In many ways, the 5K race I did on Saturday was like any other race: the tall, skinny guys moved forward quickly. Spectators rang cowbells. I heard the subject of "Rocky" twice during the course.
Except that the audience was naked. And me too.
That's because the race was the Bouncing Buns Clothing Optional 5K, which was held at the Sunny Rest Resort, a nudist resort in Palmerton, Pennsylvania.
"Not enough of us do things outside the box, especially as we get older," said Ron Horn, race director and co-owner of Pretzel City Sports, who hosted the race.
I've raced a handful of Pretzel City's clothed (or as naked runners call them "textile") races, but the nude events never appealed to me, not when there were umpteen other races.
But this year it caught my attention in part because almost all other races were canceled due to the coronavirus. Why not expose everything else in this pandemic where we publicly cover our faces? What a fun way to experience some freedom in a time of pressing fear, grief, limitations and disappointments.
But I hesitated. I've been to "toptional" pools in Las Vegas, so nudity wasn't that big of a deal. But run naked? It seemed so – uncomfortable.
And yet: I kept getting emails about this race in a year full of bad news that was very close to my home. In March, four members of my family had Covid-19. In June, my brother was in the hospital for weeks after a driver hit him on a bike ride.
I spent five months trying to find a touch of joy in small, simple things like the sight of a bird on the tree I planted last year or the feeling of my dog's very soft ear. But the idea of some big, fancy thing that could get me out of my darkness had a certain appeal.
When a friend who lives in New York state said she was 90 percent ready to commit to the trip to take part in this race, I thought maybe I should go, if only to see her.
"What else do you have to do?" She asked.
Sunny Rest was founded in 1945 as a nudist resort and apart from the lack of clothing looks like many other campsites with mobile homes, cabins, tents and mobile homes. There's a pool, spa, volleyball and tennis courts, hot tub, and hiking and biking trails. Most people go about their daily activities wearing only shoes or sandals, maybe a hat. It's private property, so laws against public nudity are not an issue. Pretzel City has been running races there for 13 years.
The events are supposed to be fun, but the organizers of the race recognize that nudity is a taboo. Therefore the race results will be anonymized when published online. The participants are only listed by first name, last initial and home country. Aware of the privacy concerns, the Pretzel City race director announced prior to the race that a photographer and I would be reporting on the event and that we would only include those runners who had agreed to be photographed and interviewed.
Several runners were eager to speak to me, including Bruce Freeburger, 69, who drove from Detroit to drive this race. He runs the website nackte5k.com. His slogan: "I wore shoes!"
"It's not 'Girls Gone Wild," "he said of bare runs. He believes that those who run naked are more likely to be "selfless and sportier".
As soon as I pulled into Sunny Rest (after showing my ID and registering my car's license plate from security) I saw a man in a wide-brimmed sun hat and no pants walking towards the pool.
When I parked near the start, I felt prim. Some runners were clothed, but most were in a state of undressing. A woman was breastfeeding her child when she checked in. A man waited to wear only sneakers and a Viking helmet – he hung his mask on one of the horns when he was not around other people. I saw my friend who had already moved out. It fit right in. I gave her an elbow bump and took off my shorts. It didn't feel weird at all.
To prepare for the experience, I had tried running completely naked on the treadmill in my basement and found that it was inconvenient for me to get braless. So I took the Donald Duck approach and wore a hat and sports bra but no bottoms. When I checked in, I was given a start number and a T-shirt, but then one of the staff members – naked except for a mask and gloves – wrote my start number with a marker on my leg. Where should I pin a bib anyway?
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I positioned myself just before takeoff, a corpse in a sea of 115 bodies, ages 9 to 78, all six feet apart. The energy felt faster here than in a normal race – almost dizzy. While most of the runners were from Pennsylvania, only a handful were members of the Sunny Rest Resort. That meant almost everyone had traveled to this place – from places to Ohio, Delaware, and West Virginia – to do something unusual.
Runners had to wear masks to pick up their packages and were asked to wear them around other people. Pretzel City also moved the start and finish areas away from the crowded part of the resort and towards the campsites, so we had more space to spread out. Through a megaphone, Horn asked us to put our arms straight at our sides and said, "If you touch someone you don't sleep with, you're too close."
After the initial novelty of being aware that my bum was jumping around, everything felt like a race in clothes. We started at 10.15am and I usually finish by 8.00am in the summer so it was hot. I was grateful for my hat and the sunscreen and anti-chafing balm that I put all over my body. I was drenched in sweat for the first mile.
"I don't have a shirt to wipe my face!" shouted another runner. The more experienced naked runners thought they were carrying small towels.
Part of the course was a back and forth so I saw the guides come back as I walked out. With a full view of all of their naked forms in motion, I felt appreciation, just as I would look at a beautiful painting.
I wasn't worried that anyone would appreciate my body – from the nude ladies cheering their trailer from the outdoor bar to the gentleman doing naked squats on his deck. The running didn't feel sexualized at all and I didn't worry about which parts of my body weren't perfectly flat and smooth and which parts of my body were trembling with every step. I was just another body in motion.
I felt like what a lot of runners had told me before the race started – that it was liberating. Richard Whalen, 43, of Folcroft, Pennsylvania, said it was a celebration for him too, who he is now. He is a recovering alcoholic who started running after he stopped hanging to run in the morning. "There is a feeling of freedom here to show off your beautiful body."
That's why Jim and Susan Fiordeliso from Yardley, Pennsylvania, came too. Last year, 53-year-old Fiordeliso had a heart operation. After that, they vowed to take better care of their bodies. This included a plant-based diet and lots of running and walking. You lost 210 pounds between them. It was their first time in a nude race and they viewed it as a celebration of their new life. "I loved it and I would do it again," he said.
And then it's just fun. "I'm not a nudist. I'm not an exhibitionist," said Michael Lyons, 35, of Douglassville, Pennsylvania, who has done both nude street races and bike rides. "I'm just a sucker who likes to do fun things."
I finished in 30 minutes and 26 seconds, good enough for fifth place in my category. My award: a medal that I only wore with sandals, a headscarf and a fresh layer of sunscreen around my neck.
Jen A. Miller, author of Running: A Love Story, writes the Times' weekly running newsletter.