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Grinnell traditions I never witnessed, but miss anyway: The Cross-country team’s naked run

Continuing an occasional series of reflections on Grinnell traditions. See the short introduction to traditions and Grinnell traditions in an earlier essay.

For my first fifteen or so years at Grinnell, Grinnell’s Cross-Country team [1] celebrated the beginning of the Cross-Country season [2] by streaking across campus. I’m not sure exactly what path they took, although I know they usually went through Burling and were spotted somewhere along 8th. I never saw them run, and I don’t really care that I missed it.

But, like most of the other traditions I’ve described, I find that this tradition has much to support it. No alcohol was involved [4,5]. It didn’t hurt anyone [6]. It build on a longer-standing Grinnell tradition of embracing all kinds of naked bodies, a tradition that goes at least as far back as the late 1960’s Playboy protest [7,8]. It probably builds team unity. It’s a somewhat traditional kind of college tradition; I expect that most schools have some silly naked event. Plus, it gives a whole new meaning to fun run.

Unfortunately, the run displeased some folks [9]. There’s also a possibility [10] that it was illegal, since it can technically be classified as indecent exposure [11]. And so, about five years ago, the team was ordered to discontinue the tradition. So, while I never witnessed the tradition, nor do I wish to, I’m sorry to see it go.

I’m not sure what the team does instead.

I do know that many other teams have nearly-naked events. I recall a Facebook post of a few years ago by Carolyn Jacobson in which she reported that she and her son happened upon a soccer game with barely clothed individuals. I think my soccer players say one article of clothing for men; two for women; shoes count. While I have no need to witness one of these events, I’m glad to hear that those students seem to embrace the same benefits: it’s fun [12], it builds team cohesion, it’s a bit silly; it’s not harmful; and it embraces all shapes and forms of bodies [14]. It sounds like a great kind of tradition!

Here’s what may be the first of many followups.

A valued colleague noted that intent and impact are very different. So, while the team may be celebrating, building cohesion, and having fun, the people who watch them may not experience the same positive aspects. Would it make a difference if the time/place were clearly announced so that people could avoid it? I suppose so. However, I’d worry that it would attract people to watch, which turns it into a much more exhibitionistic event. So yes, I agree that it’s a problem.

A valued colleague [15] also noted that this might be considered a form of hazing, as athletes might feel pressure to participate.

Oh well, perhaps it really is a tradition we had to give up.

Here’s an update from a former runner [16].

I just caught your post on the Grinnell XC naked run. As you may know, I ran all four years at Grinnell. As far as I know the naked run still happens. It didn’t always (and likely now doesn’t) come through campus, but it was always something that happened quite far from campus. There is a particular one-mile stretch of dirt road (Level B Service Roads I think they are called) to the Northeast of campus where it traditionally took place. It started out as just a naked mile early in the year. Men’s team would do it. Most years, the women’s team would do it, too, though these were not coordinated events, and they took place at the captains’ discretion.

The usual language early in the run was that it was unseasonably hot and then the science majors would be called on to explain the laws of thermodynamics that helped explain how more surface area could lead to cooler conditions.

This, of course, led to public nudity on a little-used stretch of public road. Most years everyone put their clothes back on at the end of the mile. One or two years, I recall, a couple of people ran all the way back to campus. I recall a year where people ran through soccer and football practice (angering at least one football coach). But when I was there (late 1990’s), the run never took on much of campus.

The team would run through campus ahead of the Les Duke (home) meet, but there were always clothes involved when I was there. I can’t speak for all the years since.

And you are correct. There was no alcohol involved. It was in the middle of practice (a 5.6 mile run, at minimum).

So there you have it, from a real runner. I’ll note that I have heard many stories of naked runners on campus, so it may be that the tradition evolved over the years.

[1] Perhaps just the Men’s Cross-Country team; I’m not sure.

[2] Perhaps the end; again, I’m not sure [3].

[3] I know very little about this tradition; nonetheless, I value it.

[4] At least I don’t think any alcohol was involved.

[5] According to rumors, way too many Cross-Country traditions involve alcohol. I think they are getting better, though.

[6] Well, it may have hurt some folk’s sensibilities.

[7] I really should reread the Glenn Leggett commentary on that protest.

[8] If you haven’t heard about it, you can probably find information on the Interweb.

[9] No, not the person in the little red running shorts.

[10] Perhaps even a likelihood.

[11] I’m not sure why ESPN Magazine gets away with distributing an annual issue with naked athletes, but it’s not okay for other athletes to similarly embrace their bodies.

[12] With no alcohol!

[14] Or at least all shapes and forms of athletic bodies.

[15] No, I’m not going to say if it’s the same one or not.

[16] Well, a former Grinnell XC runner. I assume the writer still runs.

Version 1.2 of 2017-01-23.