Wall Street Journal
October 11, 1989

Following the Flour is a Popular Sport


FOLLOWING THE FLOUR IS A POPULAR SPORT FOR FOLKS ON THE RUN

A Schoolboy Game Grows Up and Takes Participants Through Glitz and Grime

By Hilary Stout

WASHINGTON -- Runners are storming Union Station, the capital's elegant boutique-lined train depot. Slim swift runners. Sweaty, wheezing, shouting runners.

Weaving around puzzled shoppers, brushing by perplexed commuters, loping past diners at a candle-lit cafe, they peer at the floor as they run, like hounds on the chase. Tiny blotches of flour, discreetly sprinkled on the polished marble floor, mark a secret trail.

"On, on!" cries one runner, spotting another white splotch. Someone at the front of the pack blares a toy horn.

And on they streak, out of the station doors into the autumn dusk, where they art into a busy traffic circle in search of the next dusting of flour.

Horns honk. An angry motorist shouts. The mark is found.

"On, on!"

This is hashing -- a sport, of sorts.

Just Like Junior High

"A lot of us suffer from psychiatric disorders; mania, schizophrenia - my kind of crowd," says Mark Gross, a bearded, shirtless 31-year-old businessman who has navigated the roughly five-mile trail.

Once a week lawyers, bankers, bureaucrats, diplomats, teachers, and otherwise respectable types take to the streets here in search of trails through the theater lobby of the Kennedy Center, for instance, or a drug-infested city park.

They are members of the Hash House Harriers, a boisterous and rapidly growing international running club that has airs of a secret society and an undisciplined junior-high class. "It's like a controlled craziness -- a sort of semi-controlled craziness," says Pam Semon of San Diego, who recently became so taken with "hashing" that she has decided to give up precious time with her daughter to hash every Friday night.

Hashing -- basically an excuse to run on a surprise-filled trail and finish with beer, food, and song -- has reached the U.S. after years overseas, mostly in the Far East. Based on the 18th century English schoolboy game called hares and hounds, hashing was dreamed up in the 1930's by two Englishmen and an Australian living in what is now Malaysia. The trio sought to shed a few pounds and shrug off a few hangovers by running around a Kuala Lumpur park.

Flour Power

But mere running was a little dull. So the trio decided to take turns laying trails -- littered with false leads -- through jungles and rice fields. After navigating the course, they rewarded themselves, rather to the detriment of their original purpose, with beer in their quarters next to a club nicknamed the Hash House. (As some hashers tell it, the club barred the sweaty runners because they didn't meet its dress code.) And the hash was born.

In the ensuing decades, hashing spread among international bankers, military personnel, diplomats, and others who tended to find themselves in places like Brunei with nothing to do. Now there are 80,000 hashers in more than 700 clubs in 126 countries on every continent except Antarctica.

In the U.S. hashing has grown from about 10 clubs in 1980 to 90 today in nearly every major city and scads of smaller communities, from Ozark, Mo., to Waukesha, Wis. A book by a Maine hasher will be published this fall. The title, "Half a Mind: Hashing, the Outrageous Running Sport," refers to the hasher's motto: If you have half a mind to join a hash, that's all you need."

Hashing, alas, has at times been misunderstood by the general public. Last year, residents of Boston's ritzy Beacon Hill neighborhood noticed some flour at the bases of a few lampposts and concluded it was poison, intended to kill their pets. "Mysterious Powder Turning Up On Sidewalks," the BOSTON GLOBE worried in a headline. A lab test by an animal protection group and a phone call from a hasher set the newspaper straight: The white powder was "only flour", as the newspaper later reported, "used for a running game."

Earlier this year the Monterey, Calif., fire department donned special masks, called in the county health department and roped off several downtown blocks for an hour and a half before determining that the white splotch was merely flour, a remnant of a run. (In early days of the sport, hashers used small pieces of paper to mark the trail, but that practice ran afoul of local litter laws as the sport spread to other cities. Flour was chosen because it is biodegradable. In snowy climes, the flour is tinted with food coloring.)

The Kremlin hasn't taken too kindly to the sport. The KGB several years ago detained an airline executive in the middle of a hash near Gorky Street. Shortly afterwards, the Soviet foreign ministry warned all embassies that "group jogging could lead to accidents with serious injury to people, and such activities interfere with the normal life of the city."

People do tend to get obsessive about it. Couples have hash weddings. People plan vacations around hashing. After Dave Fenimore of Washington, D.C., graduated from law school this spring, he took a trip around the world, hashing nearly every place he went, including Katmandu. "The highest hash in the world," he notes.

Some hashers hash to socialize. "It's a cheap date," says Melanie Campbell, a member of the San Diego hash. Others hash to make amusement out of running. "After a while, when you do a lot of running it's as boring as hell," says Luther Jones, a labor lawyer in Dallas.

Hashing may be arduous and raucous, but it isn't boring. Hash trails have taken runners through Sea World in San Diego, Neiman Marcus in Boston, Penn Station and Grand Central Station in New York, a supermarket in Winooski, Vt., National Airport in Washington, the neck-deep waters of a creek in Dallas and the lobby of almost any elegant urban hotel that comes to mind.

"You name it, we've been there," says Roark Herron, a deputy branch manager at Gulf International Bank in New York.

The hash broke new ground this summer at an event called the Americas Interhash 1989 in San Diego, at which participants were handed flashlights and sent down a manhole to slosh through a sewer for about a mile.

But the trail that will go down in hashing lore was at the 1987 Interhash, held in Philadelphia. Hashers get a dreamy gleam in their eyes when they tell that story.

The trail began at the Liberty Bell, then descended into the subway, where the trailsetters, or "hares," were passing out tokens, sending 600 hashers en masse aboard the train. At every stop, runners jumped out to check for a flour trail. After about a half-dozen stops one was sighted, leading the runners above ground, through the zoo and into a dark railroad tunnel.

Then they heard a train.

"People were screaming, 'Oh my God,'" recalls John Studach, who teaches at Georgetown Day School here. "Then we saw a locomotive. You couldn't tell if it was moving." The noise was coming from two loudspeakers.

Hashing is both a ritual and an anarchy. "The rules are: There are no rules," any hasher will proclaim. But some things are always the same.

For one: You cannot win. The ultimate hash trail would have so many false leads and checkpoints (X-marked spots where the trail pauses, sending runners off searching in every direction for the next mark) that everyone would finish at the same time. This is hard for some to comprehend. "It's tough to recruit hashers in New York," sighs Lee Carlson, a Manhattan tax lawyer who began hashing in the 1960's when he was studying in Singapore. "Yuppies are too competitive. They keep saying, 'How do you win?'"

Two: Hashing calls for beer. "I am a beer-drinker with a running problem," one hash lapel button reads. The beer is often imbibed through the ritual of the "down-down," inflicted on those who run too fast, those wearing new shoes, those new to hashing, and other assorted sinners, including a reporter writing an article on the hash. Sign of the times: Most hashes now permit soda, water, and non-alcoholic beer.

Three: Hashers speak their own language. "On, on," for example, both announces the after-run party and is a signal that the runners are on the right path. Hashers also address one another by nicknames customarily bestowed by the club leaders. "If you don't like your name," warns one hasher known as "Special Sauce," "they give you a worse one."

 

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