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A Deep Dive into the Bay to Breakers Race
Athletic Event or Cult of Personality?
Welcome to the Party
The Bay to Breakers is an annual 12-kilometer road race held in San Francisco, California. It's one of the largest races in the world and is attended by tens of thousands of competitors annually. Runners start at the San Francisco Bay near the Embarcadero ("the Bay") and run to the Pacific Ocean ("the Breakers") on the west end of Golden Gate Park at the Great Highway (Map My Run, 2011). What makes this race particularly special is its cult following, social unity, side parties, community spirit, and pride affiliation. It's literally a symbol of San Francisco culture.
To give some context to the cultural importance of the Bay to Breakers, a few examples of standard race traditions are necessary. The pink gorilla is the official mascot of the race. Affectionately known as "Ape Hashbury," a play on the San Francisco neighborhood Haight Ashbury, the gorilla appears on marketing materials as well as in person. This large, costumed actor leads the race at the starting gunshot and is well photographed throughout the race. Moreover, people began wearing costumes during the race as early as 1940, but it was in 1978 that the centipede costume began in earnest as a tradition (Pumphrey, 2011). Today, there are several competitions during the race, including the Centipede World Championship, an official competition of 13-15 runners tethered by a bungee cord and wearing a centipede costume (Bay to Breakers, 2023). San Franciscans embrace uber individuality to the point that costume wearing is common among citizens regardless of the day or their participation in the race. Finally, many runners and spectators forgo costumes and attire altogether. Nudity is common at the Bay to Breakers. San Francisco law prohibits nudity except during specific instances, including certified official events, including the Bay to Breakers (San Francisco Police Code, 2022).
The Bay to Breakers is a microcosm of San Francisco itself. This hallmark cultural event is more than a road race. It's a cultural symbol promoting San Francisco's resiliency, quirky population, and pride of humanity. It's colorful, musical, and emotional. Serious runners come from all over the world to perform on this difficult course, and tourists flock to the city to partake in one of the nation's most beloved annual athletic festivities.
History: 110 Years and Running
A true portrait of the race requires some historical context. The Bay to Breakers was born from the emotional ashes of the massive earthquake and subsequent fire of 1906. This devastating natural disaster left over half of the San Francisco's 400,000 inhabitants homeless. The city spent years rebuilding. Organizers created this road race in 1912 as a precursor to the 1915 Pan Pacific International Exposition. It was originally called the Cross City Race and was fashioned as a sporting event complementing the artistic and architectural celebration that would be the official rebirth of the city (Barmann, 2022a).
The first Bay to Breakers course overlayed the route the fire department and volunteers took through the city, and in particular up Hayes Street hill to Alamo Square, to the city's central first aid station and onwards to the tent cities erected in Golden Gate Park after the 1906 fire (Peterson, 2013) six years earlier. Disaster survivors also took this westward route as they sought refuge in the tent encampments and searched for their loved ones. The course was a nod to the heroes and an homage to the victims.
The winner of that 1912 race was a college student named Robert Vlught. There were 186 starters and 121 finishers (Barmann, 2022a). The tone of the event was competitive. In 1964 the race was renamed "Bay to Breakers" and the celebrations began to expand. The race was opened to women in 1971, a surprise fact to many given the progressive posture of San Francisco. In 1986, citing 110,000 participants, the Bay to Breakers won a Guinness World Record for the greatest number of runners (Guinness World Records, 1986). In 2012, the city tried to ban nudity, but the ordinance was ignored and later abandoned.
The Bay to Breakers is known as one of the nation's oldest and world's largest races and has been consistently run for over 110 years. In 2020 and 2021, the race was run virtually due to Covid-19 restrictions. The event gathers between 50,000 and 100,000 participants annually, although official numbers are difficult to gather because many runners do not register. These un-bibbed runners, or "bandits," are usually counted in general event participation, but they are not part of the official race participation numbers.
Anatomy of a Race
"Bay to Breakers is a celebration of life, laughter, and the personality of San Francisco." (Bay to Breakers, 2023) There is no shortage of information about the race to participants registering on the website. Participants are motivated to be unique and silly and to expect a good time.
