After a pandemic-induced break, San Francisco’s annual Bay to Breakers race returns Sunday, complete with unicorns, salmon, “Star Wars” characters and an Elvis or two running 7 miles across stretches of San Francisco.
The race, which is being held for the first time since 2019, couples the extravagance of Mardi Gras with The City’s penchant for theatrics.
With an eclectic mix of long-distance and recreational runners, a highlight of the race are the costumes worn by participants making a dash — or , in some cases, leisurely jog — to the ocean.
Once the head of the pack — usually competitive long-distance runners and elite athletes — depart the Embarcadero and head for Ocean Beach, the absurdity rolls in like Karl the Fog. However, these theatrics were not always so commonplace.
Bay to Breakers was founded in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake as a way of lifting spirits. Now the event is a beacon for people far and wide.
In 1982, former race director Terri Tiffany, who oversaw the race’s biggest boom in runners, organized a contest to spark participants’ creativity. Her initiative was a hit and it wasn’t long before costumes became commonplace.
The race is now under the organization of the Capstone Event Group, but is no less a spectacle. “It’s not like any other race that I’m familiar with,” said Casey Bailey, a spokesperson for Capstone. “It’s fun, it’s wacky, it’s weird. It really embraces all of San Francisco and its people.”
As costumes flourished, the centipede followed suit.
Making its debut in 1978, the centipede was a makeshift costume of black plastic, wire antennae and foam balls, and linked 13 athletes from the Aggies track club at UC Davis. The athletes ran at 6-minute-mile pace and finished in the top 100. They spawned a trend of units that saw everyone from naked joggers held together by nothing but string to a team which carried a stuffed lobster for the race’s duration.
The race is now an electric blend of live music, entertainment and, most of all, racing.
“There’s always a sense of excitement,” said Bailey. “People just want to come and run and have fun and be part of the Bay to Breakers spirit.”
Canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, this year’s Bay to Breakers teems with extra excitement. “People are ready to get back out,” said Bailey.
Chamila Amithirigala, a spokesperson for the Golden Gate Running Club, said the race embodies the essence of her organization. “We’re one of the more casual running clubs in The City,” said Amithirigala. “Bay to Breakers is perfect for what we want. We can go run and we can have fun.”
The Golden Gate Running Club will have two centipedes on Sunday: The first consists of a pack of dinosaurs carrying a speaker while the second promotes an ‘Animals Gone Wild’ theme.
“I definitely just want to take it in because it’s gonna be my first Bay to Breakers,” said Amithirigala. “I’m definitely gonna take it slow. I wanna enjoy everything and pause and see what everybody’s doing.”