This is the fourth year that I’ve walked Bay to Breakers, sometimes known as the original cross-city race, in San Francisco. I thought it would be fun – and, I hope, interesting – to share this year’s experience and a few pictures. It was the 101st running of the event and the 100th anniversary of the first B2B in 1912. (Last year there was a lot of publicity around the 100th running of the race.) As the name implies, this venerable footrace starts at the San Francisco Bay near the Embarcadero and crosses the city, ending at the Pacific Ocean’s Ocean Beach. The GPS track shows the cross-city route.
The official distance is 12 km, which corresponds to 7.46 miles, though my GPS always reports a slightly longer distance. There are multiple timing stations at both the start and finish lines, and I’ve never quite figured out whether I trigger my GPS at the wrong timing station, I add some extra distance due to weaving in and out to maneuver around slower walkers, my GPS is slightly inaccurate, or all of the above.
Over the years Bay to Breakers earned a well-deserved reputation as a raucous moving street party. Recently the organizers have attempted to tone down the most raucous characteristics, banning public intoxication and floats (many of which were reputed to include large containers of adult beverages). There is still a party atmosphere with many participants in costume, both traditional (from birthday suits to tutus) and topical (e.g. last year’s Royal Wedding and this year’s America’s Cup).
This year’s participation was only about half of last year’s. When I arrived at the start area with my two walking mates an hour before the 7am gun start, it was practically deserted. There was plenty of time to walk the short two blocks across the Embarcadero to Pier 2 next to the Ferry Terminal and watch the sun rise over the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge.
As the start time neared, more runners and walkers arrived. And as the start corrals gradually filled, beach balls and the traditional tortillas started flying through the air. I don’t know the origin of the tortilla toss, but I must say I’m glad I don’t have to clean up the street in the start area.
The route heads across the downtown area parallel to Market Street, then crosses Market and makes a turn onto Hayes Street toward the famous Hayes Street Hill, surely a highlight of this event. First, though, while starting up Hayes Street within sight of the hill, I was lucky to be walking over toward the left side of the street when the salmon came through. A famous aspect of Bay to Breakers is centipedes, a group of runners connected either by direct touch or by a string or a continuous costume. The salmon are a well-known centipede, but they start at the finish line and run “upstream” to the start line. They go pretty fast, so if you’re not looking it’s possible to miss them entirely.
This year I was close enough to be able to participate in the high fives. For reference, this was about 45 minutes past the gun start. It didn’t take the salmon 12 minutes to start their run, like it took for my friends and me to get to the start line, but they had already completed about 5.5 miles of their route.
The Hayes Street Hill is said to be one of the top 2 epic racing hills in the United States. The elevation profile shows why.
I consider “the hill” to be the steep portion from Laguna St to Pierce St and Alamo Square at the top. Every year I am impressed at the continuous stream of humanity heading up the hill.
As the street got steeper the crowd around me slowed down. The street seemed to get more crowded as we proceeded up the hill.
The hill (the steep part) is only 5 blocks long, but with a 180-foot elevation gain in about 0.46 miles. That works out to about a 7.5% average grade. However, the cross streets are flat, so the part between cross streets is actually a bit steeper. For a hiker this is no big deal, but runners – and walkers who haven’t been hill training – consider it to be a real challenge.
After cresting the Hayes Street Hill it’s not quite all downhill to the finish. The route proceeds downhill 70 feet or so, a little less steeply than the ascent, then climbs again more gradually into Golden Gate Park (at the top of the second rise at about 4 miles on the elevation profile). The walk through the park is more serene. It goes along John F. Kennedy Drive past several landmarks. Along the way there is a designated area where runners and walkers can stop in and participate in the ongoing costume contest. Also, there was a band playing energetic music to a backdrop of pink palm trees.
Just after passing the famous Dutch Windmill the route comes to the Great Highway along the ocean.
Just a quarter of a mile away is the finish line. As is evident from the pictures, the weather was simply spectacular. Though it was cool at the start I felt comfortable to remove and stow away my long-sleeved shirt and complete the entire event in a tank top.
I knew from my unofficial time that I had finished very close to my stretch goal of 1 hr 45 minutes. When I got my official time later in the day and compared to last year’s official time, I was quite startled to realize that my time was only 27 seconds slower than last year. Considering that last year I was fully trained for a marathon just 2 weeks later, and this year I was less than 7 months past a hip fracture I was kind of amazed. The best part, though, was enjoying having a good time with my friends and feeling great afterward.