On the race's official website, participants are encouraged not only to run and walk, but to drink, dress up in costume, and have fun. Thousands of participants assemble at the starting area near the Embarcadero and throw tortillas up in the air as giant loudspeakers play upbeat music. The morning temperatures in May in San Francisco are generally in the low teens Celsius (the low 50s Fahrenheit). Runners wear everything from serious running gear to bulky costumes and themed outfits- but those are the ones who dress. It's acceptable and expected for many participants to run nude.
Runners are assigned stations by expected pace, but not everyone is wearing a race bib. Many "bandits" wear elaborate costumes over their race bibs anyway. Some spectators run with the runners and then merge off into the miles of side parties, musical groups, picnics, or other social gatherings. As an official event, it's difficult to tell who's participating and who's supporting. That is an excellent comparison between the race and the city because the cultural blending of participant and spectator is smooth.
The twelve kilometers from the Bay to the Breakers run from east to west through the downtown financial district, through SOMA (South of Market, a gritty area on the edge of the Tenderloin), via Civic Center (near City Hall), through Hayes Valley (a charming neighborhood for the arts and food scene), through the Panhandle (full of open parks and coffee shops), and across Golden Gate Park (a giant natural preserve that is home to bison and other wild animals in addition to the city's finest museums) to the Great Highway and the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean, affectionately known as the Breakers. It's not an easy run because of the distance, the changing climate over the span of the morning and the cityscape, the gain of 93 meters of elevation during the course (Map My Run, 2011), and the feared Hayes Street Hill with an uphill grade of over 11%.
At the end of the race, there is a massive finish line with multiple photography stations, volunteers handing out refreshments, official and unofficial musicians, and festivities of all kinds. People weave throughout the finishing area, spill out onto the beach areas, and gather with friends to celebrate. The parties continue throughout the city all day and night, and participants wear their race medals to bars and restaurants in hopes of a free beer or a round of praise.
So What? The Essence of a Cult Icon
The Bay to Breakers is unequivocally an icon of San Francisco. "Bay to Breakers is a symbol of San Francisco’s quirkiness, and its residents do not hold back. It is not uncommon to see Spongebob Squarepants running alongside Daffy Duck while they proceed to chug a beer together." (Proud to Run, 2023) It's hard to find a website, article, or blog post on the Bay to Breakers that doesn't mention the quirkiness of the race and its participants, the spirit of San Francisco, or the traditions inherent to the race that wouldn't make sense anywhere else. People associate the event's peculiarities with the city's eccentricities.
The race itself is a microcosm of the metropolis. One can't separate the culture of the race from the culture of the city. This event is more than a road race. It's not even a festival. It's a showcase and celebration. And it is beloved.
Social, Political, and Cultural Impact
An analysis of the impact of the race on the city is not only an examination of cultural representation but also of the reputation of San Francisco as seen from the community and the rest of the world. People know the San Francisco Bay area today for its intellectual and innovation powerhouses, but they also know the area's history of activism, cult personality, and embracing of personal diversity. These influences are more than social and cultural- they are political, economic, and technological.
The Bay to Breakers has immense social impact because it not only allows but encourages individuality. Quirkiness is expected. This road race is an entire ecosystem of cultural stimuli that reverberates throughout the city, including fashion and costumes, music and dancing, activism, partying, and other social interactions.
Socially, runners use the event to train together, to compete for awards of cash and notoriety, and to form clubs of various affiliations like work groups or neighborhood associations. Non-runners do the same, plotting out picnic locations, sideline demonstrations, and group activities. This deep social impact creates bonds of affection and patterns of tradition for families and friends. Prideful celebrations continue throughout the weekend as participants wear their race bibs and finisher's medals from current or past races with all their outfits all weekend long.
Politically, this is a time for peaceful activism. People dress up as government figures, controversial individuals, and statement-making icons. Costumes of Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Strout, 2019), Elizabeth Holmes (Barmann, 2022a), politicians, and Revolutionary War reenactments have been seen. Spectators hold posters and banners stating their political sentiments. Recent media reports have exposed a controversy over the race's new ownership and their voting record (Barmann, 2022b). San Franciscans are not shy about espousing their partisan progressive and liberal beliefs, and the Bay to Breakers event is a perfect stage for this activism.
