Red Dress Runs happen annually in many cities around the world, but the New Orleans run has become the biggest, and probably the wildest, of them all. The New Orleans Hash House Harriers (NOH3), a local chapter of the "drinking club with a running problem," held its first Red Dress Run 19 years ago with a small group of dedicated runners. Now the event attracts thousands of hashers and non-hashers alike.
Tara Lusignan, a committed runner and occasional hasher, says she and her friends signed up for their first Red Dress Run in 2007. It was "an excuse to dress up and run around the city," she says. Now it's just an excuse to dress up.
"It has changed drastically over the past seven years," Lusignan says. "It's just gotten so big. We used to actually run to the bar, get a drink and keep running. Since it was smaller, we traveled more around the city. Now they do a little run, but it's more of a pub crawl."
Last year, the Red Dress Run included nearly 6,000 registered participants and hundreds more who showed up just to party in the streets. This year, organizers expect it to be even bigger. The run starts at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in Armstrong Park and follows a roughly two-mile route that includes Bourbon and Frenchmen streets and returns to the park where food, beer and live music await registered runners. While the official festivities continue in Armstrong Park, other red-dressed revelers inevitably flood Bourbon Street and other places.
As the event has grown, Lusignan says the Carnival-like nature has distracted attention from the event's charitable mission.
"I think some people in New Orleans just want to get in a red dress," she says. "They don't know the money goes to charity."
Kendall Daigle, Grand Master of the NOH3, says the event raises a significant amount of money which is distributed to community groups and nonprofits. The Red Dress Run is organized by volunteers, and money is raised mostly through registration costs.
"Whatever it doesn't cost, we give away," Daigle says.
Last year, NOH3 donated $192,000 to local nonprofit organizations, including education programs, animal shelters, recreation centers and food banks. Organizations can apply for grants of up to $5,000 to be used for supplies or specific operating expenses. After this year's round of grants, NOH3 will have donated a total of more than $1 million.
Part of the Red Dress Run's appeal is rooted in the hard partying antics of the hashers, whose traditions include profanity-laced drinking songs and often X-rated nicknames. With numerous chapters from around the country descending on the French Quarter, Daigle says it's an excuse to let loose.
"When a hash travels, they can get pretty skanky," Daigle says.
This year's race is sure to be racier still, since the event overlaps the annual Naughty in N'awlins convention. The four-day adults-only libertine event usually happens in July but got bumped to this weekend due to scheduling conflicts. Convention organizers incorporated a red dress theme into the convention schedule, including a red dress ball Friday and a red dress block party on Fulton Street Saturday.
"We like social events that are fun, funky and sexy," says Bob Hannaford, who produces Naughty in N'awlins through his New Orleans-based company, French Connection Events.
"Everybody tries to call it the annual swingers' convention in town, but we're not a swingers' convention," Hannaford says. "We're much bigger and much broader than that. We do have quite a [few] people who consider themselves swingers, or kinky couples into BDSM. We have nudists that come, and all kinds of open-minded, fun people that I think bring the right mindset to the Red Dress Run to kick it up a notch."
Hannaford said he reached out to the Red Dress Run organizers and hopes to avoid stepping on any toes by encouraging Naughty in N'awlins attendees to register for the run and by tweaking the schedule to allow partiers to participate in both events.
Daigle says the larger crowds create some logistical problems and additional expenses. He realizes not everyone costuming in the area will be registered. (Registered runners are encouraged to pick up registration packets in advance at the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday or Friday.) He says NOH3 plans to keep the Red Dress Run going for the foreseeable future, despite the complications.
"We created this monster," Daigle says. "A lot of my friends don't register, and they go hang out. You can't hate 'em for it, but we're trying to get people to sign up because the money doesn't go to us, it goes to the people."