Runn-ING Upstream: San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers, by Jennifer Sterling

You’ve found us! We’re the fools who run the Breakers-to-Bay race each year, in our annual pilgrimage to spawn! Coincidentally, a bunch of humans run the Bay-to-Breakers race on the same day along the same route, but sadly they run it backwards.



Although road races are a common occurrence year-round, summer brings a host of options for a variety of skill and dedication levels. This past 4th of July weekend alone boasted over 50 races according to one of many on-line race listings (http:/ From California to Pennsylvania, 5Ks, half and full marathons, and triathlons sponsored by a variety of civic and corporate groups benefit a number of causes. Assisting annually in the kick-off to the summer season the third Sunday of May, is Bay to Breakers in San Francisco. A race I was able to experience (as a spectator) for the first time this year. 

Formerly know as the Cross City Race and currently entitled ING Bay to Breakers, the race is a 12K (7.46 mi) run. As the names suggest, the race is run, quite literally, across the city between the bay and the ocean. Winding from east to west the course cuts through hilly San Francisco from downtown (Embarcadero) to the Pacific Ocean (Ocean Beach). The race boasts a number of significant distinctions. Began in 1912, the race is the world’s longest consecutively running footrace. The race also set a Guinness Book record in 1986 with 110,000 participants, 31,231 whom were not registered. As the Bay to Breakers website ( explains, the run “isn’t just a race for the serious runner”. In addition to its other notables, the race is well-known for it’s party atmosphere created by large numbers of usually unregistered participants who complete the race at a walk behind the runners, typically in costume, sometimes nude (although not technically allowed), and often pushing, pulling, and imbibing from self-fashioned alcohol-dispensing contraptions (also not technically permitted).

The significance of the race’s non-conformist approach and participants goes beyond its reflection of San Francisco’s liberal culture. By not running, participating in non-traditional or ‘inappropriate’ (i.e. non-wicking) running attire (costumes or nothing at all), drinking, and not officially registering for the corporate (ING) sponsored event the ‘runners’ are resisting increasingly commercialized and managed fitness, recreation, and health spheres and utilizing the race for their own purposes. Rather than an achievement-based or philanthropic goal, many of the race’s participants ‘compete’ in the race to party (a.k.a for fun).

Walking instead of running is one of the more obvious anomalies evident in the race. Although walkers can and do register for the race, and are increasingly becoming a category of registrants in many footraces, the pack of costumed partygoers at the back of the race choose not to run as a non-conformist practice; even if they are dressed as runners, as many of this year’s Juno-esque costumed participants were. Signs hoisted by one of the costumed groups reflect this sentiment as well, reading “These colors don’t run”, “Running: Bulimia for Yuppies”, “CANKLE: Citizens Against Need-Less Kinetic-Led Energy”, “Secondhand Running Kills”, and “Running is a Gateway Drug”.

The themes of costumed participants, usually cobbled together in groups, often incorporate current and historical events and popular culture, which regularly integrate sporting references. For example, multiple groups of Juno runners, a couple of “Semi-Pro” packs, and both Soviet and U.S. factions from the Cold War Games as well as a Beijing-bound Olympic ping-pong team were on hand this year. Other themed costume groups are nonsensical (i.e. superman bunnies, garden gnomes, a box of donuts) or can be the result of motifs planned around the choice of beverage transport (i.e. Viking ships, NASA spaceships, lifeguard stands).

Neglecting to register for the race, many of the costumed participants do not, then, pay the registration fee, or contribute requested donations to one of the race’s local beneficiaries and causes – i.e. Breathe California (lung cancer), Spark (Bay Area Youth organization), The Children’s Charity Club at George Washington High School (cancer). Nor are the non-registered participants monitored or managed in the same way as the registered runners and walkers. They have no timing chip or number affixed to their bodies, and skirt, or outright defy, rules laid out by race officials such as no drinking.

Regardless of some of the participant’s commitment to not physically exerting themselves, there is a fair amount of physicality involved in their participation. Not only in the mimicking of sporting events and persons (fictional or otherwise) but in the actual transport of their bodies and alcohol up and down the steep terrain of San Francisco. There is no set time to completion however, nor a necessity to complete the race, and those at the rear of the race often stop mid-road for a chat or drink, or along the route for a party. The Bay to Breakers party atmosphere is also ‘officially’ encouraged through designated spectating areas (i.e. the ING Cheering Zone and Neighborhood Block Party at Alamo Square) and a finish line festival and concert (ING Footstock). The success of the race, year after year, is nurtured by an environment that respectfully allows for, and attends to, all forms of participation. Although there certainly are those that come out to spectate, or peer at the spectacle from apartments along the route (my vantage point in 2008; thanks, Chris!) most of the race is centered around participation. The lack of gawkers and camera-wielding tourists in favor of participation in the race in all its myriad forms is certainly a striking characteristic of Bay to Breakers and couldn’t exist without the flexibility of the race itself, and it’s host community, and certainly not without those willing to walk outside the box, or run upstream as the annual salmon spawn does. I look forward to returning to San Francisco and participating, not spectating, in a future Bay to Breakers.



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