The Bay to Breakers is culturally a reflection of the zeitgeist of nearly every era of San Francisco. The gravity of the event is that it is an embodiment of San Francisco's culture.
Further analysis reveals several strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) for the Bay to Breakers. A complete list is found in Supporting Document 1. In performing a business analysis of the ongoing success and potential damage certain factors would have on the Bay to Breakers, a PESTEL analysis is shown in Document 2. This exploration evaluates how political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and legal (PESTEL) may affect the Bay to Breakers. In the PESTEL analysis, factors were considered on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the least likely and least severe, while 5 indicates the most likely and most severe. Items were then matrixed on a heat map to illustrate areas of concern. For both the SWOT and the PESTEL assessments, many issues are discussed throughout the paper, but some are considered in more detail below.
The Bay to Breakers is a beloved annual event. There is an organized timeline of events with all the major functions attended to, including security, administration, advertising, and a fully functional website. The event is provocatively attractive and draws thousands of participants from all over the world and has a 110+ year history. It's socially, culturally, and organizationally different from other road races, yet is accepted as a formal and serious race (Bay to Breakers, 2023).
Although known for its eccentricity, the Bay to Breakers is a serious athletic event attended by renowned athletes from around the world. It's also one of the first major races to present category awards for men, women, and nonbinary genders (Anon., 2022)
Public safety is a big concern for participants and spectators during the Bay to Breakers. There is public drunkenness, hordes of crowds, and lack of public transportation (Bay City News, 2014). The event spans the entire city, so people get lost or injured, separated from their friends and families, or unable to move in dense crowds.
Administratively, pre-race workshops and bib pickup are uneventful. The social media presence is weak, as is communication about ancillary activities. The oversight of the event is difficult to report on, as it changes ownership frequently, major sponsors pull out for rumored disease with overindulgent activities, and the city masks how much revenue and costs are associated with the event.
Parts of the event are not family-friendly despite the colorful attraction of the event. Overall, the biggest weakness is the need for balance between safe cultural expression and outlandish hedonistic expression.
The weaknesses are all opportunities for improvement, both socially and economically. Future organized events could include artist participation to design T-shirts and other merchandise. Residents along the race route could have signage that more clearly indicates their level of participation in the event. Volunteerism is present but could be expanded, sponsored, and given media attention. Historians, journalists, scholarly and medical researchers, and social media influencers could be invited and organized to promote the history and culture of the race. Academically, there are zero journal articles discussing the Bay to Breakers as a focal point.
New and fresh perspectives could arise for the city's cultural event management, festival operations, community involvement, artistic and athletic programs, medical issues, and international tourism. These prospects could include not only cultural enrichment but economic opportunities to fund events and athletic-artist programs.
The biggest threat to the Bay to Breakers is security. There are armed guards from various organizations visible and invisible to the participants, but many people are drunk or high, the music is loud, the crowds are large, and it's not inconceivable that a terrorist event could present itself (Barmann, 2022c). On a smaller scale, petty crime is high, as are public drunkenness and medical injuries. The weather in San Francisco can be cold and rainy or hot and sunny in mid-May. The new race ownership is politically charged, and businesses are displaced, closed, or differently-trafficked during this event.
The cultural value of the Bay to breakers can be more broadly analyzed by looking at its political, economic, sociological, technological, environmental, and legal factors (PESTEL). A values chart is found in Supporting Document 2 to indicate the possible positive or negative index of such issues for the Bay to Breakers. Again, many issues are discussed throughout the paper and some finer details follow:
Contextually, the Bay to Breakers is an accepted political outlet for the very vocal citizens of San Francisco. Every event held in San Francisco has some sort of political aspect, whether it concerns people espousing their thoughts on women's rights, LGBTQ issues, homelessness, crime, discrimination, or other current hot topic, people in San Francisco have something to say. They wear slogans printed on their clothing. Delinquents often graffiti public buildings, break storefront windows, and commit vandalism in the name of political awareness. Businesses post fliers about issues they support in their front windows. The Bay to Breakers is run despite and amidst this culture. Furthermore, it thrives as a place of free expression, whether expressed through slogan-laden clothing or nudity. In the absence of this enormous annual event, these 50,000 to 100,000 participants, along with hundreds of thousands of spectators, would have to find another way to express their opinions and showcase their community pride.
