Notes From Bay to Breakers

Over the past weekend, the 2010 Bay to Breakers race/saturnalia took place in downtown San Francisco. I ran the race, took part in the madness, and lived to tell about it. If you’re considering running or attending Bay to Breakers, this post may be of use to you.

The race starts at a point a couple blocks inland from the San Francisco Bay, and runs for 12 kilometers across the city, ending on the Great Highway, just before the beach. The name of the race is blatantly inaccurate, but “Just Inland From the Bay to Not Quite at the Ocean” is a lot less catchy, in addition to being more difficult to fit on a running bib.

If you’re truly interested in a competitive race, Bay to Breakers may not be for you. Oh sure, it attracts a few Kenyans, but the ratio of competitive runners to overall participants is miniscule. If you don’t run in the elite group, or perhaps the A or B groups right after, you’re in for a long seven and a half miles of trying not to step on other people. The C group where we started was utter bedlam, and tortillas were flying everywhere. That’s not a euphemism1 – people bring and throw thousands of soft tortilla shells at one another. The subsequent D and E groups only get worse, as far as running goes.

For tens of thousands of casual runners, as well as those who probably wouldn’t even run to catch a bus, Bay to Breakers is simply an event. There are thousands of participants dressed in fantastic costumes, from Avatards to Waldos and everything in between.2 Perhaps the best costume was this guy dressed as a dog, but a close runner-up was the knights from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. They ran in a mimed riding style, shouted a litany of movie quotes, and had a porter behind them banging coconut shells, for the entire race. Dedication!

My friends and I dressed as ninjas, because a long-sleeve, long-pants all-black costume replete with a full head mask is the perfect get-up for a long road race. Far from dying of heat exhaustion as we intended, however, the costumes kept us warm on a cold day. Many believe San Francisco is part of California, but its weather is clear proof that this is simply not so.

If you choose to run a race as a ninja, you’re sure to get plenty of cheers. When someone calls out “Ninjas!”, a quick turn of the head coupled with a “Shh” gesture is a great crowd pleaser. Squinting also works well for photographers, and skulking up behind other runners often has great results. While everyone loves ninjas, it’s now clear that white people love ninjas the most. More specifically, they love the “Strictly for my ninjas!” catchphrase, probably because it’s the closest they can get to saying that other N word.

Instead of donning costumes, a small number of participants take part in Bay to Breakers naked. Perhaps this sounds appealing to you. If so, this must be because you haven’t looked around you lately. People are, by and large, disgusting, and the participants in Bay to Breakers are no different. Unfortunately, far too many of these grotesque specimens of humanity ascribe to the philosophy of “If you don’t got it, flaunt it anyway”. The best plan is to simply keep your eyes unfocused and always moving, because a blurry glance at an old man’s equipment as it flops around is really the most your cerebral cortex can handle.

As the race winds down, the rolling party takes over, growing especially large near a park known as the Panhandle. At this point, the shift from serious running to serious drinking is complete. Thousands upon thousands of people simply walk up the street along the race course, modeling their outfits, showing off their floats, and imbibing alcohol with wanton disregard for unenforced open container laws. After walking with this mass for a bit, I am now able to scientifically verify that Mitch Hedberg was right when he said “If you’re watching a parade, make sure you stand in one spot. Don’t follow it, it never changes.”3

Many participants enjoy mind-altering substances and drinks during the event. For instance, according to one observer, “that midget was wasted”! Prior to the event, four young men passing by in a beat-up Honda Civic beeped their horn and rolled down a window, to share the secret that they were, quote “so fucking high”, and it’s a certainty that they weren’t the only ones. When drinking, just remember that there are as many as 100,000 participants in the events, and under 1,000 portable toilets. Do the math, and you’ll see you probably will need to carry the 1.

Eventually the party ends, or at least spreads out across the city, and then the clean up happens. The course is shut down block by block, with police on motorcycles to clear out revelers, and street sweepers bringing up the rear. It’s impressive to see, but after a quick viewing, it’s time to find another party. The day is still young, and the world is your oyster, whatever the hell that means.

One last piece of advice though. Don’t attempt to have sex on the grass in a park. The slow clap I’ll start from the rooftop of an apartment overlooking the spot you’ve chosen has proven to be a real mood killer.


  1. What would that even mean? ↩︎

  2. Costumes beginning with “X”, “Y”, or “Z” are expressly prohibited. ↩︎

  3. At this time, I am unable to verify his conjecture that running in the opposite direction will fast-forward the parade. ↩︎