It’s Not About The Time You Do, But The Time You Have
Alternative title: The Joy of Steps: The fitness-phobe who became a marathon maniac
What running’s taught me about… nudity
‘I’m gonna put a curse on you and all your kids will be born completely naked’ Jimi Hendrix
I’d never experienced pre-race nerves quite like it: for a week I had sleepless nights, waking in the early hours in a cold sweat and then tossing and turning until morning. And even in daylight, whenever I thought of taking part I’d feel as if I’d been booted in the belly.
Only too soon race day dawned, and I lay in bed debating whether I should go or not. My husband was nowhere to be seen. He’d been so desperate to avoid participating that he’d signed up for a triathlon, the first he’d actually entered himself (I usually book all of our races and then tell him about it afterwards when it’s too late for him to back out). Unfortunately, the race only started at 11.30am so I couldn’t use my standard ‘Yikes, I overslept’ excuse. Nor could I employ the ‘It’s too darn cold to run’ one as it was a gloriously warm spring day. And then came the clincher: this was one of only two such events within the whole of the UK (the other was hundreds of miles away in Pembrokeshire) so if I was going to do it, it was now or never.
x-head: Bart’s Bare Buns Fun Run
So what possessed me to run this terrifying 5K? It all started when I read Bart Yasso’s book My Life On The Run, in which he described participating in a similar event. Now Bart is a legend in the US, where he’s known as the Mayor of Running. US Runner’s World’s Chief Running Officer, he’s done over 1,000 races and 200 marathons. I’d run most of the inaugural Jerusalem Marathon with Bart because his diagnosis of debilitating Lyme’s disease has slowed him down considerably. Though not as much as you’d think: he left me at the 32K mark and still managed to beat me by 28 minutes. Intrigued by his courage – and amazing tales of running the Badwater Marathon in Death Valley in temperatures that turned the tarmac into mush – I’d bought his book. And I found I had yet another reason to admire the man who’d run in both Antarctica and the Arctic, who’d outpaced a rhino in India and who’d twice cycled across America, alone, in just two weeks. What impressed me most about Bart was that he’d done the Bare Buns Fun Run at a nudist camp in Washington State. Not only that, but he’d been accompanied by a female race director he quite fancied called ‘Date’, with whom he’d had to share a tent.
x-head: Bare bottomed, not barefoot
The reaction when I told my friends I’d entered wasn’t quite what I expected. No one asked me why I was going to do the BH5K Naked Run at The Naturist Foundation resort in Orpington, a leafy suburb in Kent. They all just wanted to know how!
‘What are you going to do about your boobs?’ asked Michelle. ‘Won’t they jiggle about and be horribly uncomfortable?’
‘I’ve no idea,’ I replied, ‘I’m not in the habit of running naked in public!’
‘Where are you going to pin your race number?’ asked Teresa. ‘Bet you haven’t thought of that!’
No I hadn’t, but I surmised I could probably hold it.
‘You’re going to run in Orpington? I was born in Orpington!’ said another friend, Sue, no doubt imagining the horrified reaction of her former neighbours as they watched dozens of nudists bobbing past the half-timbered houses she remembered from her childhood.
‘We’ll be running inside a nudist resort – not on the high street!’ I replied chuckling.
‘Are you going to run completely naked?’ asked Christina, the Editor of Women’s Running.
‘No, of course not,’ I said, horrified. ‘I’ll be wearing socks and trainers.’
xhead: Naturist etiquette
Back to the bedroom on race day. The big debate raged in my head until, at 10.30am, I leapt up thinking, ‘S*** it, let’s do it,’ and frantically crammed my kit into a holdall. This wasn’t quite as simple a task as it sounds – what does one wear to a nudist camp? Thankfully, the organisers had sent me an email detailing naturist etiquette. It had informed me that ‘one should always use a towel when seated (and naked)’. I couldn’t quite work out the last bit. Surely if you’re wearing a towel then you’re not really naked? Leaving my bed unmade and a string of cupboards unclosed I grabbed a towel and a massive pot of Vaseline, snatched up my passport (to deter peeping Toms you have to provide photo ID) and hurtled out the door.
