Street Smart Chicago

As Fast As You Can: The annual Polar Bear Run braves the elements

Events, Hyde Park, Running Add comments

It’s supposedly twenty-eight degrees but it feels ten times more bitter when the crowd gathering around the Quadrangle at the University of Chicago spots the nudes, a flesh-colored train of runners furiously chugging along with no respect to frostbite or hypothermia. Hundreds of onlookers lining 58th Street collectively gasp as their eyes brace for impact. “Do you have a camera?” a spectator asks a friend. “If there’s no camera, then there’s no point.”

Rebellious, left-wing college students have traditions, too, some of which include freezing your bare ass off, hence the twenty-sixth annual Polar Bear Run, the culminating event of the school’s “Kuviasungnerk” winter celebration. Brave (insane) students ranging from “scantily clad” to “full-blown naked” streak through the Quad, showing off their birthday suits to the world. And here are this year’s contestants coming around the corner. The leader of the pack huffs past wearing underwear. The runners in spots two through nine follow wearing absolutely nothing, each displaying their testicles bouncing around in all their glory, and each unabashed to have two separate sets of rosy cheeks. One jogger trips, his bare body tumbling into the asphalt in an outright painful-looking accident. He gets up, brushes off the dust, and finishes the race to the pleasure of the crowd. Somehow or another, this comes off as a noble act of genuine pride and perseverance, as if it was the ending to “Cool Runnings” or another sentimental Disney sports film.

Many runners use their bodies as billboards. One guy writes “It’s because it’s cold” above his crotch, while another paints “BOMB IRAN” in big bold letters and an arrow that points to his manhood. And then come the females; one uses her entire body as a canvas for someone’s art—a bright, rainbow-like pattern that curves from head to toe—while another has made herself a naked jogging advertisement for Barack Obama. Two “Obama 2008″ stickers cover up the girl’s nipples, an image that will surely be burned into plenty of swing voters’ minds before they enter the polls.

Once finished, a group of five runners immediately find their much-needed jackets and light up well-deserved cigarettes, probably to calm their nerves after realizing they just exposed their genitalia to hundreds of people in less than forty-five seconds. Still, the commotion around the Quad as the masses mull over to the courtyard for s’mores is far from regretful. The word “congratulations” is thrown around like it was graduation day, and no one seems embarrassed about their actions, except perhaps the kid who stumbled across the road unaccompanied a full minute after everyone else. One hairy-chested streaker even sounds candidly boastful as he zips up his jacket. “No s’mores for you,” he says, pointing to his bundled-up friends. “What did you do that was so great? You were clothed.” (Andy Seifert)

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