Feel the Bloat

A cross between an all-terrain run and a beer bash, the “sport” of hashing makes working out a raunchy exercise in fun—and one Main Line group is in the thick of it.

It’s 10 a.m., and sleet and snow are predicted for tomorrow morning. The temperature’s dropping, but it doesn’t deter Al Ponessa and Bill Moyer. Working out of their respective vehicles, a Volkswagen Bug and a Jeep Wrangler, the two compare Google maps from the parking lot of Clem Macrone Memorial Park in the Garrett Hill section of Radnor Township.

“This isn’t precise science,” says West Chester’s Ponessa. “Usually we don’t use maps at all since the trail is scouted ahead of time. We didn’t have a chance to do that, so we’re scouting on paper.”

They fill a green canvas bag with a mix of flour and blue chalk. Ten to 15 pounds of flour ought to be plenty for what they’re about to do—mark a crazy 3 ½- to 5-mile cross-country course that should take about an hour and 15 minutes to complete, with a beer stop. “I’ve never used more than 10 pounds,” says Moyer, who lives in Chesterbrook.

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Today is special. The two are charged with re-creating the Philadelphia Hash House Harriers’ maiden run. Part dash, part bash, “hashing” is a cross between a 5K run and an Animal House-style soiree, and a surefire cure for workouts that have become a chore or a bore. This 30th anniversary weekend in early December is the most significant few days in the history of the group, which was founded on the Main Line. It’s followed by the annual general meeting and the election of officers at Springfield Country Club—a dress-up affair, though running shoes, shorts and a tuxedo jacket are standard garb. “The course won’t be nearly as interesting as the people,” promises the 61-year-old Ponessa, a Philly Hash grand master.

In the U.S. Navy, Ponessa served on six submarines, commanding two of them, which explains why he’s called “Sub Human.” All hashers have nicknames. Some are simple and fun—like “Stacks,” a librarian’s moniker, or “Can You Hear Me Now,” owned by a hasher who used a phone on the trail. Many are unpublishable.

The group hosts weekly, year-round runs in all weather, over all terrain. Then, as a way to cool down, they retreat to a local establishment or hasher’s house to eat, drink and be merry. Hashers have high pain thresholds but little shame. The uptight and squeamish don’t last, nor do the politically correct. Yet most are law-abiding, tax-paying, white-collar suburbanites. The hash helps decompress their stress.

“We’re not just a bunch of drunk professionals,” Ponessa says. “We’ve just found a more interesting way of working out.”

Right now, though, Ponessa and Moyer are stressed. The area’s so developed (the Blue Route wasn’t here 30 years ago) that they’re forced to take liberties with the original trail. Plus, they’ve decided to do without the midway beer stop. That will have to wait until after the race at Cooz’s Corner in Wayne. “Radnor is probably a bad place to do a beer stop,” Ponessa admits. “There are friendlier townships.”

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Moyer marks the path with a tennis ball, dipping it into his sack and testing it on the parking lot macadam. Then it’s into the woods, though this probably isn’t quite what Thoreau had in mind.

Three consecutive blobs of chalky flour are the signs of a “true trail.” A check (marked with an X) means the route is changing direction and can go off in any direction from there. Coming off a check, a hasher might find two straight “true marks,” then nothing or a powdery F (false). Of course, close to the midpoint or the end of the trail, there’s also “BN”—signifying there’s “beer near.”

Sometimes those laying the trail—the hares—run; sometimes they don’t. Ponessa and Moyer won’t, but they haven’t decided that yet.

Moyer dips his tennis ball into the powder and makes his first mark. Ponessa follows with a mark behind a thick oak tree, “so no one can see it from a distance.” Then he figures to send the hashers into some water, which means he’ll get wet, too. “My wife doesn’t let me in the house with these shoes,” he says.

They continue through the woods and into a neighborhood, where they chase behind a lady out for a morning walk. “What are you doing?” she asks with concern as an X is made in front of her house.

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“We’re marking for a race,” Ponessa says. “It’s just blue chalk and white flour. Some runners will be through here later.”

“OK,” she agrees. “So long as they don’t scare me.”

At a nearby intersection, Ponessa blows on his map to clear the flour off of it. Then he joins Moyer to mark both sides of the road, “just to mix it up a little bit.” The true trail heads over a bank that overlooks the road they’re on. Everywhere there are signs that say “Save Garrett Hill.”

Maybe from these guys.

THE FIRST THING you need to know about hashing is that it’s a run and not a race. There are no numbers, no starting lines, no finishing chutes, no times, no PRs (personal records). There are no rules, only guidelines—and no specific ones at that. “We make them up as we go,” Bill Moyer says.

