The Bay to Breakers is the quintessential San Francisco event of the year. You want to know what San Franciscans are like – come watch Bay to Breakers on the third Sunday in May. A complete cross section of the community lets their hair down and has fun. It is called Bay to Breakers because it starts at the Bay on the east and finishes at the ocean on the west. The course is 7.46 miles (12 kilometers) and has the grueling climb up Hayes Street Hill at about the 2.5 mile mark.
(Click on the photos for larger versions)
The event started in 1912 and has been run every year since then making this the 99th year and is the longest held consecutively run footrace in the world. It was started as a way to boost morale in the city after the 1906 earthquake and over the years it has evolved. Women did not take part in the early days and it wasn’t until the 1960′s that they could officially register. Now there are several distinct groups which take part, seeded and non-seeded runners, centipedes and floats. Additionally a lot of the participants run in costume and some are naked.
After our disappointing breakfast at Joe’s Cafe on Geary Blvd, we headed back towards Golden Gate Park and parked on 7th Avenue. From there it was a short walk to the park. Once inside we headed towards the Conservatory of Flowers on John F. Kennedy Drive, passing an area where aficionados of Tai Chi were meeting and greeting before starting their routine. One curiosity I noticed along the way, a fallen log had been adapted to look like a crocodile complete with a piece of yellow police tape tied round its neck.
Bay to Breakers starts at 8 am. This year there were expected to be 60,000 taking part. They all start at the same time with the seeded and sub seeded runners in the front, with the rest of the pack at the back. The floats bring up the rear. We arrived just after 8 so the first runners were already well on their way. There were quite a few people lining the route and a group of slow moving police motor cyclists were driving by. We took up our position looking up at the beautiful Conservatory of Flowers on the other side of the road.
Last year there were a lot of complaints from residents about the behavior of some participants and spectators; drunkenness and rowdiness being the main complaints. The rules have been tightened up and both police and race officials would crack down on any such wrong doers.
The weather at this time of the year is usually warm and sometimes very hot indeed. Not so this year. The sky was overcast and it was decidedly chilly. I was glad I had my sweatshirt with me.
The road was completely clear and then just after 8.15 we spotted three cars driving slowly towards us. As the cars drew level we spied the first runner – a woman. Couldn’t see her number because the cars hid most of her. Several other women were just behind. Of course I was expecting a man to be first but then concluded that the seeded women runners started before the men. Not long afterwards the first two men passed next and neck. They were dressed identically and their numbers were 21 and 24. I’m sure one of them was the winner – Sammy Kirop Kitwara from Kenya in 34 minutes and 15 seconds. He won last year as well. Lineth Chepkururi was the first woman to cross the finish line and she was also from Kenya.
More and more runners passed us, some of them in costume. Then the first centipede approached. A centipede is a group of 13 runners connected by a rope. The lead centipede was three deep. An additional runner, who is not attached, runs alongside shouting out instructions. At the point they passed us the additional runner was barking out frantic instructions. Just ahead were three photographers standing on step ladders stretched all across the road and getting the centipede to pass between two step ladders whilst maintaining their speed and momentum was a tricky maneuver.
Then the first naked runner streaked past. He was a serious runner and was hell bent on being the first one in that category to finish. He wore
running shoes and carried his bunched up shorts in his hand. I guess they have to be wearing at least shorts when they cross the line.
I expect total nudity on a public street doesn’t happen in too many cities and normally of course it would not be allowed here but Bay to Breakers is a San Francisan tradition. I remember the first time Tom took me to Bay to Breakers a couple of years after I moved here, probably in 2003. Having led a sheltered existence in chilly England, I was just not expecting to see total nudity. On that occasion I was surprised when I saw my first naked runner. I thought I was seeing things. Of course Tom was waiting to see my reaction and I tried hard to act as if it was no big deal. As more and more liberated people passed me by the novelty wore off and to be truthful the many and varied costumes all around were far more interesting to look at.
On that first occasion, it was a very warm day and there seemed to be a lot of naked runners. This year it was cold and I did not think there were quite so many people in the buff. Maybe the weather did have something to do with it. One couple looked a bit odd because they were nude apart from the jackets they wore on their top halves to keep them warm.
There were a lot of joggers, most of them in costume but the biggest group were the walkers – those just taking part and having fun. I did notice that there were a lot of people walking the route who did not have official numbers on them. Maybe they didn’t register and just thought they would join in.
The main attraction had to be the wonderful assortment of costumes. I saw lots of people in full body suits including bunnies, monsters, roman soldiers and a square pants sponge bob. There were lots of super heroes, cavemen, hula skirts complete with coconut bras, clowns, brides, prom dresses, night attire, men dressed as women, women dressed as men and Elvis was very much alive. There was one group dressed as bananas and another of whoopee cushions. Some people did not go for full costumes but donned wigs, dress suits or tutus.
Just along from us was a huge banner proclaiming ‘Fear God’ and a guy with a microphone preaching to the competitors. The serious runners completely ignored him, the less serious runners paid him scant attention but lots of them showed their displeasure by shouting back or gesticulating. Several people mooned him but he carried on regardless, regaling everybody with doom and gloom.
The onlookers lining the route gave lots of support and encouragement to the runners, joggers and walkers and there was interaction between all people. For instance I was wearing my University of Oregon sweatshirt and many people shouted out ‘Go Ducks’ or gave me the big O. Everybody was happy and were thoroughly enjoying themselves. I read afterwards that there were many reports of people getting drunk but we certainly didn’t see any evidence of that.
I say everybody was happy but there was one guy who left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth who heard him rant at rave at a security guy. He was not a participant in the race but an onlooker but he sure had a problem and was definitely in need of an anger management course. The security guy did not rise to the bait and deserves praise for remaining calm the whole time.
We stayed until just after 11 and still the walkers were passing. I did notice that some people were walking back through the crowd. Maybe they were going back to the start to where their cars were parked. I heard someone refer to them as ‘spawning salmon’ which I thought was very apt.
On our way back to the car we did notice that one group of onlookers had thoroughly made themselves at home by bringing their couch with them. We were pleased when we finally reached the car to get the chance to warm up before driving home.