A century ago, an unknown newspaper copy boy ran the rain-slick cobblestone streets of San Francisco and became the first winner of the Cross City Race.
Fifty-six years after Bobby Vellou — Vlught in the official records — won the inaugural, a 5-year-old girl tucked her long hair in a wool stocking cap to pose as a boy and run in the all-male race. Mary Etta Boitano unofficially became the women’s winner in 1968 and would go on to win three straight races starting in 1974.
Both stories are illustrative of the 100-year history of what is now known as Bay to Breakers. The race has undergone change after change into what it is today, a free-spirited and often booze-fueled celebration of San Francisco culture.
And while the future of the race is uncertain — neighborhood complaints and the loss of title sponsor ING threaten to end the massive footrace — organizers hope its rich past will keep it going for another century.
“It endured all of those years and never took a break,” Angela Fang, general manager of Bay to Breakers, said Saturday. “It survived two World Wars and the Depression. We believe there’s going to be another 100 years.”
At a small ceremony Saturday, Boitano and Vellou’s grandson, Bob Burnett, displayed the trophies of the past. The very first trophy, a polished sterling-silver cup, will be on display in San Francisco.
Burnett isn’t a runner himself, but he will try it out for the first time this year. He isn’t too concerned about keeping up with the pace after doing some research on the race.
“It looks like they’re doing a lot of shuffling rather than running,” he said.
Boitano, who doesn’t run competitive races very often, says she may try the race out this year too, but don’t count on her posing as a man. Even in 1968, spectators would drink alcohol and watch the race on the sidelines, although Boitano remembers them looking like homeless people.
“They would say, ‘Look at that boy run,’ and I would be very upset,” she said. “Then I’d take off my hat and say, ‘I’m a girl.’”
Alcohol and floats won’t be allowed at the 100th running of the Bay to Breakers, Fang said. Registration will be limited to 50,000 runners and only registered participants will be permitted on the race course.
She expects registration will sell out by April. The race is May 15.
AEG, organizer of Bay to Breakers, shares the same owners as Clarity Media, which oversees The San Francisco Examiner.
Bay to Breakers
When: May 15
Length: 12 kilometers (7.46 miles)
To register: baytobreakers.com