It’s a sin to wear spandex, a race shirt or even new running shoes. If you do wear new shoes, you’re forced to drink a beer out of one. Locally, no one pays to hash (other hashes charge between $5 and $7 a run). The hares pick up the tab (usually $300 to $600). Annual dues are $20, but the fee normally isn’t collected from hashers who attend the general meetings.

One of the oldest groups of its kind in the country, Philly Hash runs on weekends, except April through September, when it’s a Tuesday-night run. Some 80 members come from as far as 50 miles away to participate, though only a third show for any given run. Come September, the group will have hosted its 1,600th run.

There are about 200 hashes in the United States and 1,100 worldwide. A degenerate bunch of British soldiers and civil servants is blamed for the sport’s origins in 1938 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Around here, hashing owes something to the region’s fascination with fox-hunting, beagling and the English children’s game “Hare and Hounds.’’ Hashing began in the U.S. when Bill Panton brought it from Malaysia to Washington, D.C., in 1972. Now 81, Panton still runs with the Philly Hash a few times a year.

Around here, there’s also an active downtown group called the Ben Franklin Mob Hash, which runs every Thursday. In Delaware, it’s the Hockessin Hash House Harriers.

Hashing has a language all its own. “SRs” are serious runners, though hopefully reformed; “FRBs” are front-running bastards, for whom the trail’s checks and falses are designed to keep the “hound’’ pack intact. “We try to finish together,” says Moyer, an actuary. “We keep it social.”

During the run, the hounds bay, “RU?’’—as in, “Are you on the trail?” The FRBs bellow in reply, “Checking’’ (“We’re not sure”), “looking’’ (“Where are we?”) or “on-on’’ (“full-speed ahead”). The wilds—what hashers call “shiggy”—are the prickers, brambles and thorns along the trail.

There’s a wide variety of skill levels at any hash. Some, like Matt Flanigan (a.k.a. “Target”), walk the entire course. “You do this long enough and your knees eventually give up,” he says.

Flanigan, 78, gets his nickname from an incident that occurred in Sri Lanka, one of several Third World countries for which he developed drinking water systems. Bullets hit his car door and shrapnel ricocheted, taking off some of his nose.

Some hashers still run competitively, like Wyndmoor’s Jeff Harbison, the pacer for former presidential candidate and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at the New York City Marathon. “We run every week all year, rain or shine or—hopefully—worse,” he says.

That includes intense thunderstorms or even blizzards.

“Ten years ago, I used to be fast,” says Moyer, who’s been running for 40 years. “I’m no longer running with a bunch of type-As.”

Once he broke the three-hour mark in a marathon, as promised, Moyer had wings tattooed on both sides of his ankles. His nickname, “Wing Nuts,” derives partly from his tattoos and partly because he freelances, gambling on shortcuts while hashing. Fellow hashers say you have to be “nuts” to follow him.

At its best, hashing isn’t confined or constrained. It may meander across field and stream, over the river, through the woods, along railroad tracks and through storm drains. It may zigzag through shopping malls, urban jungles or a Wal-Mart parking lot.

In Connecticut last summer, part of a course traversed an IKEA parking lot. But when someone saw the flour marks, IKEA hit the anthrax panic button and called the feds. It was late fall before the accused were acquitted. Hashers from across the globe mailed in defense fund contributions. A bumper sticker on Moyer’s Jeep now reads: “Relax IKEA; It’s Just Flour.”

Philly Hash’s most serious brush with the law came in connection with the 2004 Republican National Convention in Center City. The club celebrated with a traditional run in which all hashers wear a red dress.

“As we’re doing this, I’m saying to myself, ‘This is a rotten idea,’” recalls Ponessa, who works for PECO. “We’re not the type that gets into trouble, but one hasher— ‘Dancing Fool’—didn’t wear a red dress. He showed up in a security uniform like the guards wore at the Atlanta Olympics.”

Because it was the convention, police were out in full force, many on bicycles. “They surrounded us,” Ponessa says. “One of our girls, a really nice-looking girl (in a red dress, of course), got us out of that one, so we finished running and loved it. Then Dancing Fool began leaving arrows [with chalk]. The police thought he was a protestor and threw him in jail from Tuesday to Friday.”

Most hashers wear whistles to help find their way back “on-on” if lost. “We don’t,” Ponessa says, “though the idea isn’t to lose anybody.”

Most don’t use nicknames. “We do,” Sub Human says.

THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY hash is supposed to start at 3 p.m., but by 3:15, Al Ponessa still has on the same wet shoes he wore to mark the trail earlier in the day. He gathers everyone in a circle, letting them know that the horn, which signals the start of the fray, is on its way.

