Costumed superheroes lead the way as Bay to Breakers participants surge down Hayes Street in San Francisco on May 21, 2023. Many see the annual race as a celebration of San Francisco's personality. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)
To many, running 7.5 miles is a loathsome task, much less a cause for celebration.
But each year on the third Sunday of May, thousands of people turn what would otherwise be just your average San Francisco footrace into a moving block party complete with costumes, house parties and plenty of refreshments.
“It’s one-quarter Mardi Gras, one-quarter Boston Marathon, one quarter Pride and a little bit of Halloween thrown in there, too,” said Kyle Meyers, who owns Silverback, the events company that runs Bay to Breakers.
Since it started in 1912, Bay to Breakers has changed from a run-of-the-mill footrace across the city into a one-of-a-kind event.
At the starting line you’ll see people throwing tortillas around like frisbees. People run in groups connected by a bungee cord in the “centipede” category. Some people run naked. Others, dressed like salmon, run the course backward, like a salmon swimming upstream.
“The person I was next to lined up at the start of the race and got completely nude with no shoes on,” recalled Bay Curious listener Andrew Thomas of the time he ran the race in 2019. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna smoke this person.’”
Not at this race.
“They took off and I couldn’t even keep up with them for a quarter mile and they did really well,” said Thomas.
Running in the race got Thomas thinking.
“I just want to know more about the history of Bay to Breakers. When did it get so wacky? When did costumes start getting introduced? There’s many races all over the country, why did this one get so uniquely San Franciscan?” he asked.
The story begins with one of the most infamous days in San Francisco history.
Rallying a city’s spirits
The earthquake of April 18, 1906, ignited a fire that burned for three days and destroyed nearly 500 city blocks. An estimated 3,000 people died and half of the city’s residents were left unhoused.
In the years that followed, city leaders planned events to boost the civic pride and morale of San Franciscans. It’s reported that Hillard L. Baggerly, sports editor for The San Francisco Bulletin, proposed a cross-city footrace to do just that. On New Year’s Day in 1912, 140 people lined up on the Embarcadero for the first running of the aptly named “Cross City Race.” This is the race that would eventually become known as Bay to Breakers.
The course has changed several times throughout the 100-plus years it’s been run, but it has always started near the Ferry Building — by the bay — and ended at the beach— aka, the breakers.
According to author Len Wallach, who wrote a comprehensive history of Bay to Breakers in 1978 called The Human Race, the original Bay to Breakers route “proceeded up Golden Gate Avenue after leaving Market Street, crossing over Van Ness, the edge of the fire line of the 1906 earthquake.”
Notable milestones of the present-day racecourse include weaving through the wide streets of SoMa and downtown San Francisco, surmounting the challenging Hayes Street hill at Alamo Square, and passing through Golden Gate Park, starting at its panhandle before ultimately finishing at Ocean Beach.
There isn’t a specific time when costumes, or the lack of clothes altogether, became typical for Bay to Breakers, but there were a few notable moments in the race history that hinted that San Franciscans weren’t going to let it be just any normal race.
Dressed for the occasion
The first mention of someone running the race in a costume dates to 1940. A participant dressed up as Captain Kidd, the famed Scottish privateer, and tried to enter the race, but was denied by officials. They ended up walking two blocks down Market Street and starting the race anyway, running it holding a pirate sword and finishing last.
That same year, another person also joined the race somewhere on Market Street, after taking a $5 bet that they wouldn’t run down the city’s main thoroughfare dressed only in their nightshirt.
1940 was also the first time that a woman is known to have finished the race, although women weren’t allowed to officially run the full course until 1971. A young woman named Bobbie Burke, who lived in the Sunset District, disguised herself as a man, apparently well enough to fool race officials. She received a Cross City Race diploma after finishing.
By the mid-’70s, Wallach writes, a “carnival atmosphere” had begun to form at the race, no doubt affected by the recent Summer of Love and pop culture happenings in San Francisco. Wallach describes the scene at the 1975 race: “There were runners dressed as clowns, horses, cowboys, riverboat gamblers. There were women in long dresses and parasols, gays in drag, gentlemen in tuxedos, and band masters in uniform.”
The ‘Cross City Race’ gets a new name
This renewed enthusiasm for the race was a dramatic change from just a decade before. In 1963, the Cross City Race appeared near collapse, with just 15 people registering to run. It was the culmination of a long decline. Claire M. Williams writes in her essay “Bay to Breakers: The Original Fun Run” that “from 1937 until 1963, the average number of Cross City Race finishers per race was just thirty-five.”
Williams says this decline was due to a revolving door of sponsors that failed to adequately promote the event. But 1964 marked the beginning of a long upswing in popularity for the race. That year, The News-Call Bulletin took over sponsorship and changed the name to Bay to Breakers. Then, in 1966, The San Francisco Examiner bought The Bulletin and took over sponsorship of the race.
By 1975, the acceptance of women running in the race and the running boom of the 1970s greatly drove up attendance, along with improved coverage and promotion by the Examiner. That year 8,000 people raced in what became known as “The Great Stampede.”
Attendance grew dramatically through the next decade, a time when a new racing category would also be added to the race.
