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
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
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.
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
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
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.
goin' on?" asks a young guy in Bermuda shorts.
fund-raiser for Al Gore," replies a male hasher
in a fetching sheath.
running for illiteracy," chimes in another.
Finally, someone explains that it's the hashers'
annual Red Dress Run.
wonderful," a middle-aged woman coos, lifting
her disposable camera to squeeze off a shot.
go," her husband snorts, pushing at the
nosepiece on his glasses. "I left L.A. to get
away from this kind of crap."
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
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
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."
you?" yells out a woman in red-sequined
sneakers, inquiring if anyone has found the trail.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
"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,
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.
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
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."
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.)
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.
our fill, we all head outside to watch the run's two
"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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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
he yells, his voice edged with mischief. "Anyone
want to go to Tijuana?"