“Running” San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers Race

by Keith Savage · 18 comments

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I hadn’t given much thought to the Bay to Breakers race when I decided to visit my brother, Adam, in San Francisco. There was some mention of it being a ridiculously good time by his girlfriend, Ruth, the previous year, but most similar public events leave me apathetic. I’m familiar with Madison’s enormous Halloween celebration, which in ages past left shops along State Street with shattered windows and slathered in the vomit of overzealous party-goers. Inevitably the police arrive to break up brawls, arrest a lot of people, and, in some extreme circumstances, shoot tear gas. Honestly, not my idea of a good time.

Nevertheless, as I began plotting a trip to San Francisco to visit my recently-moved brother, May presented itself as an excellent time to go. And why not visit during Bay to Breakers, then? So I did. For those that don’t know about Bay to Breakers, it’s a 12km foot race that runs from Embarcadero on the east side (the bay) across town to the Pacific ocean (the breakers). The first race was in 1912, and it’s the longest consecutively run footrace in the world. I find it fascinating that the race was conceived as a way to lift the spirits of the downtrodden San Franciscans following the 1906 earthquake.

At some point in the ensuing 80-odd years, the race inherited some characteristics from the local malcontents and unsavories (I jest). These days, the race is basically one giant party with plenty of costumes, floats, alcohol, drugs, music, and nudity (though most of these things are officially banned) with little involvement from police.

Adam and Ruth cooked up the ingenious idea that we’d go as the “wasted waste management” crew replete with silk-screened one-piece jumpsuits and a garbage can loaded with beer. I am continually amazed at the creative and marvelous methods humans devise to drink alcohol in public. They rustled up some additional workmen from their lab and our “running” of Bay to Breakers was conducted with an ever-changing cast of about 10 characters.

We began the day by riding the Muni out of the Sunset neighborhood to Van Ness. Above ground, we caught our first glimpse of the racers down on Hayes street. A squad of Smurfs and a bunch of purple roadrunners flanked us as we made our way toward the freakish river of humanity. It took us several attempts to cut across the current with our weighty garbage can, but once in we flowed past monks with bald caps, a team of Elvises, Harlem Globetrotters, neon spandex of all varieties, and a thousand other costumes.

At the top of Hayes, at Alamo Park, we pulled over for a pit stop and listened to the hypnotizing syncopation of a handful of drummers. We also stripped our magic garbage can of some beers. On the side walk, a large man in a red running suit and a Panama hat smoked copious amounts of marijuana, sharing it with anyone who asked. In the park, a slip-n-slide was set up that lead to a pool of some green sludge. Everywhere the inebriated ran through grasses to urinate on trees or wait in extensive lines for portable toilets.

It was 10:30am.

The unyielding sea of partygoers eventually carried us down the other side of Alamo Park along the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park. Sandwiched between the mayhem of house parties on our right and roving bands of costumed hooligans on our left, we continued our slow amble toward the bulk of the park. DJs spun records under awnings, people toasted the crowd from windows, and tortillas flew through the air. Amazingly, the only smell was damp sea air. At some point I was separated from my compatriots, lost in delirium amid the trees and overflowing port-a-potties, before my brother ventured back to find me.

As we passed into Golden Gate Park proper, the tightly-packed stream of people started to fray into a kind of human delta. Many folks began to take up residence in the sunny grasses while others simply passed out on the sidewalk. Floats continued to drift by blaring music and emitting clouds of smoke and trails of bubbles. Our own journey was coming to an end. Our heads were filled with the haze of booze and the garbage can we’d been hauling was filled with actual refuse: empty beer cans, garbage bags, and the remnants of pretzel. The tiny wheels my brother mounted to the garbage can had locked up long ago and been whittled down by the street.

By 3pm we were en route to my brother’s apartment, tired, drunk, and in my case, sunburned. We had “run” the race. With how many tens of thousands, I don’t know. But I do know that one day I’ll “run” it again.

Tips for Bay to Breakers 2011

  • Do get up early and start close to the beginning of the race. As time wears on, the crowd becomes increasingly drunk/tired/stoned and people begin to pass out or go home. Get to the race when everyone is bright-eyed and chipper.
  • Do wear a costume. If possible, get a group together and wear matching costumes. Avoid anything too complex as things will fall apart and you will probably get messy (in some form). Bonus: if people like your costume they might give you free drinks 🙂
  • Do bring your own drinks and integrate them with your costume. For us, the garbage can was effectively a beer refrigerator. By late in the race, most people were running dry and willing to buy beer for as much as $10/can.
  • Don’t quit before you hit the finish line. We began to lose steam as we ventured deeper into Golden Gate Park. Coupled with an empty garbage can, we decided to throw in the towel and head for home. It was only later that I found out there are massive house and beach parties at the finish line!
  • Don’t disrupt the friendly vibe of the race by getting violent or belligerent. The collective good will of the crowd is a large part of what made the race so memorable. Celebrate, don’t hate.
  • Don’t hold back. Own your costume, own your place in the crowd. Really lose yourself in that rare moment.

