Come now, let's not be prurient and wallow in all the debauchery. Can someone, for once, take the high road when speaking of the Bay to Breakers, one of the nation's most storied races celebrating its 100th running next Sunday?
It's not really, we mean it the nudity that makes the Bay to Breakers such a uniquely San Francisco spectacle. Nor is it the alcohol-soaked bacchanal in the back of the pack, nor the floats bearing messages both political and pointlesss, nor the hundreds nay, thousands dressed in costumes that would make Lady Gaga envious.
It's the oh, who are we kidding?
Of course it's the nudity and the booze and the crazy costumes and the sheer unfettered zaniness that has turned what otherwise would be just another 12K "fun run," dotted with a passel of elite Kenyans, into an urban happening Burning Man with sneakers.
Talk all you want about the sepia-toned history of the Bay to Breakers, how the dash from the Embarcadero (the bay) to Ocean Beach (the breakers) began in 1912 as a way to lift the city's spirits after the '06 earthquake and how generations of San Franciscans have taken part.
But nothing sticks out quite as boldly, remains lodged in long-term memory, as runners in the buff; runners with a beer in one hand and dry martini in the other; runners costumed as all forms of reptiles and oil-splattered BP executives (there is, we hear, a slight difference); "runners" commandeering foot-powered, open-bar floats such as the annual starkly phallic Coit Tower offering; and runners doing the craziest, most unspeakable thing of all actually taking this race seriously and trying for a fast time.
"You see pretty much everything here on Powell Street in my job," said Sir Francis Drake Hotel doorman Tom Sweeney, "but there's nothing like this race. I've run the Boston Marathon. I've done 20 marathons. But there's nothing like the Bay to Breakers."
Those too young (or too toasted) to remember the '60s in San Francisco can get a taste (or pungent whiff) of what the period in the city's history was like while competing in this annual Mardi Gras on steroids (or other substances).
Then again, maybe not. Event organizers, bowing to pressure from residents along the race route, this year have banned alcohol and floats, citing scores of drug- and alcohol-related hospitalizations, bad behavior (vomiting, urination, trash disposal) on the property of homeowners in the Panhandle neighborhood and costs related to the 18 tons of trash that city workers collected afterward.
Such shenanigans may have been why the race's sponsor, global financial group ING, pulled its deep-pocket support after last year's race, forcing officials to scramble for a sponsor. (Organizers eventually signed a two-year deal with Zazzle, a Redwood City website that personalizes items like T-shirts and coffee mugs for customers.)
It is a backlash several years in fomenting. In 2009, an alcohol prohibition was floated, but the sheer mass of inebriated humanity apparently made it difficult to enforce. This time, more police, private security, protective fencing and portable toilets are promised, in hopes of placating complaining residents unamused by the debauchery.
As one Panhandle resident told the San Francisco Chronicle recently, "It's time to wake up and smell the urine. What are we holding onto? It's not like San Francisco won't be wacky and quirky without (the Bay to Breakers)." The Chronicle's editorial board went so far as to suggest it would be best for all concerned to cancel the race.
That, in turn, has spawned dire warnings from opposition groups, such as the Citizens for the Preservation of the Bay2Breakers. Its leader, Ed Sharpless, told a Chronicle reporter: "They have homogenized this event to a 12K race. We are seriously looking at the potential death of the Bay to Breakers as we know it."
Ah, but the Bay to Breakers appears too resilient to either fade away or become bland.
More than 55,000 runners signed up for this year's 100th running in record time. Race general manager Angela Fang said the Bay to Breakers' unique vibe will endure a ban on alcohol and floats. Nudity and wacky costumes, please note, are still not only allowed but tacitly encouraged.
"The race is about creativity and we embrace that," Fang said. "That's not in any way being diminished by these new rules. We encourage people to come out and show their flair and their spirit with their friends and families. But if they want to party, there are lots of ways to do that outside of the event. It just can't be supported along with the event anymore."
And the nudity in the "family" event? It stays. "It is what it is," Fang said, laughing.
Many Sacramento Bay to Breakers participants have vivid memories some say the images are unfortunately seared into their brain pans of their encounters with those who let it all hang out.
"Many years ago ...," says Dean Chalios, "while trudging up Hayes Hill, I observed a downed runner receiving CPR and only seconds later was passed by two very attractive women wearing nothing but their running shoes. You gotta love The City."
Kelly James-Beal says she still laughs at the photograph she took of her friend "running behind some naked people with a silly grin on her face. She got a shot of me running behind some people dressed only in paint."
But Maryanne Walt, who says she's no prude, nonetheless wonders about the advisability of running naked.
"Never in my life have my eyes set upon so many bare butts," said Walt, who ran her first Bay to Breakers in 2009. "We were walking next to a nude father with a clothed wife and two clothed children. They all looked so embarrassed, except the father, who strutted his stuff. What kind of lesson was he trying to teach his children?"
Maryetta Boitano- Blanchard, who competed in the Bay to Breakers at age 5 in 1968 and won the women's division three times (1974-76), says she believes the first nude runners appeared in the early 1970s, at the height of the "streaking" craze.
"But they were a little bit more discreet," she recalled. "They actually put their clothes back on at the end."
Bay to Breakers historians say that those who go to the other extreme and dress elaborately in costumes hit its stride in the late 1970s, when Dwayne "Peanut" Harms, a UC Davis runner, formed the first "centipede" 13 runners tethered as a unit. That spawned scores of centipedes in full regalia (there now is a centipede division) and other outfits not seen outside of Halloween parties.
You might be trudging along, dodging "runners" like this: two men dressed as doctors pushing a woman on a gurney "giving birth." Or a gaggle of cross-dressers (both ways). Or overtly political costumes: women adorned as "George W.'s weapons of mass destruction" or a man dressed as "Obama's birth certificate."
"You're always looking for what the current events of the day are to determine the costumes," Fang said. "You might see a lot of Charlie Sheens out there this year."
There's no telling what you'll stumble across. Sweeney, the Sir Francis Drake doorman, runs in his red 40-pound wool and polyester Beefeater's work suit. "I get people stopping me on the uphill section asking me to hail a cab for them," he said.
Runner Thomas Melendez remembers seeing a "toothbrush chasing a tube of toothpaste." Karen Phillips once passed "a group of guys towing a beer keg, with each member connected to it by a plastic tube, keeping themselves lubricated."
Walt once pulled up beside a couple pushing a baby stroller, but "I pulled away the blanket and there was a keg of beer with legs." At least that beats the people James-Beal once saw pushing a stroller with a live pig along for the ride.
Mostly, the elite runners are blissfully ignorant of the, ahem, festivities farther back. They start in the front and usually are finished and heading to breakfast by the time the last runners hit the starting line.
What do the Kenyans think of the crazy costumes?
"The Kenyans love this race," Fang said.
Most top runners, though, are focused on winning. Folsom's Midori Sperandeo, who won the 2009 masters women's title, says she was "kind of insulated from all the insanity. There's a kind of intense vibe and the focus is very much on the race."
Sometimes, though, the elites get into the spirit of the event. Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson raced in the 1985 Bay to Breakers. She won the women's title, easily, but found herself in a battle against the UC Davis Aggie centipede team, dressed as a giant lobster.
Benoit Samuelson, wearing lobster potholders on her hands, emerged victorious.
BAY TO BREAKERS
The 100th Bay to Breakers 12K starts at 7 a.m. next Sunday. The race, which begins at Howard and Beale streets near the Embarcadero and ends at Ocean Beach, is sold out, but there are plenty of places to view the runners. Popular spots include the Hayes Street hill, the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park.
For more information: zazzlebaytobreakers.com