Peter Sagal: I Got Divorced. And Then I Ran a Mile in My Underwear.
The Host of Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! on the Things Men Do
It was two o’clock in the afternoon and 30 degrees out—warm for a day in mid-February, which was fortunate because I was standing on Market Street in St. Louis in my underwear, next to a guy dressed as Braveheart, without a shirt but with face paint (blue) and a sword (foam). I waved my arms around, trying to stay warm without hitting anybody with the Cupid’s bow and arrow I was holding. Then the starter, such as she was, cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled “Go!” and everybody started running, except for me, because Braveheart decided to rally the three hundred nearly naked people behind us by swinging his sword, which whacked me hard in the face. He took off. I grabbed at my nose, swore, hitched up my red boxer briefs, and chased after him.
Welcome to the beta test of life as a divorced dad.
This was an intentional test run. It was the winter of 2013, about two months before the Boston Marathon, a race that, on this cold day, I had no notion I would be running. My wife and I had agreed, in January, to separate and then divorce, and my soon-to-be ex had taken the kids to visit her parents in Minnesota. Under the circumstances, she suggested, it might be awkward for me to accompany them. Perhaps I should have argued, but they had taken such trips without me before, and this seemed like a strange time to insist on coming along. Besides, there was no time like the present to start getting used to the future as a part-time parent.
At the same time, I didn’t want to mark this first Solo Divorced Dad Weekend by lying around the house eating takeout in my underwear and watching porn. That seemed to be a bad way to set the tone. Instead, I would do a road trip of my own. How about St. Louis? I had friends there, and it was also about a day’s drive away, and happily, psychologically, and geographically in the opposite direction. But I needed a better excuse. One of the habits I have been criticized for in the bosom of my family—justly—is constantly needing some sort of activity to amuse myself, rather than just, you know . . . being. So what could I do? A race? I liked to do races. One of my St. Louis friends told me about a race a friend of hers was doing. Something called the Fourth Annual Cupid’s Undie Run. Whatever. I’m in.
On New Year’s Eve 2009, a twentysomething in Washington, D.C., named Bobby Gill was talking with his friends Chad Leathers and Brendan Hanrahan (who were also, I am sure, in their twenties) about doing something for Chad’s younger brother, who was afflicted with neurofibromatosis, or NF, an extremely unpleasant pediatric disease that causes chronic tumor growth. All three friends were runners, so they thought of a fund-raising race, but then said to one another, “Why do another 5K? Nobody remembers a 5K!” and came upon the idea of running in their underwear. (This is how I know they were in their twenties: they just assumed that their friends wouldn’t mind running in public in their underwear.) They decided they needed a holiday to link it to for marketing purposes, one that was coming up soon . . . Martin Luther King Jr. Day? Not quite right. Valentine’s Day! Great. Then it will be red underwear.
I called Bobby on my way down to St. Louis, and he told me they’d expected about 50 of their friends to show up that first time and strip to their skivvies before doing a guerrilla sprint on the sidewalks circling the Capitol, but word spread around the D.C. running community with the speed of a nearly naked young person trying to get out of the cold. On February 13, 2010, more than 600 people swarmed Capitol Hill, a mass of jiggling, goose-pimpled bare flesh, raising $10,000 for the Children’s Tumor Foundation. Three Valentine’s Days later, in February 2013, the race was held in 14 US cities, plus Sydney, Australia, with thousands of participants attempting to reach a $1 million goal.“I didn’t want to mark this first Solo Divorced Dad Weekend by lying around the house eating takeout in my underwear and watching porn.”
For me, there would be two very unusual things about the race, and that did not include the underwear. First, perhaps because of the cold weather, perhaps because they wanted to attract a wider pool of participants than the cadre of hardcore runners, Bobby and co. had set the distance at one mile. And further, it would be informal, untimed, and not even accurately measured. Call it a “mile-ish.” You know, out thataway for about a half mile or so, then turn back. I made a note to myself: don’t try to set an international record for the mile distance, because it won’t count.
Second, it was for charity. This may seem like a bonus, but for a “serious runner,” charity running can have a disreputable air. The Boston Marathon, as said, requires entrants to qualify by running a sufficiently fast time at a prior accredited marathon. To run Boston, you have to earn it. Or, if you don’t want to put in the work, sign up with some charity, promise to raise (or donate) a set amount of money, and they’ll give you a bib. Easy. Then there are the countless charitable organizations that promise to help you train up to run a marathon or half marathon, all for a large fee that mostly, probably, goes to the charity, rather than the coaches and T-shirts and other accoutrements of Very Public Do-Gooding. This sort of stuff made me narrow my eyes and sniff and think that if you really wanted to train for a marathon, you should grind out the miles in misery, unsupported, like God intended.
