On Sunday morning, elite runners will toe the line on Howard Street for San Francisco’s most historic footrace. They’ll wear standard runner attire: breathable tank tops, sweat-wicking shorts, carbon-plated shoes and high-tech GPS watches. Behind the front row of serious athletes will be throngs of bib-wearing participants in atypical outfits—or no clothing at all —jovial and eager for the fun to get underway.
The lively scene is Bay to Breakers, the more than 100-year-old 12K race through the streets of its equally iconic city.
“Outside of maybe SF Pride, it’s probably one of the most San Francisco events out there,” says Kyle Meyers, Bay to Breakers race director.
The name succinctly conveys the start location and final destination. Participants initially gather by the Bay, near The Embarcadero, and make their way westward—speedily or casually—to the breakers of Ocean Beach, with the finish line on the Great Highway.
Meyers, race director since 2017, says, “There’s some very, very fast folks at the front, but I think what draws people to Bay to Breakers is the race route itself. I don’t think there’s anything like it.”
The first Bay to Breakers took place in 1912. Except for cancellations in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, the race has been going strong and attracting tens of thousands of participants. While technically dubbed a race, those familiar with Bay to Breakers know it’s more than that. It’s a one-of-a-kind San Francisco get-together with a strong celebratory, all-are-welcome vibe and emphasis on having a good time.
“I think if you can go and have fun in this event, that’s where you get the most out of it,” says Riya Suising, a past participant who plans to join the festivities again this year.
She adds, “It’s just like a gigantic block party in San Francisco. What I saw from last year’s participation was that it just brings out the best of the city.
“Especially when you get out towards the Panhandle area, it’s just really nice. … All the residents come out from the neighborhoods, and they’re all just having fun.”
The start area sets the stage for the traveling party that meanders toward the beach. Announcements and pump-up music blare through speakers while tens of thousands of individuals about to run or walk the 7.456-mile course dance, stretch, chat or head to porta potties one last time before entering corrals corresponding with their intended pace-per-mile. Some bide the pre-race time by throwing tortillas in the air, per Bay to Breakers tradition.
“No one’s really sure how that came about, but it’s been something that everybody does, and it’s a great way to kind of kick things off at the start line,” says Meyers.
One of Meyers’ favorite race day features is on Hayes Street. After the competitive runners make their way up and over the steep, somewhat lengthy incline known as Hayes Hill, volunteers in salmon costumes walk down it, “swimming upstream.”
It wouldn’t be Bay to Breakers without the salmon and other entertaining sites along the course, including centipede teams.
The 40-plus year tradition involves a team of 13 to 15 runners, joggers or walkers tied together with a bungee cord. Each team typically has a floater who runs with the team and can sub in for a team member if needed. Centipedes must follow certain guidelines, such as starting and crossing the finish line together to officially complete the race.
Suising, a San Francisco resident, was on the Dolphin South End Runners centipede team for her inaugural Bay to Breakers in 2022.
“It’s one of those things where, no matter what I say, you really don’t get it until you try it yourself. …You’re not going to know how it works until you run it and really feel what’s going on. You’re tethered between people, and you’re bouncing back and forth and yelling at each other, protecting each other, but also talking and chatting and yelling out cheer songs and things like that. So it’s pretty crazy,” says Suising.
Miles Smith is running Bay to Breakers for the first time this year, as part of the Peninsula Distance Club men’s centipede, which won the centipede division at the 2022 race, holding an impressive 5 minutes, 15 seconds pace per mile.
Smith shares, “My girlfriend actually did it [Bay to Breakers] last year and she described it as being over-the-top insane, not in terms of the race but in terms of just the experience and the people she saw there. She said it was a lot. So I thought, ‘Well, I definitely have to participate in this. I don’t want to just hear about it. I want to experience the Bay to Breakers energy.’”
Smith, who moved to San Francisco in the fall post-graduate studies at Stanford University, says his centipede team again will run Bay to Breakers competitively. And while he’s somewhat concerned about Hayes Hill, he’s confident they’ll do well.
“The goal is definitely to come back and defend our title. We’re in it to win it,” he says.
Whether going for a course or personal record, seeking a division win in the men’s, women’s or nonbinary individual runner or centipede categories, or being void of competitive ambitions and not caring about a “chip time” when crossing the finish line, most Bay to Breakers participants band together on the costume front.
From solo runners to groups who want to coordinate a fun look—and, of course, the centipedes—everyone is onboard with the costume extravaganza.
Suising and her DSE centipede team dressed as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at the 2022 Bay to Breakers. They’re still deciding whether they want to go with that same costume for the upcoming race or dress as bees instead.
The Peninsula Distance men’s centipede runners were Eggs Benedict last year, with a dozen “eggs” and one “benedict.” This year, the elite team is going as a bowling squad: “We’re going to rock some shades and a bowling shirt and a bowling glove, and we’re going to own it. We want to win, but we also want to express our creativity as a team,” says Smith.
Suising, Smith and their centipedes will join a massive number of runners and partygoers on Sunday. Meyers predicts close to 20,000 registered runners, plus the 30,000 or so who hop in for a mile or two and/or come out to spectate.
Fittingly, Bay to Breakers 2023 will feature Suzanne Ford, a runner who’s the San Francisco Pride executive director and first transgender woman to serve in the role, as its honorary starter. While Ford won’t be completing the course, her presence among the Bay to Breakers multitude is further cause for celebration.
As Meyers notes, “I think it’s very representative of this city, and it feels really good to have her at the starting line.”
Bay to Breakers 2023 begins at 8 a.m. May 21 at Howard and Main streets, San Francisco. To register (the fee for individuals is $80-$105), visit baytobreakers.com.