Love on the Run

How a combination footrace and frat party became one of the best places in the city to hook up

I'm standing in the middle of Van Ness during rush hour. I'm breathless and my legs are heavy, and I'm wet with sweat. It's like one of those anxiety dreams about wandering through the halls of high school without pants -- except that here, my red dress keeps riding up.

Cars whir past on both sides, and the drivers jam on their brakes to stare, or sound their horns, or just point and laugh. When I finally get across the road, dozens of people in similar costumes surround me. To my left is a young man, blond and bookish, with flaxen shoulder hair curling up from under the straps of his crimson tank dress. To my right, a woman in a scarlet sequined cocktail number trots along behind her dog. Together we form an absurd, stinking mob in red, howling and scuttling through the marble corridors of the Civic Center. The sound of a giant, galloping centipede in ASICS rises up from the paved mall and echoes through the concrete canyons of downtown.

This roving party began in the shadow of St. Mary's Cathedral and will end there nearly an hour later. It's an excursion of San Francisco's most unusual athletic organization, the Hash House Harriers. To sidewalk gawkers and the otherwise uninitiated, the group is tirelessly described as a "drinking club with a running problem." But tonight, it's much more than that.

Hashers take to the hills of Chinatown.
Paolo Vescia
Hashers take to the hills of Chinatown.
Participants adjust their costumes before the Red 
Dress Run.
Paolo Vescia
Participants adjust their costumes before the Red Dress Run.
Two young bystanders appraise the costumes.
Paolo Vescia
Two young bystanders appraise the costumes.
Runners stop traffic in Nob Hill.
Paolo Vescia
Runners stop traffic in Nob Hill.
Condom antics during a break in the race.
Paolo Vescia
Condom antics during a break in the race.
Red Dress Run organizer Norm Wheatley (aka 
Cumming Mother).
Paolo Vescia
Red Dress Run organizer Norm Wheatley (aka Cumming Mother).
Hydrating before the hash.
Paolo Vescia
Hydrating before the hash.
The congregation of hashers poses in the St. Mary's 
parking lot.
Paolo Vescia
The congregation of hashers poses in the St. Mary's parking lot.

For the S.F. chapter of the Hash House Harriers, this is one of the biggest events all year: the annual Red Dress Run. Before the race, balding businessmen hop out of their luxury sedans dressed in red sequins and feathers. A couple help their little boy wiggle into a crimson velvet Kewpie doll outfit. Two college-age girls turn up with a scaffolding of cherry fishnets climbing up from their sneakers. As people arrive in the shadow of St. Mary's winged concrete facade -- eyeing everyone else's costumes, adjusting their own, playfully teasing -- the scene is a far cry from typical post-Mass assemblies. Love is in the air. And hedonism.

Like other chapters of this running club across the country and around the world, our town's Hash House Harriers are dedicated to vulgar traditions, chaotic disorganization, and "hashes," events that are equal parts footrace, frat house kegger, and scavenger hunt. This formula has made the Hash House Harriers one of the oldest athletic societies in the world. And, as unlikely as it might seem, it's also made the S.F. organization the perfect place in the city to find love ... or at least something that might resemble it.

The pack jogs past ogling squatters with cluttered shopping carts, crowds of suits heading to the BART train home, and the glittery doorways of the Market Street nudie bars. We enter a side door of the San Francisco Centre, trotting en masse past dumbstruck mall girls and a dismayed linebacker rent-a-cop.

The parade goes on for miles -- diagonally through Union Square, over the roller coaster knolls of Chinatown, and across the camcorder LCD monitors of trolley car tourists. A pedestrian clutches her grocery bags for dear life. "What are you running for?" she asks the mob. "AIDS?"

A beefy male jogger on her right replies, "Beer."

Another on her left seductively coos, "I'm here to get laid."


