In a lot of ways, the 5K I ran on Saturday was like any other race: The tall, skinny guys zipped out front, fast. Spectators rang cowbells. I heard the “Rocky” theme twice along the course.
Except the spectators were naked. And I was, too.
That’s because the race was the Bouncing Buns Clothing Optional 5K, held at the Sunny Rest Resort, a nudist resort in Palmerton, Pa.
“Not enough of us do things outside the box anymore, particularly as we get older,” said Ron Horn, race director and co-owner of Pretzel City Sports, which put on the race.
I’ve run 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 a zillion other races to run.
But this year, it caught my attention in part because almost all other races have been canceled because of the coronavirus. In this pandemic season of covering our faces in public, why not uncover everything else? What a fun way to experience some freedom in a time of pressing fear, grief, restrictions and disappointments.
But I hesitated. I’ve been to “toptional” pools in Las Vegas, so nudity wasn’t that much of an obstacle. But running naked? It seemed so — uncomfortable.
And yet: I kept getting the emails about this race, in a year flooded with bad news that had come very close to home. In March, four members of my family were sick with Covid-19. In June, my brother was in the hospital for weeks after a driver struck him while he was on a bike ride.
I’ve spent five months trying to find glimpses of joy in small, simple things, like the sight of a bird on the tree I planted last year, or the feel of my dog’s very soft ear. But the idea of a big, outlandish thing that might bump me out of my gloom had a certain draw.
When a friend who lives in upstate New York said she was 90 percent willing to commit to making the trip to participate in this race, I thought maybe I should go, if for nothing else than to see her.
“What else do you have to do?” she asked.
Sunny Rest was founded as a nudist resort in 1945 and, except for the lack of clothing, looks like a lot of other campgrounds, with mobile homes, cabins, tents and RVs. There’s a pool, spa, volleyball and tennis courts, hot tub, and hiking and biking trails. Most people go about their daily activities wearing nothing but shoes or sandals, maybe a hat. It’s private property, so laws against public nudity are not an issue. Pretzel City has been putting on races there for 13 years.
The events are meant to be fun, but the race organizers recognize that there is something of a taboo around nudity, so it anonymizes race results when posting them online, listing participants only by first name, last initial and home state. Knowing the privacy concerns, Pretzel City’s race director announced before the race that a photographer and I would be covering the event, and that we would include only those runners who consented to being photographed and interviewed.
Several runners were eager to talk to me, including Bruce Freeburger, 69, who drove from Detroit to run this race. He operates the website naked5k.com. Its slogan: “I did wear shoes!”
“It’s not ‘Girls Gone Wild,’” he said of naked runs. He believes that those who run nude tend to be “unselfish, and more sportsmanlike.”
As soon as I pulled into Sunny Rest (after showing my ID and having the license plate of my car recorded by security), I saw a man in a wide-brimmed sun hat and no pants walking toward the pool.
By the time I parked near the race start, I felt prim. Some runners were clothed, but most were in some state of undress. A woman breastfed her child while she checked in. A man waited to run in just sneakers and a Viking helmet — he hung his mask from one of the horns when he wasn’t near other people. I saw my friend, already stripped down. She 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’d tried running completely naked on the treadmill in my basement, and determined that going braless was impractical for me. So I took the Donald Duck approach and wore a hat and sports bra but no bottoms. When I checked in, I was handed a race bib and a T-shirt, but then a staffer — naked except for mask and gloves — wrote my race number with a marker on my leg. Where was I going to pin a bib anyway?
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I lined up near the start, a body in a sea of 115 bodies, ages 9 through 78, all standing six feet apart. The energy felt zippier here than at a normal race — almost giddy. While most of the runners were from Pennsylvania, only a handful were also members of the Sunny Rest Resort. That meant almost everyone had traveled to this place — from places as far away as Ohio, Delaware and West Virginia — for the opportunity to do something unusual.
Runners were required to wear masks to pick up their packets, and asked to wear them when near other people. Pretzel City also moved the start and finish area away from the more crowded part of the resort toward the camping sites, so we had more space to spread out. Over a bullhorn, Horn asked us to put our arms straight out by our sides and said, “If you are touching someone you are not sleeping with, you are standing too close.”
After the initial newness of being aware of my butt bouncing around, everything felt pretty much the same as in a clothed race. We started at 10:15 a.m., and I’m usually done running by 8 a.m. in the summer, so it was hot. I was grateful for my hat, and the sunblock and anti-chafing balm I’d applied all over my body. By the first mile, I was coated in sweat.
“I don’t have a shirt to wipe off my face!” another runner shouted. The more experienced naked runners had thought to carry little towels.
Part of the course was an out and back, so I saw the leaders coming back as I went out. With a full view of their entire, naked forms in motion, I felt appreciation, in the same way I’d look at a nice painting.
I didn’t worry about anyone else appreciating my body — from the naked ladies cheering from their trailer’s outdoor bar to the gentleman doing naked squats on his deck. The race didn’t feel sexualized at all, and I didn’t worry about which parts of my body were not perfectly flat and smooth, about what parts of my body shook with every step. I was just another body in motion.
I was feeling what many runners had told me before the start of the race — that this was freeing. Richard Whalen, 43, of Folcroft, Pa., said that for him it’s also a celebration of who he is now. He’s a recovering alcoholic who took up running after he stopped being too hung over to run in the morning. “There’s a sense of freedom here to show off your beautiful body.”
That’s also why Jim and Susan Fiordeliso of Yardley, Pa., came too. Last year, Mr. Fiordeliso, 53, had heart surgery, after which they vowed to take better care of their bodies. That included moving to a plant-based diet, as well as lots of walking and running. They’ve lost 210 pounds between them. It was their first time at a nude race, and they treated it as a celebration of their new lives. “I loved it and I would do it again,” he said.
And then there’s just the fun of it. “I’m not a nudist type. I’m not an exhibitionist type,” said Michael Lyons, 35, of Douglassville, Pa., who has done both naked road races and bike rides. “I’m just a goofball who likes to do fun things.”
I finished in 30 minutes, 26 seconds, good enough for fifth place in my category. My award: a medal that I wore at around my neck with nothing but my sandals, bandanna and a fresh coating of sun block.
Jen A. Miller, the author of “Running: A Love Story,” writes The Times’s weekly running newsletter.
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