It’s forty years since I arrived in San Francisco. I had visited before, but now I would be living here. During that first year I learned of many of the strange traditions of the Bay Area. One of the first was Bay to Breakers. Thousands of people ran from the Bay downtown to the Breakers at Ocean Beach. Most of them were in costume. Many of them were naked. It was a rite of spring. It was a little bit of Halloween, without the edge.
The first Bay to Breakers was held in 1912. It was held to cheer up The City after the earthquake and fire. It must have been an exotic sight on the streets of San Francisco way back then. Not too many people ran for fun in those days.
Jogging and running exploded in the Seventies. The numbers of people running Bay to Breakers swelled. It was a more casual run than the “serious” marathons and other races. Like just about everything else in San Francisco in the Seventies it became a huge party. There were always serious runners at the head of the pack, but then came a thundering herd of costumed characters. At one time it was the largest race in the world.
Attendance swelled in the Disco days of the Seventies. It went well over one hundred thousand. Being a part of such a mass of humanity became almost the whole point. Runners were supposed to register, but many just jumped in and ran part of the course. People started coming from all over the country, all over the world, to run in Bay to Breakers.
There are certain events in San Francisco that become so popular that they get ruined. Some of the street fairs were the first victims of their own success. People avoid them because they’re just too crowded. Many locals don’t even consider going to the bigger events in San Francisco. The events do survive, but they’re not the same. As a Yogi once said, “No one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”
The race developed its own unique sense of humor. Most of the costumes were a bit comic. Politicians were skewered. People came dressed as the most recent disgraced celebrity. There were salmon, turtles and no shortage of bunny rabbits. Many ran the race in their pajamas. It’s hard to keep a straight face when a group of people run by in chicken costumes or tutus.
The race was family friendly, but youngsters did have to warned that there would be people running the race naked. I’m not sure when the naked, streaking thing started. Like most Bay to Breakers hijinks it probably started in the Seventies.
Most people run, have a good time and don’t create problems. The race always drew a crowd that was ready to party. As the years went by there seemed to be more alcoholic excess. After the serious runners had passed the rolling fraternity party came crashing by. There was chugging and keg stands. Rolling tiki bars kept runners refreshed. Hey, I’m the last guy to chastise the younger generations for having some stupid fun, but as years went by, the event did take a darker turn. It got a rougher edge. The Elvises started looking increasingly sinister.
The drink of choice was usually beer. If you’re drinking beer, you’re going to have to pee. People would use the bushes in Golden Gate Park. There was enough illicit urination going on that it did harm plants in the Park. More porta-potties lined the course, especially in Golden Gate Park.
Somewhere along the line people lost all inhibition and started relieving themselves anywhere along the race course, including the front steps of homes, front yards and doorways. I used to live near the Panhandle and witnessed this. Usually these kind of things happen at three o’clock in the morning in some darker part of town that seems reserved for it, like Broadway in North Beach on a weekend night.
After many complaints, the authorities acted. News articles warned that the police would be cracking down. It was decreed that there would be no alcohol at Bay to Breakers.
People scoffed. How are they going to do that? At first it seemed an almost impossible task. There was strength in numbers. It was a part of Bay to Breakers, the original flash mob.
There had been crackdowns before, but this was serious. The police set up sobriety checkpoints. Beers were poured out. The size of floats was limited. The rolling bars were banned. There were many more police along the route.
But mankind is ingenious when it comes to getting intoxicated. The first years of the crackdown the rolling bars just went farther along the course and joined groups later in the race. People used cell phones to locate and avoid the sobriety checkpoints. This crackdown was different. The police weren’t going away. The tide of rolling bars was checked. Civilization had come back to the Bay to Breakers.
I have run the entire course in the past, but I’ll admit that most of the time I’ve jumped in and joined it in progress. The race starts near the Ferry building and goes up Howard Street, past the Moscone Center. Visitors from out of town are amazed. “Does this happen all the time?” Oh yeah, we tell them. Just a normal Sunday in San Francisco.
