The hardest part of running a 5K in the nude was not the moment when I took off my clothes. Nor was it the other naked people surrounding me at the start line. Nor was it those first few steps when you feel just how much the human body jiggles when in motion. Instead, the hardest moment came days before race day, when my husband and I dropped our firstborn child off for her first year of college. The naked 5K was a breeze by comparison, both literally and metaphorically.
This year of making-the-best-of-it coincided with her senior year of high school. At least my oldest baby was able to have a commencement ceremony, even though we had to sit in three-person family pods on the football field, where we could be socially distanced from all of the other kids and parents in the last third of the alphabet. Our masks only came off for one picture right after she received her diploma.
We were so happy to be able to have that small moment to celebrate the end of one stage of her life and the start of the next. It is enough, we said. Even though we aren’t British, we kept our upper lips stiff.
We kept calm and carried on, even when every email from her chosen school failed to give us a sense of what their plan was — because no one had a plan. Not us. Not them. This year has laughed at all of our plans.
Old-school mapmakers used to doodle sea monsters in spots where they didn’t know what the territory actually looked like. Too much white space is deeply unsettling.
I know you’re asking about the naked 5K I teased you with earlier. In short: I’ve toyed with the idea of doing one for years. A friend of a friend mentioned she’d run one and had a great time. Naked is not my default setting; instead, my default is to always do something low-risk if it will result in an amusing anecdote. The only real risk in running in the altogether is sunburn, chafing, and a bruised ego.
Bad timing has kept me from running the buns-in-the-sun run nearest me because it kept conflicting with my job in higher ed, which always kicked into high gear that same weekend. But with nearly no students coming back this year, my schedule was empty. A plan was born.
Fortunately, that plan didn’t conflict with my college kid’s move-in date. We’d drive six hours on Wednesday; then home on Thursday; I’d catch-up on everything on Friday; then run on Saturday. What I failed to account for was having my heart ripped clean out of my chest when we drove away from her.
It took no time to unload her stuff on move-in day, mostly because they were told to bring as little as possible in case they had to flee a hot spot. Then, I hugged the baby who’d made me a mother as tight as I could and did my best to keep it together.
Like I said, I work in higher ed. I know how many people are involved in her success and safety. I also know this kid is more sure of herself at 18 than I was at 40. She’s ready. We’re ready. It’s time. But once a few tears leaked out, the floodgates broke. Here came all of the feelings that I’d failed to feel since the middle of March. All of them. Right now. In a Subaru on I-90.
I’d pulled it together a little by the time we got home, at least together enough to make sure our other child had survived while we were gone. He did, by the way.
Not much later, our new college freshman called. Her tears triggered mine, again. A weepy feedback loop bounced off of the cell towers between here and there. She wanted to come home. Starting college in a pandemic, with masks and tests and fear, was just too much. Give it 24 hours, I said, both to her and to myself.
By Friday, my no-longer stiff upper lip was abraded from all of my tears. The naked 5K didn’t seem like that huge of a deal, frankly. Just another thing to get done, in a year full of things I needed to do. I tossed a towel or two, my running shoes, socks, a hat, and a sports bra in a bag for the next day’s adventure. It turns out it’s pretty easy to pack for a race in which you won’t wear clothes.
I fueled myself with coffee on the drive, desperate to feel something even if it was a racing heart and the shakes. Not even my first sighting of a bunch of naked folk just kind of standing around like they weren’t, you know, naked, was enough to surprise me.
I parked near the race registration table, hopped out, and gave my name to the race director, who looked like a big, naked Santa. He handed me my bib and a souvenir t-shirt. When I turned around, a topless woman wrote that same number on my leg in sharpie because pinning it to my bare flesh wasn’t an option.
I walked back to my car, opened the back door, stood in the grass, and stripped off the shirt, bra, shorts, and undies I’d driven in. I changed into running shoes and pulled my hair back with the hat. Of course, I wore my Garmin. A run doesn’t count unless there is data.
I took an experimental jog just to see how bad the boob swinging would be. I doubled back for my sports bra. Wearing one felt a little bit like cheating but not enough to keep me from doing it.
It’s easy to socially distance when you are surrounded by naked strangers. The masked-for-safety crowd was oddly wholesome. There were naked kids. There was a mom breastfeeding while waiting to run. There were a lot of penises — and I fully absorbed how much variation there can be between them. All of these bodies were just bodies. I’ve felt more objectified in the grocery in my winter coat.
While a couple of the younger runners wore clothes; most of us wore mostly nothing. For me, after growing and delivering two babies, my body and I have made peace with each other. For all of its pooches and flop, it has served me well. Plus, it felt almost rude to not be naked when that is the default setting.
Then we were off. After minute or two of convincing my body that, yes, we would be running right now, I settled into a groove. For more than 30 minutes, the pandemic, my missing heart, and the sea monster map disappeared while I sweated and flapped through a hilly campground in the Poconos surrounded by a couple dozen people doing the same.
Around the end of my first mile, the fastest runners — and some of those guys were hella fast — had hit the turn-around and were running toward me. The sight of that many naked penises tick-tocking like metronomes gave me such a case of the giggles that I had to slow down to catch my breath. I imagined what this spectacle must look like from above and laughed.
It was a profoundly silly way to spend a morning. When I crossed the finish, I felt something close to joy, despite my missing heart, a global pandemic, and a civil rights reckoning. Then I toweled off, put my clothes back on, and drove home to see what comes next.
Adrienne Martini writes about more than running. Her most recent book is Somebody’s Gotta Do It: Why Cursing at the News Won’t Save the Nation but Your Name on a Local Ballot Can.