At different times, race coordinators and city officials have tried to ban or curtail alcohol, nudity, and other forms of gluttony (Barmann, 2022c; Bay City News, 2014; San Francisco Police Code, 2022). These stances are usually met with disapproval, disregard, or outright protest. Recently, news about the race's new ownership's political affiliations have created headlines.
In order to mitigate the potential risks that emerge from allowing the Bay to Breakers to become too politically hostile, coordinators and city officials must both embrace the cultural and historical importance of the race and encourage new and exciting distractions. Allowing people to focus their energy while increasing security in unseen ways is the best method of managing a potentially volatile situation. Considering the high level of crime in the area, the extreme passion for vocal and active political expression, and the likelihood of a hostile incident involving this subject, a risk analysis shows that political topics are of "high" likelihood to happen (a 5 on a scale of 1-5) and could cause "moderate" damage (a 3 on a scale of 1-5), either financially or physically through altercations.
The Bay to Breakers has been run for over a century, during all cycles of economic growth, high and low employment and inflation rates, and during periods of national and international crises. As long as the race is priced according to market conditions, participants will still register and participate. Unfortunately, race revenue is lost from unregistered "bandits." The ancillary community events such as partying, costuming, and gathering, are market agnostic, and they are impossible to track.
The city government of San Francisco and the event organizers are secretive about their expenses and revenues. The only available financial data is from 2010, where it's estimated that expenses had quadrupled in the preceding 10 years and included $286,000 security, $51,000 on permits, $40,000 for portable toilets, and additional expenses were required for supplementary cleanup and other race-related tasks (Examiner Staff, 2010). Overall, San Francisco reports an inability to host many festivals and cultural events each year because they are not supported financially.
A risk analysis shows that economic factors are unlikely to have a great effect on the Bay to Breakers race, although a risk of underfunding is always present. Without organized ancillary events to fund the large-scale costs of policing, cleaning, and attending to this event, the race will never create a large revenue. The Bay to Breakers is sponsored by large companies each year, so there is a "low" likelihood of an economic impact affecting the race (a 1 on a scale of 1-5) but mismanagement could threaten the production, giving a score of cause "moderately high" damage possible (a 4 on a scale of 1-5).
Quirkiness is in the DNA of the Bay to Breakers race. It's an event with a long history and multiple traditions that multiply year after year. People of all backgrounds and demographics participate. Despite occasional efforts to increase safety or tone down the rowdiness, the Bay to Breakers has a culture of festive yet athletic pursuit. It's a community event that ushers in the summer season, and the lifestyle of participants and supporters reflects that. There is not a lot that an outside force could do to significantly change the culture of the Bay to Breakers. In fact, the event grows every year as it bows to the zeitgeist and reflects current social trends through the costumes, music, and community events.
Not all residents are fans of the race. Some neighborhoods in nicer areas protest the carelessness of attendees. There is also the ongoing push-and-pull over the alcohol and nudity issues. While population growth and generational changes will have some impact on the Bay to Breakers, however, it's more likely that these factors will create growth and progress rather than harm to the race and its supporting events.
An analysis of social factors reveals that the likelihood of a threat to the social characterization of the Bay to breakers is "low" (a 1 on a scale of 1-5), but if significant change was forced upon the event, the severity of impact to the race would be "moderate" (a 3 on a scale of 1-5).
