Imagine taking the entire crowd of the Wellington Sevens, complete with costumes, cloning everyone at least twice before sending them off running, walking and dancing through the Capital to Lyall bay on the Pacific Coast. Why not bus in 100’000 curious spectators form the Hutt and Porirua to line the course and you may be able to fathom the insanity that is Bay to Breakers.
Unlocked to western civilisation by accident after Spanish explorers took a wrong turn en route to Monterey Bay to the South; San Francisco is packed nicely into a 12km by 12km zone cresting a narrow peninsula that juts out into San Francisco Bay. Perfect spot for a city, less the fog most would say, perfect spot for a running race the odd more athletic individual may say? The ING Bay to Breakers like most events needed a catalyst and for lack of a galactic invasion by crab people you couldn’t pick a much more deceive and life changing event for the city of San Francisco than the devastating magnitude 7.9 Earthquake which shock the city in 1906 and along with subsequent fires destroyed over half the city claiming 3000 plus lives. From the ashes rose a San Francisco determined to rebuild. The city embarked on a rapid and far reaching reconstruction plan and implemented series of events to restore the pride and self esteem of the populace culminating in 1915 with Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Officially a celebration to mark the completion of the Panama Canal in reality it was a sort of self proclaimed world fair to showcase the city’s new face.
Athletics were a big part of this event and in 1912 in order to prepare for the Pan Pacific events and as morale booster slash possible distraction from the grind of rebuilding a whole city San Francisco held its first major foot race. Running from the downtown area a few blocks from The Embarcadero (adjacent to San Francisco Bay) west through the city finishing at the Grand Highway on the Pacific Coast some 7.46 miles or in Kiwi terms 12km. Nearly a century later this race has become a fully immersive and interactive entertainment event that must rate in the upper echelon for any traveler to the USA. Held annually on the third Sunday in May the race earned the nickname Bay to Breakers in 1964. From humble beginnings with some mere 200 runners in 1912 the race set the Guinness world record in 1986 for the world’s largest footrace when it attracted 78’769 runners and 110’000 competitors in total, with the range of outlandish attire on display it also attracts upwards of 100’00 spectators, numbers simply mind boggling to a New Zealander who gets crowd anxiety dealing 25’000 people watching the rugby.
I kicked a goal with my group as it was organised with deft military efficiency, there was colour coded tickets, signup sheets, a cooler truck full of beer and vodka jelly shots as well as a great variety of Bay Watch style get ups, most of which didn’t feature a lot of material hence my dark glasses were implemented despite the lack of any form of sunlight piercing the layer of low cloud. Pamela Anderson would have been proud of the fairer sexes attire and accompanying fake nipples, not that they were required as the cold ensured many a real nipple made a prominent appearance. First beers and or vodka jelly shots were cracked at 8.00am in an effort to drink our coats as they say. It was failing and even my “I’m from Invercargill I don’t get cold” stance was sorely tested. However I did not falter and take out option of the free singlet and in true David Hasselhoff style bared my chest for the entire duration of the event.
It seems to take an eternity to get through downtown into what would be classed over there as suburbs over here as more downtown. As the building heights diminish the course hits the hills and floats become a dangerous thing to be around. Later in the race I saw the results of a tangle with a float on the downhill, the comment painfully exclaimed by some little bloke as we went past went something like this “your float my foot”. He was a bloodied mess but with his pain dulled by the alcohol he was determined to make the finish. You can’t quite grasp the scale of the race until you look down from the Hayes street hill and see that despite the fact thousands of people have passed you and the runners have long hit the showers there are still twenty or so thousand people trailing about 1km behind you and every vantage point be it 3rd floor windows, roof tops or cherry picker baskets is occupied by fascinated often also costumed onlookers.
Before touching on the colour and contrast of Bay to Breakers it seems prudent to touch on the serious running component of the event which has doubled as USA national team selection race, was in the 1980’s prior to Kiwi sport denting our running mana won by Kiwi Rod Dixon twice and holds the world record for the fastest road run 12km. However now like the city of San Francisco itself it is more well known more for its colourful diversity, eclectic mix of characters, severe lack of inhibitions and often clothing as well as its pure unadulterated entertainment value. Imagine taking the entire crowd of the Wellington Sevens, complete with costumes, cloning everyone at least twice before sending them off running, walking and dancing through the Capital to Lyall bay on the Pacific Coast. Why not bus in 100’000 curious spectators form the Hutt and Porirua to line the course and you may be able to fathom the insanity that is Bay to Breakers. You can either enter officially through www.ingbaytobreakers.com or participate unregistered which accounts for a large portion of the field. To join the entertaining ranks of the unregistered bandits Jump on the internet, god forbid facebook and find a group or in true who wants to be a millionaire style phone a friend like I did and become part of theirs. Each group shares a common theme; often a float to be hand pulled complete with music and will have a meeting point with a high likelihood of some form of alcohol being provided as part of your fee. These groups are set up by bars, websites, business’s, groups of mates and charge a fee to cover the costs of the float, cheap t-shirt or themed sun glasses and of course the alcohol.
I dragged my weary head from the pillow at 5.15am to begin preparations which was a battle considering the events of the previous 24 hours which included the 11th annual San Francisco Oyster Festival and visit to the Marina districts local hot spot Balboa. Being a running race and technically being almost summer things get underway early to beat the heat. Well it was almost summer but it was also fog season so the only heat on offer was from my fellow Bay Watch themed participants hot blazed red/orange Pamela Anderson style swim suits complete with accompanying cold induced nipple stiffening. I was told not to wear or take with me anything non essential so in true Dunedin O-Week styles I took a wad of cash, my camera and a house key attached to my whistle lanyard. The whistle of course being a key accessory to the Bay Watch theme.
