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Dressed in my closest approximation of a running outfit (old T-shirt, cutoffs, tattered sneakers), I climb out of my car, and a stranger, who introduces himself as Blowing Zydeco, thrusts a cold beer bottle into my hand. About 20 runners amble around the entrance to the park. I'm introduced to the "hare" for the day -- none other than Mike "Oral Roberts" Caton -- and as he sets off into the hills someone explains the rules.
The hare drops piles of flour every 25 yards or so, marking a trail between three and six miles long. A few minutes after he starts, the rest of the pack -- the harriers -- gives chase, with a simple goal: follow the markings and catch the leader.
But it's not that simple.
Caton's route is loaded with tricks, false trails, and pointless loops (called "circle jerks"). And, because Caton is a particularly wily hare, the route includes a variety of other perils -- everything from poison oak to pissed-off park rangers. To keep everyone on track, harriers in the back of the pack call out, "Are you?" (as in, "Are you on the trail?"), and harriers in the front return a shout of "Checking!" if they are looking for the trail, or "On! On!" when they untangle the hare's ruse and get on course.
Ten minutes after we begin, the pack is hopelessly scattered in the China Camp picnic area, and a burly female park ranger is pulling runners aside for interrogation.
Twenty minutes later I'm alone on a dusty trail overlooking the bay, the beer has gone straight to my legs, which feel like giant lead hams, and I'm on the verge of an asthmatic seizure.
After an hour, I finally limp back to the starting point. Because of severe dehydration, I'm not sweating anymore, but my shirt is ringed with dried, crusty traces of salt. My lips are sun-chapped. I encounter Caton, leaning against the side of his car, his arm and shirt covered in blood. Apparently he was jogging with a baby stroller filled with beers and got sliced when one of the bottles fell out. He informs me that the quicker runners have already finished off the supply of water.
This is the worst run of my life.
But I soon find out that running is hardly the point of the hash. When all the disagreeable exercise is out of the way, the hashers regroup at the starting point and circle around a fresh keg to dole out penalties (called "Down Downs") for such egregious crimes as finishing first, getting lost, and setting a difficult trail. These penalties (always in the form of a liquid) are chugged while the group sings skewed nursery rhyme melodies with names like "Sexual Life of the Camel" and "God Bless My Underpants." During these ceremonies, newcomers are anointed with their hash names, crude monikers by which they will be known forevermore in international hashing society. Some of them make sense -- a librarian becomes Do Me Decimal; a lawyer, Hung Juror -- but others, like Cum Guzzling Cockaholic, have less brainy origins. My career in journalism evokes suggestions of This Just In and Pooparazzi, but the winner comes from using my first name as an acronym: Nasty Ass Testicle Eater. ("You can go by Nass Ass for short," one hasher consoles.)
After the ceremonies, a faction of the group continues to party at the "On On On," usually a nearby bar or hasher's house. That's where many of the enterprising participants -- fueled by liquor, libido, and leftover endorphins -- enjoy a different kind of thrill of the chase.
At a recent hash, a lovely female hare opened the evening by announcing that she was "very single." By the end of the night she was in the back corner of the On On On, her lips and nylon-sheathed limbs entangled in a game of pre-coital Twister with a male hasher who had picked up on the invitation.
There are two hashes in San Francisco -- the Monday night San Francisco Hash House Harriers and Thursday's Gypsies in the Palace Hash -- and the former is the one to attend if you're looking for love. Though the rules that govern both groups are essentially the same, the character of the events is a world apart.
The S.F. Hash has a bigger turnout of people who tend toward serious athletics and a healthy pickup scene. The Gypsies, on the other hand, are an older, male-dominated troupe who prides themselves on being more "hard-core." Gypsies put a greater emphasis on the ritual debauchery, hard drinking, and foulmouthed antics of the sport's heritage; their runs often start with a reading from the "Sacred Missal" (a steamy bit of pulp called The Lonely Librarian) and end around a ceremonial bucket, which brims with a disorienting brew of hard liquors.
"They are a running group with a drinking problem," is how one Gypsy describes the San Francisco Hash House Harriers, with notable revulsion. "We are a drinking club with a running problem. We are real hashers."
And while this might be true, the "real hashers" tend to scare away the ladies.