Considering the Bay to Breakers takes place in one of the world's foremost technologically advanced cities, technology does play a part on the event. Over the years, as is true with most road races, innovations like chips and tracking mechanisms have emerged and improved. Mapping data, communication devices, security measures, and other tools are continuously materializing in this type of landscape. Both software and hardware are streamlining administration and providing solutions for participants as well as organizers. It is "moderately likely" (a 4 on a scale of 1-5) that these developments will continue in the future but the impact on the race will be "moderately low" (a 2 on a scale of 1-5).
The San Francisco Bay Area sits on seven major fault lines. The potential for an earthquake is extreme. It was the 1906 earthquake that caused the devastating city-wide fire that displaced most San Franciscans. The rebuilding efforts took years, and were, as mentioned earlier, the source of inspiration for the Cross City Race that became the Bay to Breakers. That 1906 earthquake relieved some underground pressure, but the next major damage to the area came from the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. It's expected that seismic activity will continue and worsen over the coming years (Anon., 2023).
The city of San Francisco is a peninsula between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. It is seven miles long and seven miles wide. Ongoing climate change will have an effect on the water levels, wind conditions, wafting smoke from California wildfires, and other environmental concerns.
Minor environmental factors also exist. The trash left on the streets and in the neighborhoods is overwhelming. Cleaners spend days clearing out debris, bottles, abandoned signs, and other objects left behind by participants and partiers. People urinate and vomit in the streets creating a public health hazard. There is no significant emphasis on environmental sustainability or awareness, which is surprising for a city that is so progressively environmental.
A risk analysis shows that environmental factors are "highly likely" to have a great effect on the Bay to Breakers race (a 5 on a scale of 1-5) and could cause " high" damage (a 5 on a scale of 1-5). This is the biggest concern of the PESTEL analysis and should be addressed during each planning stage of the event.
Legal factors have been discussed earlier as far as the consideration of nudity, drinking, and whether participants are officially registered or run un-bibbed. Other considerations are for the health and welfare of the community. There have been crimes committed during the race, as well as unintentional deaths due to accidents. Children are present, people bring their animals, and many unsanctioned events occur. While people come to celebrate and enjoy the spirit of the vibrant community, dangerous, accidental, or malevolent things can occur.
This category is analyzed as having a "moderately low" likelihood (a 2 on a scale of 1-5) and "moderate" severity (a 3 on a scale of 1-5) in impacting the Bay to Breakers.
Role in the conservation and preservation of the cultural heritage
San Francisco is a late-settled city as far as the timeline of American population settlements go. It's on the west coast of the United States and gained notoriety during the gold rush era of the mid 1800s. At times it was host to penal colonies, labor camps, industrial builders, and immigrants from Asia, Mexico, Russia, and elsewhere. "It had been settled mostly, in spite of all the romances of the overland migration, by gamblers, prostitutes, rascals, and fortune seekers who came across the Isthmus and around the Horn." (Brook et al., 1998) The city's history is tied to the "unbridled nature of the immigrant population" (Brook et al., 1998) and to its progressive political and liberal cultural movements.
The neighborhood of Haight Ashbury in San Francisco generated several cultural movements. In the 1950s the Beatniks were a crowd of literary philosophers - poets, musicians, novelists and the like. In the post-war reawakening they strove to think independently and separate themselves from conventional society. The counterculture movement continued into the 1960 with the budding Hippie ethos. The youth, in particular, sought to disassociate from the doldrums of everyday life and the expectations of society. People embraced sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. They protested the Vietnam War. They embraced communal living, psychedelics, folk and emerging music, and a general carefree approach to life. The 1970s were a time of music culture. During the 1980s, in the spotlight of the AIDS crisis, the LGBTQ culture, which emerged from the 1920s, was highlighted in the San Francisco Bay Area. As the turn of the millennium approached, the era of technology came to the forefront and the San Francisco Bay Area became well known for its Silicon Valley and the innovative culture that sprang forth. This rich history of San Francisco, from the diverse immigration in the mid 1800s to the individuality of innovation shows that San Franciscans are delighted by their diversity, their uniqueness, their normative opposition, and they are full of pride.