But I needed some distraction on my first Divorced Weekend. Having run countless half marathons and 10Ks and ten-milers, a “mile-ish” run in my underwear on a cold winter day seemed like it would be, at least, a significant change of pace.
But if I was going to raise money, even on a lark, then dammit, I would raise some money. I only had a week to fundraise after deciding to run the race, but I went to it with a vengeance: I set up a donation page and then tweeted out appeals, offering to post a picture of myself running in my underwear when I met my $1,000 goal, and then, when that goal was quickly reached, I announced that if I hit $2,000, I wouldn’t post it.
Over the course of my single week of fundraising, I began tracking the thermometer-style money graph on my fundraising site like it was an indicator of my value as a human being. In response to many lewd suggestions as to what underwear I should wear, I posted an offer: anybody who donated $500 could dictate my costume. I was amazed, and more than a little worried, when somebody took me up on it. But I put my qualms aside. I was raising money! Lots of it! Anything to make that needle move—and it was moving. As far as addictions involving needles went, I could do worse.
Still, I was nervous when I walked into Syberg’s bar in St. Louis on the Saturday of the race, and not just because of what I was wearing (and not wearing) under my sweats. The place was packed with people, mostly young, mostly drinking, and mostly naked. Very few of them—by my informal survey, which I conducted by asking them—had ever run a race before. Most of them had no knowledge or interest in NF or the Children’s Tumor Foundation but had shown up, it seemed, because drinking beer and gallivanting around in their underwear in public on a Saturday afternoon “sounded like fun.” So, as it turns out, there are hobbies stranger than running.
There were some older folk mixed into the crowd, and although they seemed to be grinning as much as anyone else, they were there for a more serious purpose. Every person I spoke to over the age of 35, including Amanda, the race director, was there because of a direct connection to a child suffering from NF. A group of older runners had brought one such child, the daughter of one of their coworkers. Lexi seemed shy and frail but delighted to be surrounded by so much determined love. One of Lexi’s supporters told me their employer, the St. Louis area water utility, was suspicious and worried about this “undie” thing and insisted they run clothed, which is why the entire group was wearing extra-large unmentionables over tights and T-shirts. She seemed regretful.“I ordered a beer from the bar. I would have had another, but naked and shivering and shaved and drunk seemed one adjective too far.”
And me? Having stripped off my sweats, I was talking to this perfectly nice complete stranger in the outfit decreed by my $500 donor: a pair of red boxer briefs with the words KNICKERS OF GLORY written on the butt, red feathered wings on my back, a Cupid’s bow and arrow in my hands, and a heart shaved into my chest hair. I envied the utility worker in her tights. At that point, I would have preferred a burka.
I ordered a beer from the bar. I would have had another, but naked and shivering and shaved and drunk seemed one adjective too far. So I shuffled outside and waited with the crowd, most of them much younger and much more attractive than me, although few of them were more naked. The race started. I got hit in the face with a foam sword. Then I whooped and ran.
At first I gave in to my usual instinct and tried to keep up with the leaders, a few skinny guys who hadn’t laden themselves with props. But after about a hundred yards I actually said out loud, “What am I doing?” and slowed down, circled back, and joined the vast unclothed masses. This was supposed to be fun. And today, there was no fun in me being out in front . . . especially for the people right behind me.
The turnaround point was a half mile up a slight hill, and before we were very far up it, a lot of the cuties in their undies were walking, either due to too little training or too much alcohol. They were all still laughing, and so was I. I had never been in an event like this; hardly dressed, hardly running, in what was hardly a race. Then I decided I wanted to get to the finish line to watch people as they came in, so I sprinted the last few hundred yards. Somebody shouted out, “Not fair! He’s got wings!” I jumped to make them flap.
At the finish, people laughed and hollered and cheered as they completed their mile run as if they had just won the Olympic marathon. They hugged their friends, an act more sweaty and intimate than usual, and everybody immediately retired into the bar for more beer. There, the organizers quieted the DJ and took over the bar’s PA system. They announced best costume—some 20-year-old in something revealing—and then they announced the event’s big winner, the top individual fund-raiser.
It was me.
My wheedling, my begging, my bargaining, my offers to wear whatever ridiculous thing my big donors suggested, had brought in $4,000 for the Children’s Tumor Foundation, and I accepted my medal (in the shape of underwear, of course) with a huge grin. It was the first time I’d ever won a race of any kind, by any measure. And it struck me, as I grinned and grinned, standing in my underwear in front of a crowd, that I had picked a great one to win. I have run thousands of miles for myself, and one, just one lousy mile up a hill and back, for some sick kids I had never met, and at that moment, it seemed to me the only mile I’d ever run that mattered.
From The Incomplete Book of Running. Used with the permission of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2018 by Peter Sagal.