Nearly bare Bruins will brave the chilly night

Times Staff Writer

UCLA senior Mike Valkosky plans to commemorate final exams tonight by dropping his pants.

But the 21-year-old sociology major faces a tough choice: Should he try a pair of boxers this year or stick with his trusty green Speedo?

Valkosky isn’t the only student who’s struggling with such questions. In what has become a tradition at the Westwood campus, thousands of students mark the Wednesday of exams week by running across campus in the dead of night clad in nothing but their underwear.

Turnout for the quarterly event, known as the Undie Run, has soared since theater-major Eric Whitehead first dashed solo in his underwear through the streets of Westwood west of the campus four years ago. Last June, more than 5,000 people followed in his footsteps, frolicking and flaunting in their most intimate apparel.


But the growth worries administrators and UCLA police, who see potential for property damage and injury as people from outside UCLA and even outside Los Angeles converge on campus to watch, snap pictures and shoot video. Some administrators and students speculate it’s only a matter of time before the Undie Run gets too big for its britches and is shut down.

UCLA is not the only university with student traditions that involve partial or even full-on nudity. A student group at UC San Diego called “Students for a Sexier Campus” has an Undie Run that was inspired in part by the UCLA event. Students at the University of Florida host “The Great Underwear Dash.” And UC Berkeley and Harvard, among others, have or had traditions involving students streaking during exams.

UCLA’s Undie Run stands apart for its size, even though it has no formal leaders, except perhaps the runners at the head of the pack.

Word spreads via online social networking sites, e-mail and old-fashioned word of mouth. At midnight, students gather at the northernmost corner of Gayley and Landfair avenues. The half-mile route goes from Gayley through the courtyard of UCLA’s De Neve residential suites and down the main campus thoroughfare, known as Bruin Walk. The event is not university-sanctioned, though it is monitored by administrators and UCLA police.

The bashful get away with a T-shirt and boxers, but many show up with far less. Men wear boxers, briefs or -- for the very self-assured -- thongs. Women wear all varieties of lingerie.

Some skip the underwear altogether. Instead, they don palm fronds, beer boxes or a strategically positioned party hat. “One dude,” recalled history major Chase Norfleet, 23, wore “just a sock.” Running shoes are optional but recommended.

Originally, the run wound through apartments in Westwood, but when more than 1,000 people showed up in 2004 and people reported students running over parked cars, the UCLA administration took serious notice.

In March, administrators steered the route away from the streets of Westwood and onto campus in the hopes of keeping students safe while allowing them the “college experience.”

The change, said Bob Naples, vice chancellor of student and campus life, also was made to stave off police intervention. For now, students are asked to monitor themselves.

“If we reach the point where something happens or, God forbid, someone is injured or assaulted,” Naples said, “I think the university and the police would have no qualms about stepping in and doing something to end it.”

The new route is far from perfect. Some students who live in De Neve suites have complained about the noise. During the June Undie Run, students jumped into Shapiro fountain outside Powell library, causing about $25,000 worth of damage. Tonight, the fountain will be turned off.

The new route takes away the run’s rebellious and spontaneous quality, some students say.

“When there are rules, it loses some of the Undie Run essence,” said Zoe Brown, 21, an anthropology major from Novato.

Police and administrators are still concerned about the number of gawkers who come from off campus. Brown is considering not doing the run this year because of the people who show up with video equipment. “I could be on YouTube right now,” she said.

Whitehead, now an actor and singer in New York, founded the Undie Run on a whim. At the time, he recalled, he was disgusted at what he thought was an overbearing police presence in Westwood during finals week. So he started walking the streets at night, singing a “short and distasteful” song.

When police didn’t cite him, Whitehead “started wondering: How far can I take this? Then someone said, ‘Well, why don’t you just run around in your underwear?’ And I thought: ‘Why not?’

“So I dropped the shorts and started running.”

Whitehead printed fliers and encouraged his roommates to join in as he coaxed the Undie Run to life. Crowds grew from a handful to the hundreds, and by the time Whitehead graduated, the run “was definitely its own beast.”

Whitehead is proud that the tradition has taken off, but he believes it will probably shut down some day, given the life cycle of student traditions. “It’s kind of an inevitability.”

Until then, students like Valkosky embrace the tradition that Whitehead blazed in his boxers. Valkosky’s done the Undie Run every quarter since he was a sophomore. Last year, he wore a bandanna and a green Speedo.

“I’m going to go into a career where I have to keep my clothes on,” he said. “So I might as well do it now.”