The UC Davis Aggies Running Club ran as a centipede for the first time in 1978. The centipedes are basically a train of 13 to 15 runners connected by a bungee cord, fabric, tape or anything else that works with the centipede costume theme.
Centipede costumes have varied from a train of people dressed as tissue boxes, a literal centipede or a deck of cards, to name a few.
In 1979, the Aggies declared that Bay to Breakers was to be the site of the “National Club Centipede Championships,” and demanded that participants keep to the strict rules set by the imaginary “International Council on Centipede Racing.”
“The first time I did a centipede, we were dressed up as Wonder Woman,” said Angie Longworth, a member of the San Francisco-based Impala Racing Team, a running team for women. “And people would be running by us and they were just so excited to see that costume. They said, ‘Wonder Woman, this is my dream come true!’”
The Impala team uses the theme of strong women to dress up every year, picking costumes like Mrs. Incredible, Ruth Bader Ginsburg or the Statue of Liberty. Impala racer Nelda Williams recalls when the group dressed up as former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein.
“We were shaking hands with people running down the street like we were politicians, and they were booing us. We got a lot of press out of that, and she loved it,” recalled Williams.
A little too much fun
The booing was possibly because in 1977, Feinstein, then a city supervisor, called the race “out of control” and publicly lambasted race organizers after an unofficial runner collapsed and died, despite a quick medical response. Ultimately a resolution proposed by Feinstein to investigate race procedures was vetoed by then-mayor George Moscone.
This was also a time when the race was undergoing even more exponential growth. In 1977, the race went from just over 8,000 registered runners to 110,000 by its 75th anniversary in 1986, earning it the Guinness World Record for largest footrace in the world. Adding to the fanfare that year, KPIX Channel 5 covered the race live, stationing reporters throughout the course and following the lead runners on motorcycles.
Bay to Breakers was entering its heyday, enjoying widespread popularity and fierce competition from some of the greatest legends in the running world, like the winner of the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and Norwegian athlete Grete Waitz, who won the New York City Marathon nine times.
But as popularity increased, there was a sense that things were getting a little too wild.
By 2009 the race and city leaders banned alcohol and unsuccessfully tried to ban nudity. Then-Mayor Gavin Newsom complained that the race failed to clean up after itself, leaving behind 35 tons of trash one year.
In 2012, the 100th anniversary of the event, a participant died after getting into a fight at the race, and in 2013 another man died when he fell off a roof at a house party. That same year, another person is believed to have jumped into the ocean and drowned after finishing the race. People in the neighborhoods next to Golden Gate Park complained of trash and lots of public urination.
“It’s hard to be enthusiastic about something when it results on people peeing on your door, but it’s really easy to prevent that and the race organizers do a good job of that most years,” said Jason Cauthen, a board member of the NOPA Neighborhood Association. “The years when the neighbors have had the most complaints and when it’s been the biggest problem for the neighborhood is years when the race organizers have scaled back the number of Porta Potties.”
While many people try to run the full course from the bay to the ocean, many just walk or simply head straight to the panhandle of Golden Gate Park to party. This means that in order to fully prepare for the race, organizers must take into account not only the number of people registered, but also the tens of thousands more who come to watch or participate in the more celebratory aspects of the day.
Bay to Breakers keeps running
Balancing the needs of racers, partiers, spectators, neighbors and everyone else in the city is Kyle Meyers, who owns Silverback, the company that runs Bay to Breakers. He says this year’s event had around 17,000 paid participants — with another 30,000 just joining in for the fun. That means a lot of Porta Potties.
“Just shy of 900. Which is a substantial amount for a race that’s only 7 miles long,” said Meyers.
Meyers says putting on the event means working with just about every department the city has. But despite the monumental undertaking and a certain measure of dread some locals experience when they hear of the impending traffic and crowds that come with the race, he says it’s their flagship event.
“Whether some locals either lock themselves up or get out of town that weekend, I think deep down everybody appreciates what it means for this city to hold one of the longest-standing races in the world,” said Meyers.
Bay to Breakers has survived two World Wars, near-zero participation, the scrutiny of politicians and even the COVID-19 pandemic. It has its detractors, but Cauthen of the NOPA Neighborhood Association says it’s an important event to protect.
“Bay to Breakers is a super-unique event because it combines the aspect of celebration with the aspect of a running race,” he said. “I think expressing whimsy, celebrating and having a good time with your community, and having that tie to a fitness goal and activity is a very San Francisco thing.”
Coming out of the pandemic, race attendance is much less than what it was at its peak, and the race doesn’t attract the same elite runners it once did. As Bay to Breakers continues well past its 100th birthday, Cauthen says it’s important for people to recognize that this is both a race, and a party.
“When it’s treated as purely a running race or when it’s treated as purely a festival, I think that’s when it’s at the greatest risk or has the greatest problems,” he said.
As Bay to Breakers has run its course through San Francisco’s history, it might be fitting to say that the event has left its mark on the city. But seeing what started as a men-only fitness competition turn into the spectacle of joy, inclusivity and athleticism it is today — from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake through the Summer of Love and other highs and lows — it’s more appropriate to say that San Francisco has left its mark on Bay to Breakers.
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