It takes a while for things to get going, the real runners depart sometime prior to 9.00am or this is what I could gather from the crowd who had never actually ran the event. Standing on the side of the course somewhere near the start looking for a spot to have my first of many public displays of bladder relief I watched in awe as the seemingly endless stream of whacky get ups ran, walked, danced and skipped past. It took over 40 minutes for our float to catch up to us, obviously this was New Zealand fun run and getting lost early on is easy so it’s best to stick with your float at least that way you have slightly higher chance of finding any mislaid friends, inhibitions and or sobriety. It was pure mayhem, pushing, shoving, walking, running, loud and often tacky music, beer being thrown, water pistols, horse whips not to mention an excessive array of naked participants and before you get excited these are not the sort of people you want to see naked. It would be fair to say that some of those nether regions hadn’t seen the light of day since last Bay to Breakers while others had been out and about a little too much and would have been better off at a mardi gra after party or on the set of Bruno. One may be forgiven for thinking they have arrived somewhere further South with tacos being thrown left right and centre which is an apparent tradition for the slower participants to help pass the time.
Females I would recommend taking a look at this site http://p-standingup.com as despite that fact there are over 700 porta loo’s you have virtually no chance of avoiding a public squat incident in a park, in an alleyway or even in the street. It’s dangerous times and even if you manage to dodge the floats and the spawning salmon who run upstream against the crowd you may just end up in a puddle of urine so keep your wits about you at all times. The race leaves the hustle of the city and live music and spectators wane as you hit Golden Gate Park and the floats depart the course.
The last 3 miles of the journey is along tree lined streets snaking through Golden Gate Park. Only the diehard costumed participants make this phase of the journey. It’s now 2.00pm and half of my friends are either in bed or at the pub but a small elite unit of team Bay Watch is still trucking determined to see the ocean. What had been a crew of over 400 had diminished to less than a dozen. An impromptu dance party underneath an overpass fooled weary participants into thinking they had made the finish truth be known we never did as we reached a gate which had closed off the final few hundred meters of the course hours before we got there. Despite the slight anti climax it was a relief to be on with my top and off to the busses.
The bus trip back was nearly as entertaining as the day with many a festive Bay to Breakers reveller carrying on their party aboard San Francisco’s cheap and efficient municipal transit system. Despite the early white flag due to the long day and quite a few drinks it was a magnificent experience, a must see. My horizons were not only broadened by what I had the fortune and sometimes misfortune of seeing (I’m referring here to the ‘Gay Life Guard’ groups togs) they were picked up slapped around a little and categorically annihilated by this colourful celebration of uniqueness and diversity. To thrive in Bay to Breakers, find a good themed group, hydrate sufficiently the day prior, take a waterproof and preferably indestructible camera, leave any other valuables at the hotel or hostel and check out the weather forecast to access the degree to which you are going to join the nudies in baring your skin. Group entries range from free to $40 USD and will often include your alcohol and some form of memento. If you do survive the whole affair there are busses are on hand to redistribute you back to the city centre, don’t even bother trying a cab these take a while at the best of times let alone with 70’000 other people wanting one. Having an idea of the transit system and possible a route map will increase your chances of a short ride to the right place. If you want some more tips from the experts see http://www.metrowize.com/articles/top-10-bay-to-breakers-tips
Interesting Facts and Figures
• Bay to Breakers is the 14th most run road race in the world and 4th longest consecutively run.
• As of 2009 over 2.2million people had participated in the event in its 98 years.
• 1940 saw the first female runner ‘Bobbie Burke’ participate disguised as a man now many men participate disguised as women
• In 1986 with 78,769 registered runners and 110,000 total participants, the Guinness Book of World Records awards Bay to Breakers the title of World’s Largest Footrace.
• In 2009 Sammy Kitwara of Kenya ties the world’s fastest time ever for 12k and sets a new course record with a time of 33:31
• 90,000 - number of recyclable water cups used per race (almost 10km of cups if placed end to end)
Air New Zealand have direct flights from Auckland International Airport, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings departing at 7.30pm, with return flights from San Francisco International Airport on the same days at 9.00pm PST/PDT (Pacific Standard Time - Winter/Pacific Daylight Time/Summer) see www.airnz.co.nz for full flight information or to make a booking.
Remember even though NZ is a member of the Visa Waiver Programme you will need to register your impending arrival online prior to leaving NZ to ensure you are granted entry into the USA.
Carry on after Bay to Breakers
1) Balboa Cafe - 3199 Fillmore Street, http://www.balboacafe.com/plumpjackbalboacafe/sf.aspx?loc=sf , Don’t let the fancy decor and refined website fool you this place cranks in the evenings.
2)Kozy Car - 1548 Polk Street, http://www.mazeltovproductions.com/ . What other bar has porn clips laced with the regular TV clips on screen, blink for a little too long and you miss it but its there all the same and that’s only the beginning of the uniqueness of this place. imagine it could be full of weirdo’s from time to time but definitely worth a look.
Get to a live comedy show if you can, Alcatraz is great on a really misty dull day, you get the real atmosphere, try Bodin Bakery’s Clam Chowder in San Francisco sour dough, they have many outlets so Google maps should give you the best option. Take a wander through the mission district any of you art lovers and boarder line hippies will surely unearth some of the hidden gems tucked away within the art deco streets and gentrified buildings.
Author: Mark Wilson
Photos: Mark Wilson/Melinda Hoffart
© Mark Wilson 2010. For information on reproduction of this article and or images or for information on how to purchase the rights to publish Mark's work please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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