It's early Sunday morning and I'm already in the car and a few minutes into a sat-nav defined 35-minute journey south. Having driven this route before I know that the sat-nav is not being entirely honest with me. I live in central London so navigating the traffic, road works, pedestrians, cyclists, traffic lights and whatever else will take me a good amount of time. Those 35 minutes, I know, will have become 85 by the time I arrive.
But nevertheless, I'm always glad to be venturing out of the city. I do it a lot, so today really is no different. Today, I'll be taking part in a 5K run which, again, is not unusual and I'll be doing it with about 150 other people. Also not unusual. But those people, myself included, will all be naked.
As my interest in the naturist movement has grown over the last few years, I’ve often found myself wondering why it is unusual is and, moreover, why there is a ‘naturist movement’ anyway. On my drive down to the Naturist Foundation’s BH5K, I began to think on it some more. My theory is that it has a fair amount to do with domestic society i.e. naturism in societies wherein social nudity, and nudity in general, is commonly associated with sex and seediness. Britain, for one, is quite guilty of that.
Of course, there are plenty of societies/countries where naturism is practised that have a completely healthy perspective on being naked. Germany is an obvious one but look further north to Scandinavia or further south to, say, Croatia, and you’ll see similar, equally nonchalant attitudes to nudity. Having been brought up in a relatively conservative British family, being naked was a state to embrace in private or, if it came to it, in front of the doctor, hence the notion of naturism certainly never figured in daily conversation. Therefore, it seems to me that cultures of living naked, socialising naked, exercising naked, holidaying naked or simply hanging out at a campsite naked specifically in countries where this is uncomfortable for most, is in part an extreme reaction to prudishness and the general association of nudity equalling Sex. I can’t help but wonder if the Victorians hadn’t ushered in their frightfully unnatural belief that being naked is shameful we’d all, every person in the country, have markedly more open minds about being sans clothes.
I enjoy being naked, a lot, and I see absolutely nothing shameful, wrong, embarrassing or otherwise about - that doesn’t make me a weirdo or an exhibitionist. Like the connection between mind and muscle that is advocated to gym-goers as the holy grail of doing weight-bearing exercise, I believe that being naked is vital to facilitating the strongest connection between mind and body. By being exposed to the natural world, our entire bodies are able to feel it. The wind, as it swirls around and caresses every inch of us. The sunlight as it warms those parts of us usually covered by layers of fabric, and the frosty air as it creeps in and chills them. That beautiful sensation of sliding in and out of the pool without clingy swimwear pulling itself in to every crevasse. The realisation that no one is staring at your naked body and hey, if they do happen to check you out, so what? I’m comfortable in my own skin and I’ll thank you to appreciate it.
I’ve never done any kind of naked running before and as a fitness addict it’s bizarre that I haven’t. My ancient Greek ancestors have been up there on Mount Olympus these past 29 years, chuckling in disbelief. But today is finally that day. Today, I’m running the BH5K because I love the freedom of being without clothes and have the sneaking suspicion that I’ll enjoy running that way too.
Back in the car, 85 minutes have passed by the time I arrive at the Naturist Foundation. There’s already a queue of cars waiting to get in and we’re being asked to park as close as physically possible to other cars. Sardines, meet the can. Some folk are already undressing by the boots of their cars, others will do so in the changing rooms on site, but either way, there is a healthy mix of the nude and the not already milling around. Once I’ve registered, I head back out and over to the changing room where I disrobe and return again to the growing assortment of my fellow, naturist runners.
As usual with groups of naturists in the UK, there is a wide-ish mix of folk but, as is also common, most of the people here are male, the majority of whom are in the 40+ demographic. There are a handful of younger guys here and there, and perhaps 10-15 women in total, but it’s clear that I’m amongst the very youngest here and certainly of the most well represented gender. My mind, as it often does, drifts off again and I wonder why more women, both young and older, are not so attracted to this environment. Is it the case of being afraid of the jump? The kind of fear that drags us away from the open aeroplane door but which, once we’ve mustered the strength to push it aside and taken that jump, turns into pure adoration, perhaps even exhilaration. Is it self-awareness? Or perhaps just a case of being uncomfortable being naked in front of others and simply not enjoying it, irrespective of any fear?
