“I’m bigger than this, I swear!” shouted second-year in the College Tyler Brooks, as he ran naked across the snow-covered quads last Friday. Brooks was one of at least 50 Chicago students participating in the Polar Bear Run, a dash from Harper Memorial Library to Hull Gate in which students wear minimal or no clothing.
The event is the annual culmination of Kuviasungnerk Kangeiko (Kuvia for short), a series of activities sponsored by the Council On University Programming (COUP) as part of its Winterfest. The week-long festival combines elements from two distinct cultures: “Kuviasungnerk” comes from an Eskimo festival that celebrated the cold with special activities, while “Kangeiko” derives from an ancient samurai practice, translated literally as “winter training,” the inspiration behind the morning calisthenics.
Don Levine, currently the Peter B. Ritzma professor in the sociology department, started the winter festival in 1983 when he served as Dean of the College.
This year’s run coincided with the coldest weather of the year thus far, and a dusting of snow arrived just in time for the event. As they waited inside Harper Memorial Library, COUP instructed the runners to run around the circular driveway, rather than straight down the sidewalk, as has been done in the past. The driveway was plowed, organizers explained, while a thin layer of snow covered icy patches on the sidewalk, making it more treacherous than usual.
Many competitive students ignored this warning, however, and took a chance on the swifter, straighter route.
The cold temperatures of the past several days had prompted COUP to cancel the traditional walk to Promontory Point earlier in the day, arranging instead for students to be bused. If anything, the cold brought an increased level of attendance to the Polar Bear Run.
“I must admit, I was surprised at the number of spectators,” said second-year in the College Megan Tormey. ”I panicked for a second as I realized that running back to Harper wasn’t really an option, because my clothes were waiting for me at Cobb Gate. So, not having much of an option, I ran onwards.”
The event commenced at 3 p.m. on the steps of Harper, ending at Hull Gate facing 57th Street, a distance of approximately 400 meters. Students and passersby thronged the course, bidding for a view of the finish, as well as one of the scantilysome humorouslyclad participants. “I expected a naked run to have a sexual quality about it. But it didn’t really; it was almost Monty-Pythonesque,” said Cyndee Van Grinsven, a first-year in the college.
Tormey described the atmosphere inside Harper, where students congregated and removed their clothes, as a surprisingly comfortable one. “The people I was with were pretty relaxed for the most part,” said Tormey, adding that, despite her nakedness, she did not feel as though she were on display. “The only creepy part was this older man with a video camera, who claimed that he had asked permission to film, but did not specify whom had granted such permission. He didn’t have my permission.”
Many students view the Polar Bear Run as an exhibition of sorts, often not realizing that it is a race, with a prize to be won. Brandon Halcott won the event handily for the second year in a row. A member of the Varsity Track and Field team, Halcott earned a long-sleeve T-shirt commemorating Kuvia. He was clad in a jock strap, fake sideburns and a Fu Manchu-styled moustache, and he explained that the race was a multi-phase one for him.
“At the beginning, it was kind of a mockery of a race, since I had a big lead,” Halcott said. “But then someone came up on my shoulder, and I had to concentrate for awhile. It was really the fear of unkempt, pasty U of C students that propelled me to victory.”
Halcott said that he fit that description himself.
Absent from the event was fourth-year Karl Striepe, the champion of two years previous. Striepe explained his absence in the following terms: “Attempting to win the Polar Bear run is merely an exercise in vainglory. The measure of a man should be not be found in his ability to do something novel, rare, or difficult,” he said, adding that winning the Polar Bear Run is “entirely useless.”
“I would hate to be thought of as that kid who was good at running naked in the cold,” Striepe added. “Besides, there is more to me than that. I do lots of things well while naked.”