Founding member “Hareass”—who refuses to give his full name—reads from a framed cardboard plaque made from the back of a case of Rolling Rock beer. Commemorating the group’s first year, it has the signatures of Philly Hash’s 10 original members, who signed it Dec. 1, 1977.

Then the air is filled with cries of “on-on.” Somewhat emotionally, Hareass asks everyone to “remember the 10 who first dared.” Then, he offers some sage advice: “If anyone shoots at you, you’re going through the wrong back yard.”

Hareass is one of just two founders who still hash. Most were ex-rugby players. “They told me you run 5 miles, but I told them I didn’t think I could do that,” he recalls. “Then afterwards, they said, you drink beer. I told them, ‘Well, I do that!’”

Ponessa grabs a ceremonial handful of flour and marks the middle of the hash circle, but the horn’s still missing. “Beagle” has it. A conch shell fills the void, and the pack is off like deer through the woods. How many have shown up? “Who knows? We never count,” says Moyer, who creeps along or dashes ahead in his Wrangler.

At one juncture, the pack must either go through the underbrush or get wet in a stream. “You’re damned one way or another,” says Moyer. “I’m sure they’re all cursing me. But if they’re not complaining, I didn’t do my job.”

Toward the end, the trail’s marks die, but Moyer expects the hash to figure that out. “The park’s right there,” he says. “They’re looking for [a mark], but it’s not there. There are all sorts of ways to play with people’s heads, but that was one nice, diabolical thing.”

At the finish, blood trickles in streams down both of Pat Hurley’s legs. He’s ripped them in brambles. “There’s nothing like it,” Hurley says.

AT COOZ’S CORNER, a traditional hash bar, punishments—“down-downs”—are doled out for hashing crimes that might include asking for a nickname or, worse yet, complaining about the one you already have. What beer they can’t chug, the offenders pour over their heads. Still, with Philly Hash’s laissez-faire spirit and strictly enforced “no requirements” requirements, you don’t have to drink. “This is a dive, but it’s great,” Ponessa says of the locale. “We can go in all sweaty and smelly, and no one cares.”

Though Philly Hash recruits by word of mouth, members are often seen at the Philadelphia Marathon handing out sips of beer to those who want them. “Most don’t, but it gives us a giggle,” Moyer says. “Some consider us devils, but some consider us saints.”

All hash women are affectionately called “bimbos”—not that there’s any real prejudice toward them. Philly Hash’s newest general manager is a female.

Still, hasher Katie Law—whose nickname is unprintable—says some women would consider the ribbing offensive. “It’s a sexist organization, so the easily offended don’t join,” she says. “I’ve brought out people who swore they liked to run, but they didn’t get it. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, you don’t. These people have great professional jobs. Some own their own businesses or have government jobs—but here they can blow off steam.”

When Chaz McCallum (another whose nickname is too offensive to print) came to Philadelphia in 2003, he first ran—and drank—with another local hash, Philly Full Moon. An electronics defense contractor, he enjoys the nontraditional, politically incorrect element. “For me, it’s an escape from the corporate atmosphere that’s extremely conservative,” he says. “At work, I’m diligent, but that’s the way I view work. Hashing is almost the complete opposite.”

With the “sacred vessel”—the brass horn—draped over his right shoulder, McCallum describes this bunch as “non-normal hash.”

“There are levels of hashing: PG-, R- and X-rated,” he says. “Some things we do here are hardcore. But in general, Philly, which is more traditional and conservative, is a PG-13 hash.”

PG-13 indeed. By 7 p.m. on this Saturday evening, members are already clearing out of Cooz’s. Wallingford’s Stan Cherim, 78, is one of the first to retreat. He’s run marathons worldwide, including one on Mount Everest—hence the nickname “Himalaya.” Now he loves hashing as much as life itself.

“Here, no one wins, and there’s no medal or trophy,” he says. “So what? I run because it’s healthy and keeps me active. When I go for my annual physical, the doctor tells me I’m in as good a shape as men half my age.”

Meanwhile, the talk among the younger members at the bar is that Philly Hash is at a crossroads. Ponessa was the perfect grand master—non-political, reliable, a good sport who always ensured a turnout. But even he senses the need to “bring in the new while finding a way to keep the old.”

Two nights later, the general meeting is a rousing success. In all, 84 hashers show. The new officers begin their reign, and fun reigns supreme. Ever the fiscal conservative, Ponessa asks the bartender to let him know when the tab reachs his budgeted $1,700.

“She said it shouldn’t be a problem, since they don’t even get to that level at most weddings. We hit that sum around dinner,” he recalls. “The total bill was $2,600.”

To learn more about the Philadelphia Hash House Harriers, visit phillyhash.com.

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