The race does have its own challenges. Hayes Hill is the steepest part of the course. Spectators and media gather at Alamo Square at the top of the hill to watch the spectacle. It was impressive to see the hordes coming up the hill. Runners were triumphant. The rest of the race is downhill or flat.
The race had its own odd traditions. On Divisadero people from a house party threw water balloons from their roof. Most people didn’t mind getting wet, especially on a hot day. People along the route were on their front porch. Speakers were pointed out the windows. It would be eight or nine o’clock in the morning, but many of the neighbors were ready to party.
This year I’d start watching the race in Golden Gate Park and walking against the grain, like the group of runners in salmon costumes who run “upstream to spawn.” When I got to Golden Gate Park there was a blaring announcement that the first runners would be arriving in twenty minutes. There were some spectators lining the course. I usually didn’t get to this point in the course until much later in the day. Early joggers went by. They were getting their workout in before the hordes descended.
We could tell where the first runners were by the black helicopter hovering over them. As the helicopter got closer we could hear some cheering. Police motorcycles spanned John F. Kennedy Drive and made sure the course was clear.
It’s still impressive to see the first runners. These are the competitive runners actually trying to win the race. They always look like they’re starving to death. The pack of skinny runners is past in a flash. Most of them are from Kenya. The $25,000 prize money will go far when they get home. There’s one guy in the lead and then a pack of about ten. There’s another gap and then about ten runners go by.
More of the competitive runners pass. These runners don’t expect to win, but they want to record a good time. The serious runners were quiet. People in the crowd cheered them on and yelled encouragement.
Then I realized how quiet it was. There were no bands set up! It’s one of the main reasons I got to this event. Bands of varying talent would set up along the course and play. Most of them were amateur Garage bands, but there would also be professionals playing and advertising their bands. Today no bands were set up. Was this another part of the new Bay to Breakers?
Some would set up in the garages along Fell Street. Runners who had just conquered the Hayes Street Hill would be pumped up. They had made it to the Park. The music energized them. There was a synergy. Classic Rock tunes gave the runners enough energy to stop and dance.
The neighborhood must have put a stop to the bands on the garages along the Panhandle, but why not let them play in Golden Gate Park? Was it too loud and too early for some of the neighbors?
I came across a tent with a large sign on it: “Sobriety Tent #3.” Medical personnel and police stood outside. They were wondering how much business they’d get today. They seemed to be bracing for the absurdities ahead.
There are a million stories in the Bay to Breakers. Most people just run the race, but in a San Francisco crowd this big there are always bizarre little incidents. I do tend to dwell on them. Most of the runners just run, but the strange always stands out.
The first costume of the day was a guy in a banana costume. A group on the sidelines chanted, “Bana-na! Bana-na!” Then a guy in kilts ran by. There were a pair of Mario Brothers, right out of the video game. More and more runners were dressed up. Some just ran in their pajamas. It was early. There were vampiric nurses. Chickens.
There hadn’t been any political statements yet. It was a bit surprising for an election year. Then a Bernie Sanders centipede went by. They were “Running for Bernie.” Later I saw a clever couple dressed as Hilary and Trump. They were in campaign mode and waved to the crowd. The woman really did look like Hilary.
It was a surprising scene near the Conservatory of Flowers. There was no scene! This is where there used to be a costume contest. TV media loved the shots with the Conservatory in the background. The flower beds around the Conservatory had string fences around them. “Keep Off the Flowers.”
A runner was inside a large manga anime character. It was about eight feet tall and towered over the other runners. It was the largest costume so far. A guy who was watching the race, ran out from behind the cyclone fence barricade. He jumped up and smashed into the manga character. It may have been a misguided high five, but it looked a bit malicious to me. He went back to a small group of his cronies and they had a good laugh. It was hard to tell his intent, if there was any. Was it a bit of twisted Bay to Breakers hooliganism?
I headed into the Panhandle. Fell Street used to be party central. More centipedes went by. One of them had a male runner in the front and in the back. In between there was a group of linked, inflatable women bobbing up and down. It was pretty bizarre, even for Bay to Breakers. “Mommy, what’s that?”
