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BEACON HILL

'There's running... and having beer'

Irreverant Hash House Harriers blazes trails through city's streets

Downscale bars don't typically host meetings of worldwide organizations, but then the Hash House Harriers, a self-described "drinking club with a running problem," isn't your typical worldwide organization.

"There are no rules," says one member, who like other hashers uses only his ''hash name," Velvet Pelvis. "There are traditions, there are recommendations, but there really are no rules. You have to have more than one person, there has to be a trail, there has to be a beginning, an end, and beer."

Invented in 1938 by British expatriates in Malaysia, hashing is based on a schoolyard game in which a trail is marked with chalk or flour by runners known as "hares." This trail is then followed by the "hounds" -- the rest of the pack -- who set out without knowing exactly where it will end. But no matter: Hash websites claim that there are more than a thousand regular hashes in cities around the world, including several in Boston. The largest of these is the Boston Hash House Harriers, who attracted 50 hashers to the Beacon Hill Pub on Charles Street at sundown on a recent Wednesday evening for their weekly hash.

"You guys want some chalk talk or what?" shouted Puff-n-Stuff, one of BH3's ''Religious Advisors," as several of the veteran hashers drifted out of the pub after loosening up with a pre-hash beer (along with talking about one's competitive running, stretching out is a minor faux pas here). Using the street as a blackboard, Puff-n-Stuff, Velvet, and others in the group's "mismanagement" explained the system of coded chalk circles and arrows that designate the trail as well as important stops along the way. Then, after three virgins (first-timers) were introduced, a whistle was blown, and the pack bounded off toward Boston Common, a mix of ages, sizes, and backgrounds, all united for a common strange purpose.

"We've got lawyers, doctors, Indian chiefs," said C.A., whose hash name, like many, is unprintable. "A lot of people who are engineers."

"Midwives," suggested At Your Cervix, a midwife.

"Midwives, nurses," continued C.A. "But the cool part is we don't talk about work."

What they do talk about is the trail, which at that moment seemed to be leading up through the tonier precincts between Beacon and Charles. Faster runners serve as the advance scouts, finding the true trail as well as the many false ones that split off every few blocks.

Intra-pack communication is conducted with a series of calls and responses: "Are you?" is the all-purpose question, answered by "Looking" or "Checking" by those who haven't found any chalk marks; "Check one" and "Check two" by those who have; or a triumphant "On-on!" by those who have found, or think they've found, the true trail.

Which, in this case, then led directly up Beacon Hill, around the State House and back down the other side, across Cambridge Street, through an empty plaza, then past the FleetCenter back toward the starting point, runners dashing in and out of car and pedestrian traffic. Reactions are generally positive, with the pack frequently cheered on by firefighters, bouncers, and homeless people. After about two winding miles of this, calls of "Beer near!" echoed down the line, and the pack came to a stop at a secluded outdoors spot for a "beer check," a mid-hash chance to down a few cheap ones from Milwaukee.

"You get a Guinness, man, you're toast afterward," said General A.P., a twenty-something hasher from Brighton who works at Massachusetts General Hospital. Like many, the General runs occasionally on his own and says he has no interest in joining one of the more single-minded running clubs in town. "There's running, and then there's running and having beer, and socializing. Here it's not competitive at all. We have people who walk and smoke."

Also at the beer check was Wee Willie W., one of the hares, who had doubled back on the trail after alerting the destination bar to the imminent arrival of the hashers. A 29-year-old who works in marketing when he has a job, which he doesn't at the moment, Willie says that while there are variations between different hashes, he's found a similar vibe at hashes in places as geographically and culturally distant as London, Florida, and Thailand.

"It's like a big fraternity all around the world. You can show up at random places and instantly have some friends," he explained. "There's a place here for pretty much everyone, if you want to hang out with us and you can put up with us. We accept pretty much anyone, and that's kinda cool."

"There's no such thing as a vicious hasher," said C.W.. "And if there is, that person doesn't last that long."

"We weed out people like that, we don't need that," said C.A. "We have people who just like to have a good time, have fun, and [are] very tolerant and accepting. Even though we probably insult everyone, it's not serious."

"We don't discriminate with insults," C.W. said, nodding.

"We pick on everybody. It's like a big dysfunctional family," said C.A. "I think that's why I'm part of this."

With another whistle, beer cans were collected, and the pack headed out again for the slower and more wobbly second and final leg of the hash. After another false trail led much of the pack back up Beacon Hill toward the State House, Shangri-La was found -- literally -- just a few blocks from the hash's starting point, at the Shangri-La Restaurant on Cambridge Street, where a bartender popped open fresh beers for each hasher as they came in.

Total mileage for the evening: About three.

Hours on the course: About 1, less than half the amount of time that the more hardcore hashers would spend in Shangri-La, drinking more beer, eating Chinese food, initiating the ''virgins," and singing a number of bawdy songs.

It's an odd spectacle, this group of sweaty and somewhat drunk people, but if people outside the hash world don't understand, no big deal.

"Everybody's life is like a diamond; you have different facets of your life, and this is [one of] mine," said Ski Bobbitt, a 59-year-old Boston businessman. A 10-year veteran of the group, Bobbitt says that hashing allows them to leave their workday identities behind for at least a little while. "Most of your life, you have to be a straight arrow. This is the one chance, periodically, to be an animal. You don't get that chance much."

During the cold months, the Boston Hash House Harriers hash mostly on weekend afternoons around Greater Boston. For information on the next hash, go to www.bostonhash.com.

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