Wacky Bay to Breakers traditions in San Francisco 

Sarah Palin, Elvis Presley, Superman, salmon, pigs, Apple computers, the Blues Brothers, the Smurfs, and the cast of the “Wizard of Oz”: They’ve all run in the Zazzle Bay to Breakers.

Click on the photo at right to see a gallery of Bay to Breakers traditions.

Or, at least their proxies have, costumed runners and walkers and floaters parading through San Francisco like characters in some sort of West Coast Mardi Gras — or, as former San Francisco Examiner editor and race announcer Glenn Kramon put it, “The Rose Parade in fast-forward.” How else would you explain the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Pyramid and Coit Tower bobbing inches above the heads of thousands upon thousands of sneaker-clad revelers?

Among Bay to Breakers’ hordes of recreational runners, costumes have become the great equalizer. They’ve also become one of the event’s defining characteristics. But it wasn’t always that way. Costumes were far less commonplace — and so were naked runners — before 1982, when former race director Terri Tiffany instituted a contest to promote participants’ creativity.

“The costumes were such an anomaly,” said Tiffany, who served as director from 1981-89 and oversaw the race’s period of greatest growth. “Nobody else had them in the country, and everybody thought we were crazy. … We really wanted to encourage people to be creative and free-spirited.”

Lavishly appointed floats were a natural outgrowth of the contests, as was increasingly outlandish attire among centipede teams. The centipede first arrived in 1978 as just that: a makeshift centipede costume of black plastic, cheap wire antennae and foam balls linking 13 athletes from the Cal Aggies Track Club at UC Davis. They ran at six-minute mile pace, finished in the top 100 and sparked a trend that would soon see surgeon runners dress as vertebrae, naked joggers unite with nothing but string and one team carry a stuffed lobster aloft for all 12 kilometers.

Tiffany also helped develop Footstock, the post-race party in Golden Gate Park that was modeled, appropriately enough, after the Woodstock music festival. During the race’s peak attendance years in the mid- to late 1980s, Footstock drew as many as 200,000 people. More recently, live music along the course itself has become equally entrenched in Bay to Breakers tradition.

Local musician Groovy Judy first appeared with her ’60s-styled psychedelic rock band in 1996, and is now a race fixture. This year, the group will occupy a marquee position at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, playing San Francisco favorites such as Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and Elvis tunes for the inevitable swarm of impersonators.

“I just look forward to it every year,” Groovy Judy said. “The energy is amazing.”

AEG, organizer of Zazzle Bay to Breakers, shares the same owners as Clarity Media, which oversees The San Francisco Examiner.

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Nate Seltenrich

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