There are always at least a couple of dorks who dribble a basketball across the race course. I have to give them credit. Dribbling for seven miles is pretty impressive. There was the inevitable Steph Curry tribute. A brave soul was carrying a home made basketball goal on his back. Others in his party shot hoops as the portable court traveled along the course.
Mobile traffic barriers had been set up along Fell Street. Jumping into the race had been discouraged in recent years. There was a clearer barrier between the race and the spectators. A guy in long hair and a robe was next to the barrier with a sign. “Jesus Loves High Fives.” The sign had the heart symbol for the word “Loves.” Runners laughed and gave him a high five. A few really got into the joke. “I LOVE YOU JESUS!” they yelled sincerely as they ran by.
I took a picture. Someone threw a foul looking concoction on Jesus! It did look brown and nasty. It was a Bay to Breakers mob moment. As soon as you realize something has happened, the perpetrator has run on in the mass of people. It’s impossible to figure out who did it. Jesus moved away from the barrier. Someone yelled to him. “That sucks, man!” Jesus said yeah. He turned and went into an apartment building on Fell to clean up.
So what happened? Was the juice thrower so offended by the joke that he just reacted and threw the juice or whatever it was? Did he consider the joke too blasphemous? Like most Bay to Breakers incidents it was over in a minute. The race went on. The human tidal wave continued.
There was a group of about ten people in cheerleading outfits. They looked very wholesome. I wondered what was the catch? What was the punch line? Above the logo on their chests it said, “Team Fuck It Up.” Were they poking fun at the rah-rah of corporate cheerleading? Maybe they were mocking a feel good workshop they had been forced to attend?
The mass of runners was becoming more dense. I took a break on a park bench. There weren’t many people running naked. Most years you couldn’t count them all. There had been veiled threats that nudism would be discouraged, but I didn’t see anyone being hassled about it. This was a city where it was technically legal to walk down the street naked, as long as you weren’t lewd and lascivious.
A little further on in Golden Gate Park I could hear someone yelling through a bullhorn. The evangelical rant became clearer. “You’re all sinners!!! You’re all headed to hell!!! Fornicators!!! You’re all a victim of your carnal desires!” One guy constantly reminded us of the eternal damnation we were all headed for. Another held a campaign style sign on a tall post. “Jesus Saves From Hell,” one said. I half expected a punch line, but these guys were serious. Very serious. The back of the sign said: “Repent or Perish.”
The guy with the megaphone held up a bigger sign that listed our sins. “Warning: Fornicators. Thieves. God Haters. Drunkards. Adulterers. Liars. Homosexuals. Judgement.”
Except for the bullhorns and the signs, they would have fit into just about any crowd with their blue jeans and baseball caps. One of them constantly harangued the passing masses through the bullhorn. “You’re all sinners!!! You’re all headed to hell!!! Fornicators!!! You’re all a victim of your carnal desires! You’re all slaves of Satan!” Yeah. Slaves of Satan. Pretty cool I thought, “Yeah, slaves of Satan!”
As obnoxious as they were I decided to stay for a while and see what happened. Because of its wild reputation evangelists have always been drawn to San Francisco. It must be tempting to be the one who can convert those living in Sodom and Gomorrah. This was real grass roots evangelism.
I was surprised that they weren’t getting much reaction from the passing Slaves of Satan. Runners seemed surprised and just ran past them without comment. Maybe people were trying to conserve energy at this point. The guy with the megaphone poured it on. We were all going to hell unless we accepted the word of Jesus. Bay to Breakers participants were very evil people. I gave him another sarcastic cheer. “Yeah!”
Most figured it best to ignore them, but some runners started flipping the preachers off, giving them the old middle finger saute. A naked guy posed with their signs. More people started yelling back at them. Most people just kept running. A couple of evangelists wasn’t the most unusual sight in San Francisco. There are a million Bay to Breakers stories.
The event is changing. It did get too obnoxious. There’s still that unique, sometimes bizarre Bay to Breakers humor. It’s a day in San Francisco when you can run down the main street in town and be almost whoever you want. Where else can you do that?