Three women dressed as large vaginas pound the San Francisco pavement. A row of Elvises pee along a garden fence. A troop of Dolly Partons waves to a crowd while a mobile lap dancing bar complete with sofa and dancing pool is pushed up the steep incline at Hayes Street. Fluorescent ballerinas and some rather skinny rabbits chug from beer cans and limp toward the Golden Gate. There’s a red naked lady and a green naked guy. Over the years, the Bay to Breakers foot race has morphed into an athletic type of Mardi Gras with all the wildlife of San Francisco turning out every third Sunday in May to trudge the 7.5-mile (12km) route from South Beach to the Great Highway. The race is very much a free-for-all with up to 60,000 participants. It holds the record for being the largest run ever, with 110,000 people jogging across the city in 1986, a sizeable proportion of them naked or dressed as penguins. The race is a real thrill for participants and onlookers alike.
Not that the event lacks serious athletes. They kick off at 8am and finish the course within an hour. Kenyan runner Sammy Kitwara broke the record in 2009 with a time of 33 minutes, 31 seconds, limping off with a prize of $40,000. Then the rest of the day is surrendered to the boozy extroverts who turn out with shopping carts piled with beer kegs, mobile bouncy castles, and elaborate pirate boats. The “Back of the Pack Club” is a determined bunch of slackers who prefer to stroll rather than run and men dressed in togas and grass skirts add to the general hilarity. The race began in 1912 to lift the spirits of a city still recovering from the 1906 earthquake. One hundred-fifty runners competed in the first “Cross City.” Women were banned until the 1970s but that did not stop one Bobbie Burke completing the course in 1940 disguised as a man. That was also the first year to see a costume—a guy dressed as Captain Kidd who unfortunately came in last.
In the 1980s the event mushroomed into the monster event it is today with many now saying it has become too much of a monster. Residents along the route complain of vandalism and binge drinking and the general unpleasantness of watching overweight men run with no clothes on or observing a rather large bear pee in your front garden. Thirty-five tons of trash are left behind on the streets and whole floats abandoned at the end of the day have to be hauled off by the city to a kind of float cemetery. In 2009 the authorities decided to step in and banned beer, nudity, and floats. It caused uproar with a 25,000-signature petition and boycott campaign to keep the race weird. City Hall relented and the ban lifted. The San Franciscan right to wear body paint and little else is thus vindicated and it looks like the wild and wacky Bay to Breakers is here to stay. —CO’M
When to Go: Third Sun in May.
San Francisco International.
$$$ Omni San Francisco Hotel, 500 California St. ( 415/677-9494; www.omnihotels.com). $$ The Mosser Hotel, 54 4th St. ( 415/986-4400; www.themosser.com).