Bay to Breakers (just try it)

By 7:42 a.m., I’d been hit in the face with a tortilla twice. I followed the second floury disk with my eyes as it hit the road beneath me, and I noticed dozens like it all over the ground. By 8:10 a.m., when my corral of runners took off at the annual Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco, I counted 21 people getting hit in the head with tortillas. More notably, I counted zero people who seemed bothered.

That’s because the tortilla toss is just one of dozens of weird traditions at Bay to Breakers, an annual footrace that has run for more than a century. The 12K, that’s about 7.4 miles, draws tens of thousands of registered and unregistered runners and walkers every year — most in costume, some tied together like human centipedes, many naked, almost all smiling. I’ve run a lot of races, and this was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

There is a lot to talk about when it comes to Bay to Breakers. A mass of people is bound to raise issues. Mix in the drinking and nudity, spread them across the city, and you’re set up for some contention. Transportation was delayed everywhere, residents have long complained about public urination and rowdiness, and let’s face it, no matter how progressive a city is, not everyone is up for a naked stampede.

But all of that aside, I want to talk about one beautiful thing that struck me the hardest Sunday about Bay to Breakers: the celebration. A celebration when I really needed one. Which is only fitting. The race itself was founded to be a celebration when the city desperately needed one more than 100 years ago. And a celebration it certainly is.

Bay to Breakers started after the 1906 earthquake and fire that decimated the city. Organizers thought a run across San Francisco — from the Bay to the Pacific Ocean  — would boost morale. So in 1912, 186 runners ran the inaugural race and the event took off from there. In 1986, about 110,000 participants set a world record for the World’s Largest Footrace.

I am in the thick of marathon training. I have a lofty, hopefully reachable, goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon — a common, yet challenging aspiration in the marathon community. For me, my once-favorite pastime has started to feel like a job. Early mornings, achy legs, long runs, close attention to pace and distance — I am in a bit of a slump. Getting my marathon time from 3:58 to 3:35 is taking a lot out of me on every front, and the last half dozen runs have been more work than joy. My usual escape from stress is stressing me out. And I could really use my escape. I am still adjusting to my move from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, someone I love dearly is battling struggling health, life is busy — as it often is. And I was losing perspective — as we often do.

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But as I took to the starting line, slapped silly by tortillas, I couldn’t help but laugh as four people dressed as bananas pushed their way through the crowd to hug a man dressed like a sumo wrestler. Someone dressed like Bernie Sanders paused for a photo. A man dressed like a giant piece of bacon chatted nonchalantly with a friend.

As the crowd started running, I felt the way I do on the best of runs. Like I am flying. Like running is a celebration of life. I passed a runner dressed as a can of Spam with a robot mask, running alongside a man in a green leaf skirt, draped in purple balloons — a bunch of grapes, clearly. I laughed out loud. Men and women of all body types and ages ran naked through Golden Gate Park, some stopping to high-five excited bystanders along the way. Some stopped to pose for pictures that would undoubtedly go on social media. No one seemed to care.

There were a lot of things happening around me, but we all seemed to share one thing: We were happy to be where we were right at that very moment. And we were all thrilled by how just by showing up, we’d collectively agreed to celebrate that we’re in a city where people are OK with being weird — not just for the day. We’re human. It’s funny, it’s messy, it’s how we are meant to be.

It felt good, for a few hours, to let loose. To celebrate a beautiful day with people who, for whatever reason, also needed a celebration. Bay to Breakers left a lot of great memories, a reminder that we shouldn’t take life too seriously, and a deep, much-needed excitement for tomorrow’s long run. Oh, and a lot of soggy tortillas.

This story originally appeared in USA TODAY

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