Having hastily typed the resort’s postcode into my satnav I headed off. Of course I got hopelessly lost. Driving down the country lanes of deepest Kent I had no clue where I was. Eventually, I located the imposing gates of The Naturist Foundation and drew up alongside the intercom. But what’s that I could see flitting through the trees at the top of the driveway? Yes, it was naked people. Naked people running through the woods. With dismay – and then a huge sense of relief – I realised that I’d missed the start of the race. The only problem was I’d already pushed the buzzer and was now on CCTV. My voice quavering with nerves I enquired whether the race had already started, knowing full well it had.
‘Yes it has, but come on up to the clubhouse and we’ll see what we can do,’ said a very friendly female voice. Once there I was greeted by a (fully clothed) receptionist who informed me that although I’d missed the race start I was welcome to stay and ‘enjoy the facilities’.
x-head: Speed strip poker
Just then another latecomer, Kim, arrived and we hit upon the idea of running the route on our own, once we’d watched the other participants finish. And so we found ourselves outside, cheering several dozen naked men across the finish line.
‘A naked woman in heels is a beautiful thing,’ the legendary French footwear designer Christian Louboutin once said. ‘A naked man in shoes looks like a fool.’ And I have to say Christian was right: the male runners did look very odd taking the whole barefoot craze to the next level – the bare bottomed one. But only at first. Once we’d spent five minutes applauding runners of all sizes, shapes and speeds as they sprinted past, we realised that the old adage still rings true: once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.
We’d hoped to see the first lady come in but the ladies were taking their time, so in the end we retired to the changing room where, of course, there were no cubicles, just one huge horribly unisex empty room with a few lockers where men were changing. So we beat a retreat to the loos and, in what must have seemed like a game of speed strip poker, tore off our clothes and ran giggling outside, where the race director’s wife lipsticked our race numbers onto our arms in a very fetching shade of fuchsia. After a quick explanation of the route, we set off on a course that involved doing two-and-a-half laps around the grounds.
I have to say it was very comforting having Kim, a fellow nudie newbie, by my side as we ran past little clusters of naked campers who cheered us as we trotted by.
‘Well it is a bit weird, don’t you think?’ Kim panted, as she led the way through the bluebell-bedecked woods.
‘Mmm,’ I pondered, as I chased her through the trees. ‘It is… and it isn’t. Running like this you do really feel in touch with nature, the sun and the wind – and it does make you wonder why we make such a fuss about wearing clothes.’ My answer shocked me as only that morning I’d been convinced that I’d find every second of the experience lip-bitingly, toe-curlingly cringeworthy. It simply wasn’t.
x-head: The cheese-grater effect
Thankfully, Michelle was wrong about my boobs – I’m quite flat-chested so failing to ban the bounce simply wasn’t an issue. But I have to admit I probably wouldn’t want to run a marathon without wearing a sports bra. In fact, the only thing I wasn’t OK with was my failure to apply Vaseline to my inner thighs. It wasn’t long before my gait turned into a wide-legged waddle as the chaffing began to take its toll. Gradually it dawned on me that I’d most likely be spending the rest of the coming week walking as if I was smuggling a cheese-grater between my thighs.
And so we chat-ran our way round the course before retiring to the clubhouse for a hearty pub lunch and a pint. Yes, it was a bit weird queuing for a roast dinner with just a towel round my waist but, truth be told, what I found most unusual wasn’t the fact that most people were naked but that they were so… friendly!
After lunch we lay on the lawns and topped up our tans alongside a 50-something maths professor who said he found naturism ‘incredibly liberating’ before relating how he’d participated in the World Naked Bike Ride through the streets of central London.
