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What is the Bay to Breakers?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Bay to Breakers is a footrace held annually in San Francisco, California since 1912. In addition to being a recognized track and field event where elite athletes compete, the Bay to Breakers is also famous for hosting San Francisco's kookier elements, who trail behind the elite runners, often in elaborate costumes. Some runners participate in teams, turning the race into a venue for performance art as well as running, and many San Franciscans enjoy watching the race and the people who compete in it.

This famous race started out as the Cross City Race, and it was meant to be part of a revitalization effort to help the city recover after the devastating 1906 earthquake. The route of the Bay to Breakers starts in the Embarcadero District next to the San Francisco Bay, with runners starting out on Market Street and striking their way west across the city, running up Market Street for several blocks before bearing a course to the North up Hayes and Fell Streets so that they wind up in Golden Gate Park. The runners follow the roads of Golden Gate Park to reach Ocean Beach and the breaking waves of the Pacific Ocean. The route is 7.46 miles (12 kilometers) long, and the race is traditionally run on the third Sunday in May.

Elite runners in the Bay to Breakers generally make it across the city in under an hour, while novelty participants in the race take more time to straggle their way across the city, sometimes missing the closing deadline for the finish line altogether. By tradition, the elite runners are seeded at the start of the race, and they are allowed to start first to ensure that they are not fouled by participants who are in the race for fun.

Notable entries in the Bay to Breakers include centipedes, runners who compete as groups linked together. Some centipedes have set race records of their own, thanks to talented and well coordinated runners. Other runners may run in elaborate costumes, or in teams which perform on instruments while running, hold mock food fights, and stage other performance. The so-called “Bare to Breakers” runners run, as you might infer, in the nude, while the Bay to Breakers Salmon Run consists of runners dressed as salmon who run from the Breakers to the Bay, mimicking the annual migration of salmon.

The first female competitor in the Bay to Breakers was Bobbie Burke, who ran disguised as a man in 1940. Today, accomplished female athletes are an annual sight at the Bay to Breakers; in 2007, a woman crossed the finish line ahead of the men for the first time.1940 was also the first year when a runner in costume appeared, setting the stage for decades of Bay to Breakers tradition. The title of “Bay to Breakers” was acquired in 1964.

Participants who want to register for the race can do so at the race website; people who simply want to watch the action are encouraged to make hotel reservations early, as San Francisco tends to become very crowded around Bay to Breakers time. In addition, the use of public transit during the Bay to Breakers is highly advised, as the race route clogs up several major roads in the city for hours. Getting around in San Francisco on public transit is very easy, even with routes altered by the Bay to Breakers, and it is much more enjoyable than fighting with the city's traffic and notoriously confusing street grid.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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