The Biggest Block Party

Bay to Breakers is an annual 12K race, starting downtown (bay) weaving through San Francisco to the beach (breakers). This year the organizers expected over 70,000 registered runners. That’s a lot of people.

We arrived downtown a little after 7:30 am and slowly inched our way as close to the start line as possible. I held onto Laurie’s coat so that we wouldn’t get separated in the throngs of people. As we nudged forward into the crowd, I hesitantly asked, “Should we have a contingency plan in case we get separated? Or should we not have a plan to insure we don’t get separated?” We decided on the latter. We reached the point of absolute saturation, the point past no more movement was possible, though we were still blocks away from the start line. We settled in, waiting for the official gun to signal the start of the race. We admired the ingenuity of our fellow runners. See, this isn’t a normal foot race. It’s one in which there is also an official costume contest, and the costumes range the gamut from mild to outrageous. And for some odd reason, many runners also choose to run in the nude (mostly those that, in the interest of those around them, really should have something covering their bodies).

We didn’t hear the pop of the starting gun, but we did hear the tremendous wave of cheers and witnessed tortillas flying everywhere. The race’s beginning is traditionally marked by the tossing of tortillas. I had always thought of flour tortillas as being the “light” tortillas, but when one thumps you in the head its potential as a weapon hits you full force.

Even though the race had begun, we barely moved, sandwiched in between a father holding his 18 month old daughter to our left, a Campbell’s soup can behind us, and Little Red Riding Hood to our right. We shuffled with teeny tiny baby steps, willing the crowd to move, aching to stretch our legs and run. Twelve minutes later we actually passed the start line. The tv crews were filming; people lined the streets to watch. Cheers surrounded us. Less than a mile into the run, we heard the loud strains of the first rock and roll band along the route, the music adding to the festive atmosphere.

We wove our way in between walkers, runners, and baby strollers, trying to carve a path. We jogged around the massive floats people constructed to carry their kegs. In addition to the costumes and the nudists, there is also a lot of drinking in this race. In true San Francisco tradition – anything goes. We passed the fire station on Howard street, where the firemen gathered outside to watch the craziness that ensued. One of the kegger groups stopped in front of those fine, polished, uniformed men, offered a cheer to the SFFD, then chanted, “Fireman chug! Fireman chug!” When the firemen wouldn’t imbibe (though they did seem amused by the offer), the group did so for them, then continued the race.

As we rounded the corner onto Hayes Street, we were met by the shoal of 6 foot tall salmon, fighting their way against the crowd, running towards the start line. Runners laughed and pointed, then continued struggling up the one massive hill of the race. Both individuals and community groups set up tables along the way, passing out water, Gatorade, and lemonade to parched runners. As we ran by people of all ages cheered. “You can do it!” “Good job!” “Keep it up, runners!” Some friendly folks hooked up their garden hoses and misted us with water as we trudged along.

But all turned it into an occasion to celebrate. House parties were in abundance. Each group was completely entranced by the other. Non-runners gathered onto stoops and porches, watching the runners, relishing the creativity of the costumes; the runners slowed their pace a bit to check out the dancing and socializing going on at the parties. All waved to each other.

As we neared Golden Gate Park, almost the halfway point, we were met by another group running towards us, against the flow of traffic. Curious, I stared. We had already passed the famous salmon running upstream. Who could this be? I first noticed the long baguettes some were carrying, then the berets and the handlebar moustaches pasted on crookedly. Then I espied the words on the huge banner several of them were carrying, “No one runs like the French army!” I poked Laurie and we laughed, careful not to invoke side stitches as we ran along, our pace not determined by ourselves, but by the thousands of feet surrounding us, pounding the asphalt of Fell Street.

Once in the park, we saw the “Axes of Evil,” a group outfitted in all black, carrying rough medieval axes constructed of cardboard. We were surrounded by the land sharks with multi-colored giant fins atop their heads. We felt compassion for the pink lingeried group of men and women with the message, “Just another pink-slipped teacher.” We laughed at the older man mimicking the yuppies running while talking on their cell phones, holding a banana to his ear and shouting at someone across the way, “I can’t hear you! What was that? I can’t hear you…”

We crossed the finish line at Ocean Beach. We laughed, sprayed by the salty mist of the ocean yet warmed by the unusual rays that didn’t have to battle a dense fog to reach us. I’m not even sure of our time. It didn’t matter. I had regained something even better – the camaraderie conjured by the runners and the spectators, the epitome of what I miss every time I’m not here, the magic of San Francisco.

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