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Bay to Breakers

Started: 2018-05-23 20:29:26

Submitted: 2018-05-23 23:44:03

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator runs Bay to Breakers, experiencing an important cultural institution first-hard

I vaguely remember hearing about the Bay to Breakers at some point in my childhood, presumably while I was a kid living on the peninsula. I'm pretty sure I remember my father running the twelve kilometer race, snaking across the city from Soma (at the bay) to Ocean Beach (where the breakers crash on the beach) at least once.

When I moved to San Francisco two years ago, I thought about running the race, but I didn't train in advance of the race, and didn't think it was worth running if I hadn't trained and couldn't sustain a race pace for twelve kilometers. (The afternoon of the race I took the train to Oakland and biked across the New Bay Bridge. A few weeks later, in May 2016, I ran the Bolder Boulder -- on the weekend I moved away from Boulder -- at a perfectly-adequate aerobic pace.) I don't remember precisely why I didn't want to run in 2017, but it was probably a combination of feeling inadequately trained for the race, and concern that the general party atmosphere of the race would detract from my running experience.

This year I decided to embrace the fact that I wasn't going to train extensively for the race and just set out to run twelve kilometers at an aerobic pace -- and to embrace whatever party atmosphere I encountered as an important part of San Francisco as I work through my todo list of things to do before I move away from the city.

(To put things into some perspective, at this moment my aerobic running pace -- the speed at which I can easily sustain and still carry out something not unlike a conversation -- is a nine-minute mile. My lactic-threshold pace -- the fastest pace I can sustain for at least a mile -- is somewhere between a 7.5 and 8-minute mile; though I haven't done much higher-intensity training since moving to San Francisco two years ago so I don't have a good feeling precisely where that line lies. For most of the past decade -- when I was actually measuring such things -- I could run flat-out at a six-minute mile for not more than a couple of minutes. Note that I never "jog", since that's the diminutive form of "run".)

The race started at 08:00 on Sunday morning, 20 May. The race organizers encouraged us to show up early for the race, so I got up early Sunday morning, put on my running shoes and my Bolder Boulder shirt from 2010, and took BART to Embarcadero Station. Unlike my normal morning commute, the train was populated almost entirely by runners. (Most of the people in my early starting group -- the somewhat-serious runners -- were actually dressed as runners; most of the (in)famous costumes came later in the race.) I walked a block down Spear Street and entered the street to join Corral B -- the somewhat-serious runners starting group (self-selected with a pace of around eight to nine minutes per mile). The corral turned to the right down Howard Street, stopping just short of the starting line.

I waited in the corral, standing in the shade of the urban canyon, feeling slightly chilly in the cool morning. The morning sun glinted off the construction on the new Park Tower at Transbay (which was just leased by Facebook). A few beach balls flew through the air, but by far the most popular projectile was corn tortillas thrown as frisbees.

With ten minutes to go before the start of the race, the national anthem played on loudspeakers in the street, then grew quiet as we resumed waiting for the race to begin. As the corrals in front of us cleared the starting line, we walked forward towards the line on mashed tortillas, ground to a slippery pulp underfoot.

At last it was our turn to start the race. When the starting horn sounded I began my shuffle to the starting line, eventually managing a speed-walk by the time I crossed the line and started my watch, advancing to an awkward run within the first block, by the time the crowd cleared enough to give me some room. (My GPS watch recorded the entire race, just in case you want to follow along.)

The first mile-and-a-half ran straight down Howard Street, from Soma into Mid-Market, past forty-story office towers and offices inhabited by innumerable startups and SFMOMA. To maintain a decent pace I had to weave back and forth between the slower runners and walkers on the course. (I wondered if I was the only person who hadn't lied about my race pace -- even though my estimated pace was at the high end of the range.)

The course turned to cross Market Street, then turned again onto Hayes Street to resume our westward run to the ocean. After a few blocks the road began climbing Hayes Hill, climbing 165 feet in a little more than half a mile. I remembered that I spent most of my life in Colorado and attacked the hill like I would attack any hill in Boulder: an all-out assault straight up the middle of the hill. My fellow runners took the hill as an opportunity to slow down; I took the hill as an opportunity to speed up (or, at least, run harder); which worked well enough for the first two-thirds of the hill, until I began to run out of energy and limped up the last third -- still passing people on both sides as I ran.

I recovered down the far side of the hill, and soon the route took me past the Panhandle, past low apartment buildings, and on into Golden Gate Park, where the towering forest of the urban park closed in on both sides of the road, blocking out the view of the city. By this point the crowd had thinned out enough that I no longer had to weave around people to maintain a decent pace, and I was tired from having run straight up Hayes Hill. The route through the park along John F. Kennedy Drive took three more miles as I climbed the gentle hill near Stow Lake then started the gradual descent towards the ocean. Here I saw the only topless woman (though wearing pasties) I'd seen all day, running effortlessly past me. (I lost count of the number of naked male runners I saw, and I couldn't help but think that running quite so exposed would be cold and uncomfortable.

I picked up my pace at the seven-mile mark, with a half-mile left in the race. The race turned sharply to the right to finish on Great Highway, the last road before the ocean. I finished strong, sprinting across the finish line to finish the twelve-kilometer, 7.5-mile race in 67 minutes by my watch (though I stopped my watch when I stopped by the restroom, so my official end-to-end time was 70 minutes). This was a respectable time, right around my estimated 9-minute mile pace.

I picked up a finisher's medal, rationalizing that it was more than just a participation trophy because I had ran twelve kilometers to get it, and picked up a snack (cold-brew coffee in a can, and a cup of yogurt) at the free-food sample booths making up the expo at the finish line, then meandered homeward. I walked to the terminus of the N-Judah light-rail line and boarded the next train to trundle slowly across the Sunset, gradually making my way eastward across the city. I transferred to BART at Civic Center and arrived home late in the morning, having experienced one more San Francisco cultural experience.