Not many cities would conceive of a footrace to promote its revival from ruin. But then, not many cities trace their beginnings to chasing an elusive dream.
As San Francisco readies itself for the 100th running of the Zazzle Bay to Breakers race today, it’s worth remembering how sturdy The City’s populace is despite the fact that the ground they tread on is so shaky.
The race started as a way to bolster San Francisco’s comeback from the ashes following the 1906 earthquake, a disaster so engulfing that it would have sent most normal folks fleeing to parts unknown, or at least Sacramento.
But it never happened; normal didn’t apply then or now. Those who lost their homes — which included my grandparents — returned to rebuild, reconstructing their lives from rubble. It’s the same spirit that drove people to come here against great odds to seek their fortunes in gold nearly 60 years earlier, when San Francisco went from a quaint village to a city of more than 200,000 in just three years.
There’s an intensity embedded in The City not often seen in its friendly, welcoming visage. And that may help explain part of its wild and wacky character that has evolved over the years, a place where the simplest events can get inverted.
Few things reflect San Francisco’s searing spirit as much as the Bay to Breakers race, a small civic endeavor that has transformed into an annual snapshot of a zany town celebrating itself.
“There’s always been a sense about the race that Halloween has come early,” said Gladys Hansen, who served as San Francisco’s historian for decades. “Every city needs something to pull the younger ones in as a way of remembering. The race builds on those shared memories.”
The way the race has evolved, imagine what it would have looked like back when it was just a small cross-town competition. If we were to apply today’s standards of frivolity and excess, some of the original runners would be costumed as Humpty Dumpty, with a group of centipede entrants dressed like The Wall — a broken city reveling in gallows humor.
Yet San Francisco was more straight-laced then. Gay still meant merry. Runners in this year’s race will be reminded along the 7.46-mile route that the city grew from a Victorian past. It wasn’t until 1940 that a female cross-dresser named Bobbie Burke entered the race because women back then weren’t allowed to participate. And it would be another 31 years before gender equality — at least for the B2B — became official.
In many ways, the race reflects The City’s own trends, both demographic and debauched. In 1963, back when long-distance running was mostly a sporting footnote, only 25 runners registered for the event. Twenty-three years later when running was a national fad, 110,000 people participated, making the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest footrace.
For city natives, it was something that they had to do at least once. But before long, it became a place for people simply to be — whether as exhibitionist, clown, soap-box champion or drunkard. It became “Beach Blanket Babylon” before the show existed, though more nude, crude and trashy.
Still, for better or worse, it became a tradition, and even it needed to be cleaned up, people have clung to it as if it were their last bottle. That’s why, in a city that will protest the existence of golf, it’s only natural that they would demand the right to drink, dress up and toddle along San Francisco’s famous hilly streets.
Tom Sweeney, the town’s most celebrated doorman at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, will run his 35th Bay to Breakers today, his fourth in his full Beefeater regalia. He’s seen the race from when it was a novelty to its transformation to a Mardi Gras parade.
“It’s hard to believe that there was a time when the race was serious,” he said, “But it’s a good thing I’m a marathon runner because the uniform weighs 40 pounds. It’s going to be about survival.”
That’s always been true about San Francisco as well. You can shake it, flatten it, burn it, but it’s not going away. It would rather dare you to keep up with it.
Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at email@example.com.