Why I Run (Naked)

A community of primal screamers

I look back now on my four years at Harvard with both fondness and regret. I’ve made some great friends that will last a lifetime and grappled with new ideas that continue to challenge me. Yet there are occasions when I can’t help but feel like I wasted my precious time here. I could have worked harder, could have been more involved in various activities, could have left Harvard Square more than a half-dozen times per semester.

But whether I look back four years from now, or 40 years from now, there will be one accomplishment that I can cherish forever, that nobody can take away from me. Eight for eight. Barring a gross last-minute leg injury, I will run naked in my eighth consecutive Primal Scream.

Like 500 homeruns or 3,000 hits, eight for eight is a milestone that many have sought but few have achieved. I will be joining a select group, and I will be forever proud of my achievement. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, Primal Scream is not about my individual nakedness—if it were, I might go to section nude—but about the collective experience. I could never have done eight for eight as a solitary runner, but only as one among many in a huddled mass of naked flesh.

There is a great spirit of camaraderie that comes from group nudity—it is not sexual, but utterly human. In those moments, as male and female genitalia are not only displayed, but frequently brushed up against in the frenzy of the crowd, we are not disgusted—nay, we are invigorated. We slap five to the clothed onlookers, proud to be participating in this great communal activity, where we are the focal point, not as individuals, but as a blur of heroes.

The true heroism occurs not in May, but in January. After all, it is in the winter runs where we separate the men from the boys (though in the extreme cold, all males appear like boys). Indeed, Primal Scream in the winter of 2004 was so cold, for many frightful moments I prayed for my extremities—all of my extremities—to thaw (I wonder, do those with anteaters fair better than us circumcised folk?). Despite that intense pain, I still rank that cold January night as one my finest hours.

Let me also applaud the women that participate, ignoring out-dated notions of modesty to take part in what is mostly a sausage-fest. I also appreciate that for some women in particular, running naked is not the most pleasant experience, yet sure enough, even some of the more endowed female students on campus brave the pain to become part of the group, every bounce a testament to their school spirit.

After the glory of the winter run, the spring edition is always somewhat of a let-down. The May Primal Scream is more of a formality than a real event. Before the spring run, the screams are half-hearted, and primal veterans are rather bored (though not bored stiff). Still, on May 19, I will run, for the eighth and final time.

Why is this Primal Scream different from all the other Primal Screams? Well for one thing, I have been offered a ticket to the opening, midnight showing of “Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith” at Fenway. Under normal circumstances, as an avid sci-fi fan, I would love to be a part of this otherworldly event. Unfortunately, Episode III premieres the same night as Primal Scream, and so I had to give up my ticket. After all, Primal Scream is a tradition, and, to quote Tevye the Milkman, “without our traditions, life would be as unsteady as a Fiddler on the Roof.”

I don’t fancy myself a Sandy Koufax, refusing to play ball on Yom Kippur. But I’ve come to learn that simple traditions, even silly ones that don’t seem to make much sense, can add meaning to an often meaningless existence. At the very least, they can remind us that we are not alone.

Nearly every Friday night, I go to Hillel for Shabbat dinner. Though I love singing in Hebrew, I never go to services, only the meal. I go not because of any belief in God (most Jews, even the religious ones, don’t really think about God), but for the sense of community, of home away from home. I go because when I say the blessing over the challah and eat the chicken soup, I feel connected, not to the divine, but to my Jewish peers. When I kibbutz with friends I haven’t seen all week and when I—like so many others—scan the dining room for a future spouse, I feel special—not as an individual, but as part of something greater than myself.

When I run Primal Scream—naked, sweaty and shrunken—I feel something similar. Here is an event where scrawny and studly, fat and misshapen, pock-marked and smooth, black and white can run together. We run not as isolated students, but as unique participants in an elite unit who have thrown social mores to the wind and let it all hang out. There is no public humiliation—the group protects the individuals. Primal Scream helped me realize the strength of community—and discovering that piece of veritas was certainly worth a frozen teste or two.

David Weinfeld ’05 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears regularly.