How Bay to Breakers Works

Bay to Breakers Traditions

One hundred years of competition would create an institution out of any race, but the unique traditions of the Bay to Breakers make it one of the world's greatest events. After the serious competitors disappear down the avenue, the streets come alive with a carnival atmosphere that's not always what you'd call "family-friendly." It's a race that few American cities, aside from San Francisco, could pull off.

Perhaps the most popular tradition is the costumes. In 1940, a man dressed as Captain Kidd crossed the finish line last but became the first runner to don a costume. The trend became increasingly popular through 1992, when the first costume competition was held. Those wearing certain costumes have created traditions all their own, like the pack of Elvises who try to keep pace with the elite runners as the race first begins. While some participants wear more clothing as a part of their elaborate costumes, some prefer to wear less. Nudity, though not technically allowed, is usually overlooked during the Bay to Breakers.

Other traditions involve particular techniques for running the race. One such custom is "centipede" racing, first introduced to the Bay to Breakers by UC Davis track athlete Dwayne "Peanut" Harms in 1978. Centipedes consist of 13 runners who run the length of the race while connected to one another. Although this tradition may seem silly, don't be fooled: the competition is very serious. The Reebok Aggies set the men's course record in 1990 with a time of just 37 minutes, 39 seconds [source: Bay to Breakers]. Another, more light-hearted, race technique is practiced by participants dressed like salmon, who -- you guessed it -- run "upstream," or against the flow of the other runners.

But the wacky customs don't stop there. At the beginning of the race, runners toss tortillas into the air like Frisbees. Festive floats pulled by participants roll down the street (though these have recently been contained to a 1.2-mile, 1.9-kilometer, stretch east of the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park). Despite efforts to curb or eliminate alcohol consumption from the race, beer, wine and mixed drinks flow freely in the streets. The day is capped by Footstock, a finish-line celebration with music, food and drinks for race participants. These are just a few of the traditions that make the Bay to Breakers a truly unique experience, even for San Francisco.

Ready to lace up your running shoes and head to San Francisco? The following section will tell you how to get started.