Hashing: It's a mad dash Runners with rude nicknames try to follow a trail marked with flour or chalk. Who's first? Who cares? Have a beer.

Posted: July 06, 2004

With a blast from a hunting horn, the Philadelphia Hash House Harriers took off down the street and hung a sharp left up a steep, grass embankment.

Nearly 45 strong, the pack of runners crashed through a thicket, searching for signs of the trail, marked with chalk and flour, they were supposed to follow.

Just one problem: A thunderstorm had washed away most of the marks.

Soon, a group of confused stragglers was wandering in the rain in a King of Prussia subdivision.

"It's not this way," called a stumped Adrian Folcher to his wife, Bernice, and friend Matt Flannagan.

They were soaked, lost, miles from the finish line, and who knew how far from the event's midway beer stop. Was the trio dismayed?

No way.

In the strange world of "hashing," this is considered a good time.

Said a smiling Bernice Folcher, 58, "Hashing is my total escape. Everyone should have one."

An eccentric sport that combines running and drinking, and places no value in coming in first, hashing was invented by bored British expatriates in Malaysia in 1938. They based it on the children's game of Hare and Hounds and dubbed themselves the Hash House Harriers, combining the nickname for the club they all frequented and the British term for a cross-country runner.

Since then hashing has caught on around the globe.

With more than 1,700 groups in more than 180 countries, you can hash in Cairo, Frankfurt, Shanghai, Rome, Nairobi and Oslo. Last month in San Diego, where 13 clubs operate, an annual hashing tradition called the Red Dress Run attracted nearly 2,000 runners attired (every man, woman and dog) in red frocks.

Later this month, more than 5,000 hashers will gather in Cardiff, Wales, for a biannual convention called the World Interhash.

And in Philadelphia, where the region is home to at least six clubs, hashing made news last month after a trail of white powder was found outside the U.S. Mint, and police, fearing terrorism, shut down part of Race Street.

Authorities quickly discovered the white stuff was flour.

While media accounts attributed the trail to the Philadelphia Hash House Harriers, it was actually the work of the Ben Franklin Mob, a group of younger hashers, one of whom spent a day in jail over the incident. (The malicious-mischief charges were dropped, and the hasher refused comment.)

"I was upset," said another hasher, Wyatt Smith, 27, who started hashing while serving in the Air Force, and founded the Mob in February. "We caused all this trouble, and we didn't even get any credit for it."

Irreverence - some might call it sophomoric humor - is key to hashing. All hashers go by nicknames, which are usually insulting or lewd and generally unprintable in a family newspaper. "More people know me by my hashing name than my real name," said Bob Hranek, dubbed "Horny Hands," a systems engineer at Lockheed Martin who has been hashing for two decades.

The rules of hashing are few. Nonrunners are welcome to walk the course and teetotalers can opt to chug a glass of water during the raucous post-event beer-drinking ritual known as the "down-down." But one thing the freewheeling clubs all emphasize: Those easily offended should stay home.

"Hashing is politically incorrect," said Jeff Harbison, a.k.a. "Dips--t," a longtime member of the Philadelphia Hash House Harriers, which claims never to have missed a weekly run since it began in 1978. "That's one of the key things that makes it work. The whole point is to get out there and have some fun and let your guard down. You don't have to worry about pissing anyone off. You can just be silly and irresponsible and play in the mud."

While some groups, like the Ben Franklin Mob, run strictly in the city, other clubs favor off-trail experiences and plenty of what hashers call "shiggy" - brush, brambles, mud, stream crossings.

For a hash earlier in June, Harbison set a trail through Chestnut Hill and along the Wissahickon that required climbing a railroad trestle, slogging through shoulder-high brush on the abandoned track, and scrambling down the rocky face of a ridge. About 30 runners navigated the course through torrential rain and lightning. "Hashers, being different creatures than most, loved the challenge of the storm and were grinning ear to ear," Harbison said.

An attorney with a master's in business who ran a family-owned manufacturing company until its recent sale, Harbison has fond memories of a hash (the word refers to both the clubs and the events) that featured a boat ride across the Intracoastal Waterway and another that had him sliding on his belly across tidal mud flats.

The art of laying a hash trail, though, Harbison said, lies in providing plenty of crafty false trails for the speed demons to chase down. The back of the pack then waits for them to find the true trail, signaled by the call, "On, on."

"That way the front-runners get to run farther and faster," he said. "It's all designed to keep everyone together."

Staying together, alas, proved difficult during the King of Prussia run. Some never made it to the beer stop. Others, who arrived at the start point late, never even found the trail.

But the Folchers and Flannagan, 75, who has been hashing for more than 25 years and who got the nickname "Target" for the glass eye he's had to wear since he caught a bullet in Sri Lanka, eventually did find their way out of that subdivision.

Said Adrian Folcher, 73, known as "Magellan," "I used to be way out in front, but then I had a couple of heart attacks."

As much as the exercise, it's the social aspect of the sport that Folcher enjoys - a sentiment echoed by many of the hashers during the hash's apres-party at a Bridgeport tavern later that night.

"It's rare for any of us to go on vacation without first logging onto the Web and finding a hash group where we're going," said Michelle, who would not give her last name, but answers to "Likes It Hot" at hashes.

Nuala Campany (hash name "Dog Paddle"), who does international development work, started hashing in Sudan in 1980. She has hashed in Japan, Singapore and Korea and once hared a trail in the Forbidden City in Beijing. "A lot of my life, I've moved [to a new] country every year," she said. "Hashing is an easy way to find other people who like to run and drink beer."

"This group has made all the difference in my experience of Philadelphia," said Trina Youchak, who moved to the area 15 months ago. "I found it hard to meet people, but these guys have been really friendly."

Said Youchak, who works in the software industry, "I'm moving to the U.K, and the first thing I'm going to do is find a hash group."

Contact Eils Lotozo at 215-854-5610 or elotozo@phillynews.com.

Hash This Out

Local hashes

Philadelphia Hash House Harriers: www.phillyhash.com

Ben Franklin Mob: www.bfm.phillyhash.com/ bfm.html

Philly Full Moon: http://fullmoon.phillyhash. com/

Liberty Bell: www.hashinphilly.com

Hockessin Hash House Harriers: www.hockessinhash.org

Harrisburg/Hershey: http://www.h5hash.com/

Hash resources:

www.half-mind.com

http://harrier.net

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