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San Francisco brims with life, color as Bay to Breakers grandly returns

One of the oldest and perhaps most fun footraces in North America finally returned to San Francisco last Sunday after two years stuck in pandemic purgatory.

The Bay to Breakers race was established in 1912 as the San Francisco Cross City Race, with the intent to lift The City’s spirits after the devastating 1906 earthquake. The race had been run every year since, until Covid-19 paused Bay to Breakers – and virtually everything else – in its tracks.

With pandemic concerns at their height, The City cancelled all large public gatherings for the next two years, though the run was held virtually. Much like the inaugural event, there was a palpable sense of relief and celebration when the beloved race made its big return.

Will Kardas said it’s the community feel that’s kept him coming back to the run for more than a decade:

Everyone’s just happy to be here every year.”

Kardas added:

It’s nice to come back to something that feels so normal. Everyone’s very friendly. I think it’s nice to come back to some normality after the pandemic.” 

Bay to Breakers has a well-deserved reputation for levity and frolicking, though it remains a race that draws serious world-class runners. In 1993, USA Track and Field recognized it as the first official 12-kilometer National Championship.

The footrace starts near the Embarcadero, proceeds uphill to 215 feet above sea level at a grade that reaches 11.15 percent at one point, then descends to Golden Gate Park and, eventually, Ocean Beach.

Estimates of this year’s race participants ranged from a minimum of 10,000 registered runners up to 18,000 people, according to some reports. The vast majority of runners are not necessarily trying to win – they come for the fun, and the costumes.

Dressed as Sophia Petrillo from “The Golden Girls,” Rachel Podolsky said:

It feels so good. This crowd is amazing and it’s just so much fun. … It’s Halloween parade in the summer and everyone is just really excited to be back. I think the energy was super exciting the whole way. All of the spectators were amazing.” 

A San Franciscan posted the fastest time among women, Julia Vasquez came in at 42:04. Maya Weigel of Los Altos was right behind her at 42:12, and Dana Giordano of San Francisco was the third woman to finish at 42:28.  

Of the serious male runners, Reid Buchanan of San Diego finished in first place with a course time of 36:09.  

Second place went to Amanuel Tikue of Oakland, who crossed the finish line at 36:57. Weston Strum of San Francisco clocked in at 37:44, earning him third place.  

History was made this year with the new “nonbinary” category. Cal Calamia, 25, of San Francisco led the inclusion effort through a media campaign after the idea was initially rejected.

Calamia clocked in at 46:56, and can now claim the very first 12K national championship title for a person who does not solely identify as male or female.

Sammy Kitwara of Kenya currently holds the race record, finishing the 2009 run in 33:31 while earning himself $40,000.  

In 2010, Lineth Chepkurui of Kenya crossed the finish line at 38:07, setting the Bay to Breakers and world 12K distance records for women. She was also the fastest woman at the 2009 race and went on to win that title for a third straight year in 2011. 

Kenyan runners often dominate the Bay to Breakers race, though not so much this year.

The youngest winner was 10-year-old Maryetta Boitano in 1974, when she not only got first place among the female runners but also set the women’s record up to that time at 43:22. She took women’s first place again in both 1975 and 1976. She made her debut run at just 5 years old.  

Bay to Breakers began relatively small and during the first few decades it was held on New Year’s Day. The 1912 race had slightly less than 200 participants and the winner was Robert Jackson Vlught, coming in at 44:10. 

The first woman to participate was Bobbie Burke, who ran disguised as a man in 1940.
It was the first year anyone came in costume, though she was not alone; a man dressed as pirate Captain Kidd came in dead last.

There have been a number of changes, and ups and downs in participation in the 111 years since the first race. It was moved to the month of May in 1949, saw attendance drop to a low of only 25 runners in 1963 and was rebranded as Bay to Breakers the next year. 

Participation appears to have peaked in 1986 when it made the Guinness World Book of Records as the world’s largest footrace up to that time with 78,769 registered runners and an estimated total participation of 110,000 people.  

For Fernando Lorenzo and his daughter Lily, this year’s race was their first.

Lily, dressed as a rabbit, hopped alongside her dad, who said:

She was a little shy at first but she eventually opened up.… She loved it. I love it.”

Lorenzo added:

“It was a long walk … jog, whatever, but it was worth it in the end.”  

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