I have a video of the race forthcoming, stay tuned! Have you “run” the Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco? What did you think? Would you do it again?

SimonNo Gravatar August 20, 2012 at 10:08 PM

Aye, gotta love the bay to breakers well done!
If you make it back to SF the Love Parade is quite a spectacle. I’d share a photo from it but my wife mightn’t want it on the Internet ha ha.

Alice PerkinsNo Gravatar December 4, 2010 at 10:32 AM

This was a very fortuitous article. I enjoy reading anything about San Francisco (and your pics are great), and as I was reading here my eye was caught by the highlighted “San Francisco timeshares”. I clicked on it and was taken to a page that had amazing prices for renting a timeshare in downtown San Francisco. I never even heard of renting a timeshare. DH and I are now seriously looking into taking a timeshare rental vacation in SF – I’m just jazzed.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 4, 2010 at 4:47 PM

Wow, glad to hear that link helped you so much!

Brooke vs. the WorldNo Gravatar May 26, 2010 at 12:08 AM

I was scrolling the pictures looking for the naked ppl… but alas. Don’t people run this thing without clothes?
.-= Brooke vs. the World´s last blog ..Back to Basics =-.

KeithNo Gravatar May 26, 2010 at 8:58 AM

Oh, they do. They really do. I thought I was respecting their privacy by not taking pictures of their nude bodies, though looking back they might have liked that 🙂

floretaNo Gravatar May 23, 2010 at 9:56 PM

awesome! had no idea you were a runner! eventually i’d love to run a marathon.
.-= floreta´s last blog ..Why I Won’t Become A Monk =-.

KeithNo Gravatar May 23, 2010 at 10:59 PM

Ha, you’re funny Floreta – I’m not a runner (hence the quotation marks). I don’t think I saw anyone running in that crowd of 60,000.

EricaNo Gravatar May 23, 2010 at 12:17 PM

This looks awesome. We have something similar here in Austin – costumes and all and its always fun to watch. What an experience though – the race looks MASSIVE. Did they estimate how many people showed?
.-= Erica´s last blog ..A Case of the Doubts =-.

KeithNo Gravatar May 23, 2010 at 12:32 PM

I think this year’s race had over 60,000 “runners.” Apparently the largest race ever was in the 80s with over 110,000 people. It was a great time, definitely an even to put on your to do list.

LauraNo Gravatar May 22, 2010 at 4:30 AM

I agree that you SHOULD wear a costume. In 2007, I saw too many old, naked people running Bay to Breakers that it may have just scarred me for life!

KeithNo Gravatar May 23, 2010 at 10:03 AM

Haha, I definitely saw more than my fair share of old naked dudes. Ladies, too. They would unobtrusively job past and invariably I’d end doing a double-take or dropping my beer. More power to them!

JaimeNo Gravatar May 21, 2010 at 11:29 PM

Love your play by play of the day. It captures the race so well. I was never sober enough to remember the “race” in such detail. 🙂

Glad you had a good time. I’m counting the days until next year’s race which we should be back in town for.

Great post & fab photos!

KeithNo Gravatar May 23, 2010 at 10:01 AM

Thanks Jaime! I’m still building my photographer muscle, but taking so many pics of the race really helped lock in the experience. If you look at my Smugmug album, you’ll see I’ve got over 100 pics during the race.

Actually, I’m hoping they still HAVE the race next year. I read some articles in the San Francisco Chronicle proposing they cancel it due to excessive hooliganism (my words). Let’s hope that thought dies quickly.

Financial SamuraiNo Gravatar May 21, 2010 at 6:41 PM

How fun was the race?! You actually have me in one of your pictures! I won’t say who though 🙂

Love SF! What does your bro do?

.-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..The Emergency Fund Fallacy =-.

KeithNo Gravatar May 23, 2010 at 9:59 AM

Hey Sam, the race was incredible. Just tons of fun and lots of good vibes from all the people. I think that’s the aspect I’m most amazed by. What are the chances of catching you in one of my pics?! Just let me know if you’d like it taken down. By the way, my brother works in a lab at UCSF.

Financial SamuraiNo Gravatar May 23, 2010 at 10:39 AM

Small world indeed! Don’t worry, with my get up, nobody will ever know 🙂

Come out to SF and live the free life! Too bad taxes here are atrocious!
.-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..The Emergency Fund Fallacy =-.

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