City runs wild in Bay to Breakers on Sunday
Thousands get ready, set to party, costumed or not
A roiling, costumed parade of humanity will shimmy through San Francisco Sunday during one of the world’s longest-running annual footraces — and by far the most fun.
The 106th running of the Bay to Breakers is really a party disguised as a race and, if history is any measure, it will be a smoky, boozy celebration stretching from the Embarcadero to the Great Highway.
More than 40,000 people have registered for the annual 7.46-mile run, but thousands more revelers are expected to join the fun along the route. The elite runners will leave the starting line on Howard and Main streets at 8 a.m., triggering a pulsating mass of people the likes of which cannot be found in any other city.
The naked and skimpily clad will join runners, performance artists and the outlandish in a slow, colorful morning sashay across San Francisco west through Golden Gate Park and out to the Pacific Ocean.
“Our requirement is you need to have a race
bib to be on our course,” said Chris Holmes, general manager of the race, which is sponsored by Alaska Airlines. “Costumes always have been and always will be a part of the race. It's kind of fun to see some of the things people come up with that they have obviously been working on for a long time.”
Streets will be closed along the route starting early Sunday until early afternoon, except along the Embarcadero and Crossover Drive through Golden Gate Park (connecting 19th Avenue and Park Presidio Boulevard), the only north-south options for motorists.
As has been the custom for several years, no floats or wheeled objects of any kind or bags and backpacks that aren’t transparent will be allowed. Hundreds of police officers will line the course, which will be dotted with nearly 1,000 portable toilets, Holmes said.
“Safety is always going to be our No. 1 priority,” he said .
The Bay to Breakers race began in 1912 as an effort to boost civic pride and unite San Franciscans following the devastating 1906 earthquake.
Then called the San Francisco Cross City Race, it attracted 150 runners, including local college student and parttime newspaper copy boy Bobby Vlught, who outran everybody, finishing what was then a 7.5-mile course in 44 minutes, 10 seconds.
The real pioneer, though, was Bobbie Burke, the first woman, cross-dresser and costumed finisher to enter the race. Burke ran in 1940 disguised as a man because women weren’t allowed to participate. Her boyfriend and later husband, Ed Preston, won the race that year.
It was 31 years before a women’s division was added to the race, which became known as the Bay to Breakers in 1964. The dreaded Hayes Street hill was added to the course in 1968. That’s about when costumed runners, nudists, cross-dressers and partygoers began showing up.
The race Sunday will mark the 40-year anniversary of the first centipede, in which teams of tethered runners race to the finish. In 1978, 13 members of the UC Davis track team tied themselves together for the run, ushering in a new era of competition.
For years, the male centipedes tried to beat the top female runner, but before long the elite female athletes were too fast.
“There are races across the globe now that have centipede divisions,” Holmes said, adding that centipede entrants are required to have at least 13 runners. The Aggies track team “invented it.”
The seeded centipedes are still highly competitive, but their inventiveness also matters. Holmes said a few thousand centipedes — including male, female, mixed, gay, straight, bisexual and transgender entrants — are registered to compete Sunday. Last year, he said, a group of women finished the race dressed as life-size snow globes, each depicting a different city in the world, winning many plaudits, but nobody seems to remember their time.
The race organizers are introducing a new distance option called the Breakers Bonus this year. Registrants who run an additional 3-kilometer loop along the Great Highway will get a specially designed medal and a beer at the finish line, Holmes said.
There has always been a
sober side to the race, but quite a few runners also take partying seriously. It got so out of hand in 2008 that race sponsors made the controversial decision to ban alcohol, nudity and floats with kegs.
The booze-carrying floats have disappeared, but spirits and other performance enhancers have been detected in recent years among the crowds chugging up the Hayes Street Hill and among spectators everywhere along the course.
The race now attracts anywhere from 40,000 to 65,000 runners in all manner of garb and, in the case of the “Bare to Breakers” runners, no garb at all. Contrary to public perception, Holmes denies that the ranks of the naked have grown in recent years.
“It is a very, very small percentage,” he said of the nude runners. “Of course, they are easy to pick out in a crowd.”
Online registration is closed, but runners can still register during an expo Friday and Saturday at Pier 35, complete with exhibits and swag.
Holmes said miles of barricades and fencing, including chain link around statues and other city assets, is being erected in preparation for the race.
Remi Fernandez plays with bubbles on Fell Street during the 2017 Bay to Breakers. The race has been held since 1912.