As there is still plenty of time before the route walk, I take the opportunity to go for a swim in the club’s wonderfully warm pool and warm up with a gentle 10 lengths. Before I know it, a voice over the tannoy announces the imminent commencement of the walk so I quickly dry off and join the crowd. I notice everyone has race numbers lipsticked onto their chests and shoulders, so I head back over to the clubhouse for my own. I’m number 17. As I don’t wear lipstick it takes me a clumsy brush of my own arm against my chest to recognise that this stuff smudges. I make a mental note and a conscious effort to avoid contact with any of the freshly numbered areas of my upper body.
The route this year differs to the one last year, as I understand it, and requires us to take three loops around the entire site before peeling off for the final few hundred metres to the finish line. Once we’ve all walked the full circuit we arrive back at the start. Here I bump into Julie who taps me on the shoulder and says ‘Hi! Remember me?!’. Julie and her husband were the first people I met at the club when I first visited last year and were both incredibly warm and friendly. But stood in front of her, I can’t help but realise the irony of our meeting: I might not have recognised her had we been wearing clothes, and likely she would not have recognised me either. In any other environment, it would probably have been ‘Oh, Taylor! Sorry, I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on!’. We chat briefly and I’m pleased to see a familiar face. So far it feels as if everyone else already knows everyone else. I’m sure that’s not the case but so friendly is the naturist crowd that it’s tough to discern who is and is not familiar with one another.
It’s also here that I really get a good measure of today’s turnout and it’s excellent. The group is big and buzzing to get started and we’re all rewarded quickly. After a short announcement inaugurating this year’s event, we’re off.
Now, if you’ve never seen or been part of a large group of naked runners, there’s something that you need to know. The atmosphere is joyous. It’s respectful and, more than anything, it’s just like any other running race. The thrill of taking part in a sporting event, however grassroots, or private, or local, is ever present. I’d started right at the very back of the runners and looking down that first strait, it was jiggly butt cheeks for as far as the eye could see. I’ll admit, there’s a competitive streak in me that sometimes I fight against but most times I lose that little battle. Today, alas, was no different. I’d gone to the back of the pack to keep out of the way of the more serious runners and to simply enjoy the run for what it was, but before long I found myself slowly working my way in front of other runners. I do enjoy the thrill of the chase and today it’s a chase I’ll be thrilled by for the entire 5K.
By the time I reach the final stretch to the finish, there’s already a good number of people catching their breath and sipping on the orange juice being handed out at one of the tables. I’m handed a card with the number 52 on it and figure I must have passed about 100 other runners. I’m pleased with my effort and after overhearing some of the earlier finishing times I understand that there are some seriously strong runners on site. Again, my mind begins to wonder. This time, I consider the benefits of running naked on my own training. At the very least, I tell myself, there’ll be no material to flap around, catch the backdraft and slow me down. I commit to looking into naked running a little more seriously.
It’s been 25 minutes since the start of the race and, for me, it’s done. I hang around for a little while longer and clap several runners over the finish line but, as I’ve a busy day ahead of me, decide to treat myself to one final dip in the pool so I shower off and return to that delightful water. After a couple of lengths it becomes a bit too busy to do any real swimming so I leave and, to my joy, find the sauna has been turned on. I duck right in and quickly strike up a conversation with Adam, a chatty gentleman who tells me that he’s driven down from Leicester over 130 miles away. I ask him why he’s travelled so far and he replies, simply: ‘Because it’s wonderful here. I’m lucky enough to own some private land back home and occasionally have people come over and join me, but here there’s an entire society to engage with and there’s not many other places with such a large community all in one place’.
And it’s true. There really is something about being here that is hard not to enjoy. Perhaps it’s the community spirit. Maybe it’s the amount of likeminded people to hang out with or the size of the site. Maybe it’s just the post-naked-race endorphin high. For me, it’s the freedom and the lack of archaic societal restrictions on embracing my own body. And yes, I also loved the run. Loved it.
Photo: BN/Mark Bass