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Hashing brings new meaning to “Beer Run”

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New York hashers at a bar after their annual Red Dress Run. (Courtesy of Karen Zolnowski)

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A group of hashers runs in the annual Red Dress Run. (Courtesy of Karen Zolnowski)

At the first intersection where the trail went cold, two men and three women sprinted to the left, up a hill and into a park. Another group of four ran ahead, along a busy street. Another two women darted to the right. The remaining dozen or so listened for a call, waiting for someone to find the next chalk arrow on the street so the pursuit could continue.

About a minute later, a yell came from high atop the hill: “Got it. On! On!” With that, the rest of the group scrambled into the park. The chase resumed. They were closing in on the beer.

The spirited jaunt by a hearty group of men and women on a recent spring evening in Brooklyn, New York, was actually part of fast-growing international sport cum social event called hashing. Part scavenger hunt and part fun-run, “hashes” are noncompetitive races through cities or the country in which one hasher --the “hare”--lays a trail with chalk or flour that the rest of the hashers--the “hounds”-- follow. The chase sometimes includes false trails and covers about four miles, but inevitably ends with a post-hash pint of beer.

Never heard of it? Well, there are nearly 500 separate hashing groups in the United States alone, according to the World Hash House Harriers, a clearinghouse for the sport. At last count, the anarchic organization boasted nearly 20,000 registered members who take up the chase in 178 countries. Chances are, a hash can be run within a few days of landing in any major city of the world.

“The old saying is that we’re a drinking club with a running problem,” said Karen Zolnowski, 32, one of the leaders of a New York hashing chapter. “But I think it’s mostly a social thing. A lot of people join to meet people. I met my fiancé hashing.”

The idea of hashing is based on the English game of Paper Chase, in which a person designated as the “hare” is given a head start, leaving scraps of paper along his or her trail, which the “hounds” follow. In the English version, which dates back at least to the Victorian era, the goal is to catch the hare before the trail is complete. But in modern hashing the course is set beforehand and the goal is simply to reach the destination --so the libations and food--usually pizza--can flow.

The modern hash has its origins in 1930s Malaysia, when a group of British expatriates began running the streets of Kuala Lumpur, incorporating beer, ginger beer and cigarettes into their outings.

“I think it’s interesting how drinking and running complement each other,” said Jeff Levine, 30, of New York. “For me, the first 10 minutes of running are always horrible, but after that it gets better. With drinking, the first 10 minutes are always great, and it’s horrible at the end. They sort of cancel each other out.”

The amount of alcohol involved and when it’s consumed varies from hash to hash and from city to city, but its presence is a constant. “It just depends on the hash,” said Tom Staff, an electrical engineer from Mountain View, Calif., who has been hashing since 1991. “Some are more focused on running, and some are more social. It also depends on whether there are regulations you have to follow about drinking in public.”

For a lot of hashers, the wide international reach of the sport is one of its main allures, along with the fact that, regardless of where they are, they can easily find a group of like-minded people, who are ready to run and drink.

“You find a similar group of people wherever you go hashing,” said Bruce Gelb, 34, a surgeon living in New York who has hashed in Cairo, Amsterdam and across the United States. “People who hash tend to be laid back and hard-working. There aren’t a lot of things we don't talk about here, but work is one of them. It’s a respite for people.”

Special events are also an attraction to some hashers. Some chapters hold hashes where the runners all wear red dresses, while others hold special costumed hashes for Halloween or Easter. Through it all, hashers insist that despite the combination of drinking and running, the worst injuries they see are bumps and scrapes. And they keep coming back.

“Actually, she’s the one who really likes hashing,” Gelb said, pointing at his Dalmation, Lexi. “I take her running all the time and she’s happy to go, but when she knows we’re going hashing, that’s when she really gets excited. She sees me grab my stuff and she knows shes going to get attention and probably some pizza.”

E-mail: jez2104@columbia.edu