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"The reason it immediately appeals to so many people is that it strikes a basic chord deep in our primate hunter-gatherer hearts," he offers. "We go out in a pack, calling to each other to find prey. Ultimately we find it and consume it: The hare is what moves, but the beer is what tastes good. At the end there's a big ceremony to recount the deeds and misdeeds of the tribe, and then we eat together. What started out as British expats running laps fit quite quickly back into traditional human channels."
The hashing channel opened in the United States in 1971 -- just before the American running fad that led to Jimmy Carter's collapse during an ill-fated 10-kilometer footrace in Maryland -- when two chapters launched in the Washington, D.C., area. The pastime spread like a drunken cancer. In the pre-Internet days, hashing travelers had only to scan their hotel phone book for "Harry Hasher" to dial up the local chapter. Today, 33 years after the sport's American debut, there are nearly 2,000 chapters in 184 countries -- on every continent except Antarctica (which has never had a long-standing chapter, but has hosted a handful of events). Of the approximately 350 in the U.S., there are five in the Bay Area (two in San Francisco, one in the East Bay, one in the South Bay, and one in Marin). And though one hash elder says, "It is most definitely not a singles club," the coed electricity of the runs I've witnessed -- usually punctuated by an impassioned, inebriated entanglement -- says otherwise.
"This is more true in [the San Francisco hash] than it is in most other hashes," agrees Caton. Getting laid is not the 30-year-old's exclusive reason for coming to these ridiculous events -- they're also a venue for him to blow off steam from his high-pressure day job in biotech -- but the chance for some action doesn't hurt. "When social norms are relaxed, as in the hash, human sexuality usually starts oozing faster through the cracks," he explains.
Every Monday night, the running troupe rendezvous at a different locale around the city. There are sorority girls, military men, computer programmers, cops, and stockbrokers -- even a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. A typical event draws between 20 and 50 people. The Red Dress Run lures more than 100. Some have the sinewy builds of Olympians; others seem better suited for bowling. The only thing the members of the group have in common is a tandem love of alcohol and running, and -- especially for the contingent of single hashers -- the palpable prospect of getting lucky.
"Nobody really talks about it, but it is a singles club," acknowledges San Francisco hasher Robert Philkill, a 38-year-old distance runner known to the group as Son of Shit. By day, Philkill is a mild-mannered software engineer with a gap between his front teeth that lends him an endearing, geekish charisma. By night, when he can be spotted wandering around the post-hash keg sans shirt, he is the San Francisco Hash House Harriers' leader -- a position with the impressive title of grand master.
"That's the thing that happens in the hash," Philkill says. "Everybody is hooking up with everybody else. We have gay people in the hash, straight people in the hash, we have everything in the hash, and if you are looking to hook up, there is going to be something for you."
There is definitely something in it for Philkill, who has culled his last three girlfriends from the ranks of the hash. After being introduced to the sport in San Diego (where, he asserts, "You could probably eat, get drunk as piss, and find someone to hook up with for $6 a day"), Philkill moved to San Francisco, where he met his current squeeze, a lass known as Chamber Pot (real name: Susan Compton), at a special pink tutu run during Bay to Breakers weekend three years ago.
"That's the thing about hashing at Bay to Breakers," Philkill offers. "Everybodygets laid -- across the board. Everybody gets laid. It doesn't matter who you are in the spectrum. We have people who are out-of-shape walkers and we have Olympic trials runners. On Bay to Breakers weekend, you will get laid."
Mike Caton wholeheartedly agrees, and jokes that guys like Philkill "can really use something like the hash when it comes to meeting women."
Son of Shit and Chamber Pot, kissing in a tree, K-I-S-S-.... No doubt: This is weird stuff.
In fact, the more you ask about love in the hash, the weirder it gets.
I cross the Golden Gate, out of the low clouds of a San Francisco summer and into the acrid heat of Marin County, for my first hash. When I find a row of cars along the road at China Camp and spot the participants, standing and stretching by the roadside, I get a little nervous. True, there was a time when I could routinely cross the finish line of the 3,200-meter race a respectable 10 minutes after the starting gun, but that was a decade ago, and many a beer-motivated burrito has met its demise since the days of the Clare High School (go Pioneers!) track team. In the words of the great poetical sage J.D. McClatchy, "Time has done its usual thickening."