‘Now that was tremendous fun,’ he said, ‘but I did have to ask the organisers to remove my photo from their website in case my students saw it.’
Just then the race director’s wife came over to invite us to a jazz and real ale festival taking place a few weeks later. She also informed us that of the 38 participants only three had been women, and that one of them had walked all the way. Gutted, I realised that my late arrival had meant I’d missed out on probably my one and only chance to place in a race.
I offered Kim a lift to the station and, as we were leaving, said farewell to the partner of a man we’d met in the lunch queue. What was most peculiar about her was that she was on her way to play tennis and had donned a sports bra. Kim and I agreed that this, and not the waggling willies and bouncing boobs, was definitely the strangest sight we’d seen all day.
x-head: And all that jazz…
When I got home Graham was waiting for me, proudly wearing his triathlon medal round his neck.
‘How was it?’ he asked.
‘Fine,’ I said smiling.
‘Did you almost chicken out?’ he said with a grin.
‘How did you know?’ I asked.
‘I took one look at all the open drawers and unmade bed and knew you’d left in a hurry.’
‘OK, I’m busted,’ I laughed. ‘But I actually had a lot of fun and made a new friend. And it wasn’t anything like as awkward as I’d imagined. In fact, I’ve been invited back for a jazz and real ale festival – why don’t you come with me? Just for the experience. Go on, please!’
Graham gave me a withering look, and then turned on his heels with a ‘No.’
‘Why not?’ I said, pursuing him through the lounge. ‘There are going to be live bands and real ale – you love real ale.’
‘No,’ he said again.
‘Honestly, it’s a lovely place with a pool and woodlands and an outdoor gym.’
‘I’m not going,’ he said again.
‘Why ever not?’ I persisted.
‘Because,’ he said slowly, turning to face me, ‘I don’t like… jazz.’
There was no arguing with that!
Bare-naked running part 2
Fast forward 13 weeks and I’m running naked round the grounds of London Zoo. This time I can’t blame Bart but a relative who, upon hearing of my Orpington outing, sent me information about the forthcoming Streak For Tigers in support of the zoo’s Sumatran Tiger campaign. The idea came from the fact that a group of tigers is called a streak, apparently. The website promised a 350m circuit round the zoo with a mask and tiger ears thrown in for the camera shy. Yes, this was no ordinary discrete dash – the national press had been invited to witness the event.
Now my first brush with naked running had taught me two things: a) you omit Vaseline at your peril and b) you don’t want anyone you know seeing you do it, so I resolved to keep my clothes off… but my mask on.
The website’s Q&A section handily covered the other thing I was worried about: law enforcement.
Question: Will I be arrested for nudity?
Answer: No. ZSL London Zoo is private land. However you must arrive and leave the event fully clothed.
Thank heavens for naturist etiquette!
x-head: Boobs and bits
And so I arrived at the suitably named Prince Albert (ahem! Google it!) Gate at London Zoo. There were about 300 of us tigers and some people had really gone crazy and daubed themselves from head to toe in stripey bodypaint. Having slipped into something more comfortable – my foil blanket, ears and mask – I headed to the garden where it was easy to spot the died-in-the-wool naturists as they’d ‘forgotten’ their blankets! The rest of us milled around making small talk while feeling rather apprehensive about discarding ours in a few minutes’ time.
I got talking to Catherine, a tall 20-something who was there because she was thinking of having kids soon and wanted to do it before a baby ruined her body.
‘I’m not nearly as embarrassed as I thought I’d be,’ she confided. ‘But I suppose it’s because we’ve all got boobs… and we’ve all got bits!’
Just before the start I was tapped on the shoulder by a male tiger in a foil blanket. ‘Would you mind taking our photo?’ he said, pointing to a similarly attired tigress whom he’d obviously only recently befriended. He handed over his smartphone which I wasn’t sure how to operate.