The Bay to Breakers’ role in the conservation and preservation of San Francisco's cult personality is an annual love letter to the city in the form of a road race surrounded by unofficial celebrations. Residents and visitors turn out to play their part - whether that's as a runner, volunteer, vendor, or cheer squad. Neighbors along the race route open their doors to fellow partygoers. Journalists, security personnel, and sponsors are on every street corner all day long with their cameras, radios, arsenals, or banners of trade. Running (or walking or dancing or centipede-competing) provides the foundation of the main event, but the participants and spectators tell the story of San Francisco's culture with their costumes, community spirit, festivities, and story sharing.
Understanding the heritage of San Francisco as a city for revolutionaries, outcasts, gold rushers, merchants, poets, scholars, protestors, queers, and innovators, is crucial to understanding the quirkiness of the Bay to Breakers race. Each year the stories are retold, and each year the traditions widen. Children are brought up to know that they can participate when they're older, and elders remind each other of the races they ran years ago. These dreams and memories are not about putting feet on the road, but partaking in and building upon a piece of the culture.
Internationally, the Bay to Breakers not only holds a Guinness World Record (Guinness World Records, 1986), but is the home of the World Centipede Championship (Bay to Breakers, 2023). Culturally, the Bay to Breakers is undeniably a replica of the city itself. People come from all over the world to participate. In 2022, the Bay to Breakers counted winners in three categories: male, female, and nonbinary genders, in line with its progressive culture of inclusion. Not only is the Bay to Breakers mirroring, preserving, and highlighting San Francisco's culture, but it's also setting trends.
The True Treasure of the Race
Numerous road races have personality. There are the Rock-n-Roll marathon series, fun runs for every holiday, ultra-endurance competitions, and events with mud, fire, or obstacles. However, no race compares with the Bay to Breakers. Its longstanding traditions of quirkiness such as costuming and musical performances have given way to official international competitions and endearing entertainment. It is a serious road race. It is a community event. It is a cultural icon. Above all, the Bay to Breakers is an institution of San Francisco that was borne from literal ashes of devastation.
Given the immense treasure of this event to the city, organizers would be wise to take advantage of opportunities of cultural importance. Significant artistic and entertainment value could be had if local artists, particularly ones of disability or diversity, were enlisted to create designs, marketing materials, clothing, official prints, costumes, and materials for the race. The Bay to Breakers could host official exhibitions for musicians, performers, and artists as well as athletes. Similar integrations could bolster the already high spirits of the community while showcasing local talent. Finally, it is important to preserve the historical context from which the race was originally run and the path that it was laid out over.
Strategically, the Bay to Breakers is in a disarray of business acumen and would benefit from a stronger organizational plan. The organizers and the city are missing out on economic and educational opportunities, space for artists and musicians to contribute and become known, small businesses to offer merchandise and food in a permitted and accessible way, and families to have an area of safe space for innocent celebrations. This could create awareness, jobs, support, and education for the community, as well as a growth opportunity for the event.
The Bay to Breakers is a cult of personality. It's exaggerated. It's charismatic. It's as historic and as idiosyncratic as San Francisco is. It's a serious road race as well as an ode to the history of the city. Remembering the past is as important as creating the future, and with the Bay to Breakers, San Francisco does both.
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Anon. (2023). The San Andreas and Other Bay Area Faults. US Geological Survey. https://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/events/1906calif/virtualtour/bayarea.php
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Barmann, J. (2022b). Chair of Company That Now Owns Bay to Breakers Is a Trumper, Gave Money to Right-Wing Loons Greene and Gaetz. SFist. https://sfist.com/2022/05/12/chair-of-company-that-now-owns-bay-to-breakers-is-a-trumper-gave-money-to-right-wing-loons-greene-and-gaetz/
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Examiner Staff. (2010). Bay to Breakers is a Race with a Price. San Francisco Examiner. https://www.sfexaminer.com/news/bay-to-breakers-is-a-race-with-a-price/article_ea71efaf-b57a-583a-a2a4-ca0017b98ece.html
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Strout, E. (2019). The Notorious RBG Had a Big Presence at a San Francisco Race. https://www.womensrunning.com/culture/news/the-notorious-rbg-had-a-big-presence-at-a-san-francisco-race/