Hashing as we know it today began in Malaysia in 1938. An English accountant named Albert Stephen Ignatius Gispert (known simply as "G" in the hash history books) founded a sporting group in Kuala Lumpur with fellow expats. Gispert coupled his childhood love of an English schoolboy game of chase called Hare and Hounds (a cross-country footrace that originated in England during the mid-1830s) with his adult love of a good pint. The hunters in Gispert's game were known as "harriers" -- a word for rabbit-hunting dogs. When the local Registrar of Societies required that the group be legally chartered, Gispert took inspiration from a brew house called the Royal Selangor Club, where a number of his cohorts boarded. Because of the Selangor's lackluster grub, most patrons knew the place simply as the "Hash House."

And the Hash House Harriers were born.

Using the same trustworthy couriers as venereal disease -- military personnel and jet-set business types -- the "drinking club with a running problem" grew into an international underground network for people in search of a good run, a good beer, and, if the cards were right, a good lay. "You know how women get a little easier when they travel?" one hasher goads me. "Well, women hashers who travel, they're all over the place."

Ground zero for the organization was Gispert's "mother hash" in Kuala Lumpur, but after a brief hiatus during World War II (in which Gispert and many original hashers died) the pastime went global in the late '60s. It popped up at a military base in Dhekelia, Cyprus. Chapters were founded in Australia, Japan, and at military institutions throughout Europe.

More than three decades later, the group still subscribes to Gispert's passion for running a few miles and downing a few beers, but the evolution and globalization of the hash includes all sorts of provincial traditions, including the Red Dress Run, the Stained Blue Dress Run (an homage to Monica Lewinsky), and some that ban clothing altogether.

Of this worldwide phenomenon, Mike Caton -- biotechnology clinical research manager, armchair cultural anthropologist, and frequent hasher (under the hash name Oral Roberts) -- has a theory:

"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."

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.

"Every hash has a different personality," Robert Philkill says, explaining the differences between the Thursday and Monday night events. "Some hashes are more lewd and lascivious, like the Gypsies'. They're a little bit more on the edge. Well, you don't get as many women going to that hash because it's a little more ... edgy. Our hash is a little more mainstream. They call us 'Wine and Cheese.'"

"Mondays can be the perfect place to hook up," Mike Caton offers, citing the gender balance and younger demographic of the S.F. Hash events. Caton first heard about hashing from a girlfriend in 1997, and has been hooked ever since. In many ways he represents the typical Bay Area hasher: forwardly single, cerebral, unfailingly sarcastic, and in a high-skill, high-stress job. When he's not testing drugs for his Berkeley firm or volunteering his time with at-risk kids (with whom he fronts a pro-homework death metal band), he spends his time standing around a keg in running gear.

"One of the things that is definitely true is that in major metropolitan areas in the U.S. we don't have much social interaction that doesn't have a goal to it," Caton explains. "Aside from getting together with that one friend to have dinner or whatever, most of the time when you call someone you're either trying to fuck 'em, do some kind of business networking, or they're incidental, casual acquaintances. When you come here [to a hash], it's consequence-free -- you come here, act like an idiot and use a stupid name, and just enjoy each other's company."

I next find myself in Caton's enjoyable company on a cloudy Thursday evening at a Gypsies hash. He has gladly agreed to skip the run to explain the group's curious mating rituals.

"First of all, there's dating in the hash and hooking up," he explains. "There are a lot of chicks in the hash that are totally OK to just go home after the party and just fuck. And you're both friendly afterwards, but not necessarily more friendly than you are to anyone else." Dating is another story. And it turns out that the zest with which Caton enjoys the small dating pool of the hash has become a bit of a problem.

"I've dated people in the hash, and it's ended and been fine, and I've dated people and had it be the most horrible experience of my life," he concedes. The psychological aftermath of Caton's last tryst is evident: He walks on eggshells when his ex (a frequent South Bay hasher) moonlights at a San Francisco event, and points to what may be the physical evidence of their bumpy breakup -- a keyed scar that runs the length of his Jeep's passenger side.

"I've dated in the hash, but it is like living in a small town," confirms Sue Redding (aka Cums Quickly). The 45-year-old hasher ("39 in a dark room") has sworn off interhash romance. "If it doesn't go well, everyone knows about it, and it's torture beyond belief."