‘Does this thing need a flash?’ I asked. They looked at each other, shrugged, and then said ‘Yeah, sure,’ as they dropped their foil blankets to the ground. I belatedly realised they thought I’d said, ‘Do you want to flash?’
x-head: Ants don’t need pants
And then we were off, jettisoning our blankets as we raced out to greet the waiting cameras. It just felt like the most natural thing in the world to be trotting round a zoo on a summer’s evening as unencumbered by clothes as every other animal in there. With the Austin Powers theme tune blaring in the background, we ran round and round, pausing every now and again to read the humorous signs the zoo had put up for us. ‘Ants don’t need pants, and neither do you,’ I read as I completed lap one. ‘Elephants swim without trunks,’ I spotted on lap two. And my favourite: ‘Ever seen a bear in a bra? Exactly!’
Giddy from giggling for 2K, I headed back to the changing room. My summer of naked running was over and, truth to tell, I was a little sorry. Like Bart I haven’t done another nude race. And like Bart, it wasn’t because I felt uncomfortable or squeamish. No, it’s because, as he so rightly said, there just aren’t a lot of opportunities to run naked (though nuderuns.com lists a few if you’re nudey-curious). I also realised that Mark Twain was probably right when he wrote: ‘Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.’ Though what prompted the great man to think great thoughts on this particular subject remains a mystery. Without our clothes we do all look a little comical. Silly even. But then many of us manage to do that with our clothes on…
A CHAT WITH… Kim Neal, 40, London
In my 39th year, wanting to keep life interesting, I decided to step outside my comfort zone at least once a month. Among other things I tried a stand-up comedy course, a mud run and tone-deaf-to-tuneful singing lessons (I’m still rubbish!). I was researching obstacle races online when I spotted a naked swim. I mentioned it at work as I thought it was funny. One of my colleagues then told me of a 5K naked run in Orpington, where she lives, so I looked it up. Bingo – there was my new thing to do that month!
The train got me to Orpington station in plenty of time but the taxi driver hadn’t heard of the address so managed to get a bit lost. Eventually I had to confess exactly where I needed to go – and why. Luckily I was wearing my seatbelt as he slammed on the brakes to turn around and get a good look at me. No, I hadn’t taken my clothes off yet, but maybe he thought I had!
It felt really weird undressing in the loos – I was ghostly white and wished I’d recently been on holiday to pick up a suntan. But when we started running the course I nearly forgot we were naked because Lisa and I were chatting so much.
I still find naturism a hard concept to get my head around but I’m quite a spiritual person so I can see that perhaps the absence of clothes allows you to get to know someone’s soul rather than having pre-conceived ideas about them based on how they dress.
The strangest part of the day? Standing naked apart from a pair of trainers and having the race director’s wife draw a race number on my arm with lipstick. I’m not sure I’d run naked again… but I’d definitely encourage others to do it!
1 page Box head: ‘Why we love running naked’
Anything is best done the way it was meant to be done and our bodies were designed to run – which of course means naked. Unfortunately, due to evolution, our skins aren’t as tough as they used to be, so chaffing is a concern, and external male organs have weakened support muscles! However 5K is an OK distance and thankfully doesn’t present too many problems in this regard. Chris Togwell, 57, London
I’ve done naked races simply because I thought it would be hilarious to say I’d done them. I was very self-conscious at first but once you’ve started it’s no different to any other race and you want to compete (I came second last year). My friends think I’m mad, but hey, at 53, when you’re slowing down, signing up for a naked race means you’re guaranteed to finish much higher up in the field. What I found most challenging was going up to receive my prize starkers! Tim, 53, Kent
Being naked is natural – I don’t consider it an ‘interest’. What I like about naked running is the feeling of freedom. It’s much the same as running in clothes: a powerful mix of achievement and ‘Please let this be over soon.’ My teenage kids do not approve, but then it’s their job not to. My wider family are proud of me, in a one-eyebrow-raised kind of way. My Dad died recently, and I’ll be running the BH5K Naked Run in his honour this May. Emma Bourgeois, 45, London