Thursday, May 23, 2002

Bay to Soakers

This past weekend, I participated in one of San Francisco's finest traditions – the annual Bay to Breakers footrace. This tradition started back in 1912, as a way to lift the spirits of the City's residents, battered by the devastating 1906 earthquake. The race made the Guiness Book of World Records in the 1980s for the largest footrace – 110,000 participants. This year, I joined 55,000 of my closest friends in this wild and wacky yearly event.

The total distance of the trail, from the Bay to the ocean, is 7.46 miles (12km). But it is so much more than just a run/walk through the City. The proceeds benefit local non-profit organizations dedicated to helping inner-city families. Participants dress in wild and wacky costumes, and compete for the best costume prize. Groups of 10 or more string together under a costume to form centipedes, and race one another like that. Many runners choose not to wear a costume – or anything at all for that matter. Only in San Francisco can they get away with it !

I arrived in the City on the BART train 10 minutes before start time. Already the streets were completely packed with hollering, cheering crowds in all sorts of funny attire. I walked beside a man in a wedding dress and veil, and another man completely covered head to toe in blue paint. For the occasion, I wore my purple and black jester hat with the bells on the ends of the tentacles, and a multi-colored polka-dotted jacket that Diana gave me about a decade ago. It fit right in with the craziness and mayhem of this crowd.

Many races start off with the release of confetti, balloons, and other such traditional items. The items of choice for Bay to Breakers ?

Tortillas !!!!

Yes, as the race began, thousands and thousands of people flung an endless supply of tortillas in the air and onto other patrons. As tortillas landed at our feet, we picked them up and threw them again, frisbee-style. When thrown right, these things fly like the wind. An unfortunate car got stuck in the crowd in the middle of the intersection of Misson and Spear. As a gesture of peace, would-be racers gently placed tortillas on the car's hood and windshield.

Tortillas fly REALLY well !!!

Because of the slow-moving crowd, it took half an hour for me to reach the starting line and meet with the Weight Watchers folks I had arranged to walk with. Together, we set out on the 7 ½ mile journey through the neighborhoods of San Francisco. We joined the thousands of others at the 'Back of the Pack Club' – the club dedicated to those who wish nothing more than a leisurely walk across the City, taking in all the sights.

We saw a string of people dressed in all white, with bathing caps, and shirts that said "Fallopian Tube Swim Team". There was a group of salmon who purposely ran in the wrong direction - upstream. One group had a Coit Tower, Golden Gate Bridge and Transamerica Tower sculpture and walked around as San Francisco. I saw quite a few groups with floats or shopping carts with kegs and even barbecues, obviously being dragged across the City for a celebration in Golden Gate Park. And of course, who could forget those who walked with nothing more than the smiles on their faces and their running shoes.

On the Bay to Breakers website, it specifically states that running without clothes is not allowed and that violators would be cited. But who would really want to cite them? Running 'au naturel' is a B2B tradition. Unfortunately, it is usually only practiced by the old, wrinkly, overweight men. Never any women, and rarely any good-looking guys. I saw a guy with the Jack in the Box styrofoam head and hat, and nothing else.

I also saw a guy with only a Roots Canada hat, a cycling shirt, and running shoes. A naked Canadian – how cute!

I did see one guy that ranked pretty high on the eye candy level, but he scared the heck out of me. He had a piercing in a place that you don't really want to know about. Nobody seemed surprised.

As we processed through the streets of the City, and up the 6-block-long Hayes street hill, we passed rows and rows of 'painted ladies' – old Victorian houses, each painted a combination of beautiful colors. Many residents hung out on their balconies cheering on the parade. Several even had music piped out their windows for our entertainment. There was one particular balcony that stopped traffic for a short while – five Elvises, all grooving to dance music. What a sight to see!

Unfortunately, the weather was less than cooperative. It is very rare in this area for rain to appear after the month of April. Here it was, the middle of May, and an unseasonably cold and unstable weather front it the Bay Area just in time for the event. It was 15-20F colder than normal. What started as a light sprinkle at 8am turned into a complete and utter downpour two hours later. By mile 5, I was totally drenched through all my clothing. The wind was whipping around, and it was COLD.

The last and final stretch in Golden Gate Park travelled alongside the Pacific Ocean. A beautiful sight to look at, but the nasty sea breeze was unforgiving. I wanted to take pictures of the ocean, but I knew that I would probably sink into hypothermia if I stopped. I was already shivering, and my hands were so cold I couldn't open and close them properly. I took one picture, then hustled across the finish line.

I crossed the finish line, exhausted, but in one piece. I had walked 7.5 miles (with one potty break that I had to wait quite some time for) in under three hours. I had raised money for charity, and experienced the true spirit of San Francisco.

But I was cold. I decided I would pick up my free t-shirt then head back home. To retrieve my free t-shirt, I had to walk to the large gathering area.

Over a half a mile away.

Who was the genius who put the finish line over a half-mile from the concert, free t-shirts, port-a-potties and food vendors ? What utter cruelty ! Luckily it was mostly downhill to the site.

I made a pit stop at one of the long line of outhouses. I figured it would be somewhat difficult to pull down and up my pants, rather like a soaked swimsuit. Little did I know the difficulty would not lie in that action.

I couldn't undo the button on my pants.

My hands were so cold I couldn't clasp them properly to grab the button. I literally did not have the strength in my hands to manipulate the button through the hole. I stood there for about 5 minutes pulling and fighting with the darn thing, meanwhile my bladder was just BURSTING ! I even tried to RIP the button off, to no avail. Finally I was able to guide it through the hole and relieve my internal organs.

No, I didn't do it up again when I was finished. That darned thing stayed unbuttoned !

The bus shuttle service from the park took us back to the start line, which was a half-hour ride through the congested streets of the City. Standing room only, of course. The heater was on full-blast, but since all my clothes were soaked, I was shivering uncontrollably. When I boarded BART, I couldn't find a seat that didn't have the HVAC system blowing air on me. I shivered for the entire one-hour ride to the end of the line. Of course, my BART ticket was ruined from the rain, so the train operator let me go through the gates for free. How very kind of her.

I cranked the heater to maximum for the 20-minute drive home. When I arrived, I jumped in the shower, and literally ran the hot water tank empty warming myself up. A nice big bowl of my homemade soup (Mom's wonderful recipe) and a 2-hour nap, and I was brought back to life. A friend of mine who volunteered at the Red Cross station at the finish line told me that they treated no less than 80 people for hypothermia that day. Scary.

Bay to Breakers was so much more than a walk across the City. It was a view into the wilder side of the City's culture. It was a way to raise money for a good cause. It was a personal challenge to walk farther than I ever have before. And it was a lesson in perserverence through even the toughest of conditions. I have no doubt that this will be a yearly tradition of mine. But next time, I'll check the forecast first.
A professional company took photographs of all the walkers and runners at Mile 6. I will definitely be ordering some when they become available. Stay tuned !


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