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Bay to Breakers

“Have you ever done Bay to Breakers?” was a not-too-uncommon question I would be asked when the other person learned that 1) I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and 2) I ran.

It was a question I received enough that I tired of responding that Bay to Breakers is not really a serious race and that I actually was not particularly enthused to run among tens of thousands of people, some of whom were notorious for being drunk, anarchist, or naked.

On the positive side, there is a lot of history behind the event, having been held since 1912 (though it was known as the “SF City Cross Race” until 1964, when its current name was given.) Indeed, it is the oldest consecutively run 12k race in the world. (Note that the official web site says it is the oldest consecutively run race [distance unspecified] in the world, but that is simply incorrect; the Boston Marathon has been consecutively run since 1897!)

So I finally ran it this year, with an exphasis on “ran”. I was intent on doing it as a real race instead of just being one of the thousands of gawkers who were there just to party. Well, at least that was my intention. Expecting to somehow be able to actually race it turned out to be at best optimistic, and at worst, extremely naive.

This sums up my experience:

  • BART ran special hours that day to accommodate all of the runners. Despite catching one of the first trains at 6:20 a.m., I still had to stand after transfering at the Bayfair station to a SF-bound train.
  • Bay to Breakers personnel had blockades set up and were trying to get newcomers to go one block down and line up at the very end of the line. Despite their pleas (“Please cooperate people!”) many people (including myself) just ignored them and jumped the blockade so as to be able to start out in the 1:40:xx group instead of being stuck with the centipedes and walkers.
  • There were “flying tortillas” (tortillas tossed like frisbees) everywhere, which I have to admit, was pretty cool!
  • I spent the next 40 minutes before the start just trying to get as close to the start line as possible, but could only get about 300 feet to it. It would take 3 minutes just to walk to the start after the race had commenced.
  • Surprisingly, immediately after crossing the start line, it was possible to start running–though of course not very fast (just faster than I expected).
  • Despite the official race guide warning, “Naked running is not permitted. The police department may arrest or cite violators of Park codes and City ordinances,” I saw the first naked person after just half a mile. Unfortunately, about 95% of all naked people were old geezers who looked pretty bad naked.
  • To my chagrin, there were too many religious people trying to use this as a venue to advertise their gods to everyone else with banners (and an army of people handing out flyers at the end). It seemed like I was not the only one peeved by these people who feel like they have a duty to push their superstitions and insecurities unto others.
  • The steep (11.2% grade) hill up Hayes Street between Fillmore and Steiner was indeed pretty steep, and I was impressed that so many people around me were not walking.
  • Beyond the hill I was surprised to see an entire group of people from the University of Pacific School of Dentistry (of Stockton, where I grew up) running with a huge Crest blimp over them. I also overheard people on BART or throughout the course say they came from Atlanta, Canada, and even Ireland to do the race.
  • Despite doing my best to surge through the cracks in the field every few seconds to move up, after the first 4 miles I noticed my watch read 0:38:31. So much for racing this thing; that was only like 9:38 pace!
  • Finally, as we got into Golden Gate Park, I was able to pick up the pace more as the field was getting more spread apart. Still, there were too many people to really get in an uninhibited rhythm. Nevertheless, I managed to go sub-7:00 pace for the last 3 miles.
  • By the coast, finished. A couple of people outkicked me at the end but I didn’t really care; this was a bogus race! And was pleased that I wasn’t really tired.
  • While walking to Footstock a 53-year-old asked me what my time was, which surprised me. Apparently, I was not the only one intent on actually racing–this guy said 15 years ago he managed to run it in 52 minutes.
  • At Footstock, the live music by Gavin DeGraw was not playing yet, so I went directly to the Mini booth to check out the new Mini Cooper convertible, and then walked back to the nearest BART station (6 miles away in downtown).
  • As I was walking back a couple of hours later, there were still thousands of people walking along Hayes with their floats, banners, and beer.

All in all it was certainly a unique event, one that I would not describe as my favorite, but something that should be experienced once. Now that I have done it, I’m not sure I’d care to do it again. Hearing about it so many times before doing it and knowing what to expect kind of diminished the novelty of the event. That said, it is a unique tradition that gives San Francisco the identity that it has.

Time splits:

  • Miles 0-4: 38:31 (9:38/mi average pace). Too many people!
  • Mile 5: 7:36
  • Mile 6: 6:54
  • Mile 7: 6:41
  • Last 0.46 miles: 3:12 (6:57/mi pace)
  • Overall time: 1:02:55, with watch started when I crossed the start line. Somehow this was good for 193rd 1,930 place out of 70,000 official registrants, and underscores how non-serious this event is.
So I finally came out to do Bay to Breakers for the first time.  Here are some girls all dressed up as cheerleaders.
The race begins!  It would take about 3 minutes just to cross over the start line due to all the people and general chaos.
Vikings and people holding up signs.
Naked dude (edited).
The big hill on Hayes St.  It was pretty steep.
Felix Wong with Albertson's shopping bag named Alby at the end.
A lot of people wore Mini outfits (cardboard boxes that looked like Minis) during the race, and at Footstock, there were even a couple of real Minis on display.
Walking back to BART hours later, people were still walking on the course with some pretty elaborate displays.
In the streets of SF was this rather ironic license plate on this SUV.  Click on the photo to see what it says.