real horse's ass.

After the Down-Down, a band begins to play, and I wonder if the union leaders know that hundreds of people in red dresses are drinking and dancing in their hallowed building. What would Jimmy Hoffa think? When the band begins playing Jimmy Buffett, I'm pulled into a conga line, kicking and shouting with the rest of the wackos. A few hours later, I leave the party drenched in sweat and walk back toward my hotel. Along the way, I spot a car with an open window. Giggling at the possible repercussions, I peel off my red dress and toss it into the back seat.

RECOVERY RUN

The next morning, I blink myself awake and take a quick inventory. Legs a little sore from the steep hills, back a little tight from the conga, skin a little raw from the aforementioned chafing. But otherwise, I'm feeling good, so I decide to join the morning's recovery run (no dress required).

The group gathered for the workout looks like your local club members getting together for a Sunday morning run. Tanned and fit, they move about easily, if a tad bleary-eyed, stretching and sipping steaming coffee from Styrofoam cups.

I hardly recognize John "Flashpants" Thelan, one of the organizers of the run, without his huge, floppy red hat. While beer figures prominently in hashing, it's not essential, and Flash, who doesn't drink, is proof that you don't have to imbibe to take part and have fun.

A few brave souls choose a 7-mile course, while most of us opt for 3 miles. The run circles through a residential area and into funky Mission Beach, which is filled with coffee bars and surfboard shops, before ending at a wooden roller coaster by the ocean. Hashers grab their tickets and climb aboard, careening around the wooden rails, whooping and hollering. A barbecue, complete with tortillas, refried beans and a huge roast pig wearing a tin-foil crown, materializes across the street - by the bay - the perfect place for weary hashers to loll about on the green grass, reliving the weekend.

After another Down-Down, the group begins to disperse, and I'm struck by how normal everyone looks without their outrageous get-ups. This could be a block party at any subdivision in America. Or could it? As I turn and head toward my rental car, I hear a hasher behind me.

"Hey," he yells, his voice edged with mischief. "Anyone want to go to Tijuana?"

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