"I'm pretty well known as a slut if you ask around," Caton says. "But I'd like to think I've gotten better about it. After a while you either date or ask out everyone you're already interested in. And you run out of possibilities. That's kind of where I am right now. Either I've already dated everyone that I want or the people that I haven't dated that I want to have already said no three times." Then he adds, optimistically, "But there always are new people."

As we sit across from each other at a neighborhood park, the Gypsies start to trickle in, sweaty and cursing, demanding beer. Tonight there's a newbie, an attractive investment banker named Janice, recently relocated from New York City. When her name comes up during our conversation, Caton confesses, "I'd like to get my hooks into that one."


Scarlett O'Hairy is standing at the bucket, trying to explain how hashing has changed her life -- without slurring. When she moved to San Francisco in the fall of 2000, she was plain ol' Tara Bietz, a hotel manager in her early 30s, single and without a friend in town. When she was introduced to hashing soon after she arrived, Bietz became addicted: It was an easy way to meet new people and see the city. For the next two years Bietz went to almost every hash on Mondays and Thursdays. She had a new posse of friends and got her hash name. Over time, Bietz started to notice a leggy male hasher called Peteophile (Peter Stangel). Soon Cupid's arrow struck.

"After a couple months we became closer friends, and then more," Bietz recalls. The two hashers started to date seriously, and eventually Stangel popped the question.

"We wouldn't be together if it wasn't for the hash," Bietz says. "I would never be with anybody who wasn't a hasher. They are comfortable, relaxed people, and sometimes a little obnoxious. They are the kind of people where if I was ever in jail -- and I hope to God I never will be -- it doesn't matter where I am, I can call a hasher. It's a fun, loving group. It is like being on recess for adults. If you can play with someone like that and they can play, too, and there's a spark, it's great. I've seen people who hash who have partners who don't hash, and it's hard to understand."

Bietz and Stangel shouldn't have that problem. They are only the most recent set of dedicated hash participants to tie the knot, which will happen this fall in a ceremony conducted by an ordained hasher. They're getting married on a camping retreat. Will the festivities include a hash run? Of course.

"I would go [to hashes] at first to have fun, not necessarily to meet people for the rest of my life," Bietz says. "But sometimes you do. I did. When you end up in a relationship with somebody, you want someone who is a lot like you. People are drawn to the hash for the same reasons, the same interests, and the same sense of humor. For people to find a partner in the hash seems natural."

Bietz's story is becoming more and more common. According to Grand Master Robert Philkill, the local chapters of the Hash House Harriers produce four or five weddings a year. Most recently, the S.F. Hash has seen unions between Shit Eating Grin (Justin Graham) and Wide Angle (Victoria Graham) as well as Crabs (Jeff Weiss) and Candy Ass (Darcy Mercord). Two other regulars, Open Wide (Liz Powell) and Likes to Lick (Jack Powell), also recently married by an ordained hasher, just found out they are going to have a baby.

"There is all kinds of serious relationships that come out of the hash," Caton says, speaking about the union of Open Wide and Likes to Lick. "That's the kind of thing that everyone is looking for."

I catch the pregnant (though not yet showing) Liz, a sunny dental hygienist in her 30s, standing around the bucket after a Thursday night Gypsies run, a plastic cup (water) in hand. She's waiting for Jack, telling her own stories about love on the hash: about the first time she laid eyes on Jack after a Monday night event three years ago; about jumping into his convertible half-drunk and falling in love; about how, while they were scouting a trail together for a run, he pulled out a ring and asked her to marry him; about how, as we speak within a circus of intoxicated athletes, her life has been changed by the Hash House Harriers.

"Jack wanted to know what sex the baby was," Liz says, forgoing the use of her husband's hash pseudonym, "but I talked him out of it." If it's a boy, they might name him Joshua or Jonathan. If it's a girl, maybe Cynthia or Emily.

And the baby's hash name?

She thinks about it for a minute before offering a suggestion: "Child of the Hash?"

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