The Brief and Interesting History of Bay to Breakers

by Lara Rosenbaum
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The Brief and Interesting History of Bay to Breakers

Every year on the third Sunday of May, thousands of superheroes, space aliens and clowns take to the San Francisco streets for a fun — and sometimes grueling — 7.47-mile road race. Yep, we’re talking about the annual Bay to Breakers Run, one of San Francisco’s most well-known and novel traditions, which was once so popular, it landed in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1986 as the world’s biggest footrace, with 110,000 participants.

While Bay to Breakers is known as a seriously good time, it’s still a serious run. The 12K course starts near The Embarcadero, winds west through the city — including up the tough Hayes Hill — and finishes at Ocean Beach. Hayes Hill itself has become the stuff of legend, hitting runners near Mile 2, and reaching an 11-degree pitch at its steepest point.

These days the registration count hovers around 40K (and police started cracking down on public nudity and drunkenness in 2009), but that doesn’t make the race any less special. So how did it all start?

MORE THAN A CENTURY AGO…

In 1912, San Francisco launched the Cross City Race to help boost morale after the devastation wrought by the 1906 earthquake. Nearly 200 runners strode through the start, but only 121 finished. Bobby Jackson won the race in 44:10 minutes — speedy, considering the current record is only 11 minutes faster at 33:31, held by Kenya’s Sammy Kitwara.


“While Bay to Breakers is known as a seriously good time, it’s still a serious run.”


The Bay to Breakers race’s popularity continued to grow over the years, and in 1940, a runner dressed as Captain Kidd crossed the finish line wearing a costume. Even though the comic character came in last, he birthed a trend: In time, more and more runners began to dress up, and in 1992, the race held its first official costume contest.


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Bay to Breakers boasts another quirky component which started in 1978: The Centipede Division. Race participants can register as a group of 13, and run connected to one another as a unit. The division has become quite competitive, with finish times close to those of individual winners.

Whether you decide to walk the course to the coast and shoot selfies amidst the revelry and costumes, or run for a record, you’ll surely enjoy becoming part of history. The Bay to Breakers has something for everyone, even if you simply decide to spectate. See for yourself on Sunday, May 21.

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