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My First Bay-to-Breakers, 1981

The worst part for me about running the 70th annual Bay-to-Breakers was not the 27,300 official registered runners, or even the 10,000 or so unregistered runners entering from the sidelines throughout the 7.6-mile course. No, the worse part was the fact that it was scheduled on the same day as the 4th Annual Willits Hospital Run for Your Health.

The Hospital Run was my first ever road race three years ago, and worse than not being there to defend my title, was not being there to cheer on my 7-year-old son Eli. But I had been planning to run this colorful San Francisco cross-city footrace ever since I qualified as one of the elite runners with my 55:31 10-mile at the Labor Day Run last year in Santa Rosa, and I was really looking forward to it. I wished Eli good luck and headed down to The City. 

My goals were set: Place in the top 100 (there are only medals in the top 100); break 42 minutes (a 5:30 mile pace); and finish ahead of the first woman. If this last goal sounds a bit sexist, let me explain. The top female runners are improving rapidly, and if I can continue to beat them, I too will improve.

I arrived almost an hour early, so I parked my car a few blocks from the Howard and Spear Streets starting line and went into the YMCA for a cup of coffee. As I emerged and walked through the ever-swelling crowd, I noticed people staring at me. I heard one guy point at my number and say, “That guy must be fast.” 

They knew by the two-digit number (92) pinned to my singlet that I was in the seeded division. Most people had four- and five-digit numbers displayed on their chest. One guy read my Willits A.C. singlet and said, “Willits! Do you know Willits?”

“Huh? No, I live in Willits,” I told him.

“Oh, I didn’t know there was a town named Willits, I have a friend named Willits.”

While the 27,000 fun runners were crowding together behind a wall of yellow-jacketed race officials, we pampered seeded runners had the luxury of two roped-off city blocks to warm up, plus our own port-a-potties to make sure we don’t carry any extra load across The City. 

Being one of these nearly 200 seeded runners, from national to world class, was a big thrill for this small-town boy. I was recognizing people from their photos in running mags, and rubbing shoulders with a few Olympians, including two-time world cross-county champion and American 10K record-holder Craig Virgin. I was clearly outclassed, but nobody knew that but me. 

Then I saw Robert Clay of Lower Lake, one of the top runners in Northern California. He said he got so excited last year he went out in a 4:45 first mile without even trying. 

Then the 8 am countdown began for the largest footrace in history and the adrenaline flowed freely. When the gun went off, the front-runners were leaning over, fingering their stop watches, while the fun-runners in the rear were cheering and tossing their sweats up in the air.

The first few blocks were a controlled sprint to get ahead of as many unregistered runners as possible, as they were spilling in from the sidelines by the tens of hundreds.

Clay and I were running together at a slightly uncomfortable 5:15 mile pace, and just past the two mile mark at the bottom of Hayes Street Hill we looked up to see hundreds more still ahead of us, and even more entering from the sidelines. 

I just had to get to the top of Hayes Street Hill without going into oxygen debt, so I let Clay go, knowing my weekly mileage was much less than his. When I finally crested the hill, I shifted into cruise-control, knowing the rest of the race was downhill. 

Going down Kennedy Drive through Golden Gate Park was when the first-place centipede team passed me -- twenty-six rhythmic feet, thirteen heads all joined at the shoulders by a brightly painted strip of cloth.

These were the defending champion Aggies from Davis. They periodically slowed and circled and cheered themselves on. They were all fast runners that could have beat me, but they were having too much fun. And fun was what this race is all about.

According to race director Len Wallach, who wrote a book about this race, it’s been called a “happening,” a “circus,” and even occasionally a “footrace.”

With less than a half-mile to go I heard a spectator yell, “Here comes the first woman!”

I picked up my pace as I heard more people herald the first woman, and it seemed like she was getting closer, so I picked up my pace even more. Then as we turned onto the Great Highway, I heard footsteps coming up behind me and could see the finish line, so I sprinted to the tape. 

I looked back after I crossed the line and saw it was a male. The first woman, Laurie Binder, was eight seconds back in a record time of 41:47.

As we moved through the chute, I got a metal with 100 etched on it! If I hadn’t sprinted those last 400 yards I would have been passed, ending up 101st place and out of a medal.

I was euphoric! I had reached all three of my goals by the slimmest of margins. I jogged into Speedway Meadows to collect my T-shirt, pick up a free lite beer and bask in the rare City sunshine for a visual feast. 

By the time I went back for my third or fourth beer (but who’s counting?) the awards ceremony was in progress and the crowd was really getting thick.

Craig Virgin had broken his own record by five seconds with a 4:36 average mile pace and was pouring champagne down the neck of a KYUU disc jockey when Jim Lovejoy of Garberville walked up on stage. 

Lovejoy, who claims he runs 150 miles a week, had won the fun run division and was receiving a huge plaque. I was impressed. He started behind the seeded runners, zigzagging around all the unregistered cheaters to finish more than two minutes ahead me.

The last thing he said to me before disappearing into the crowd was, “See you at the Russian River Run.” Just what I wanted to hear. Two years ago, I was second to Clay and last year I was second to Lovejoy. I’ll be lucky to finish second again.

Clay was 141st with a 43:03, a slow time for him, but I noticed he ducked into the bushes in Golden Gate Park, so I knew more was flowing than adrenaline. 

Now the crazies were shuffling in. Med students pushing a hospital gurney, a ten-foot-tall tree, runners in suits and ties, a few on stilts, a caveman toting a club, and even a few naked females. I didn’t see them but when I heard there were some, I kept my eyes peeled. 

When the award ceremony was over, I looked around and realized we were packed in like sardines. I pushed my way to the buses to get a ride back to the starting line to get my car, but it was futile.

I finally squirmed loose and started jogging the seven and a half miles back to my car when a Blazer pulled alongside, full of half-drunken joggers, and offered me a lift.

They said they were so far back in the pack it took them 11 minutes to get to the starting line after the gun went off. They couldn’t believe I was 100th, so I showed them my medal and they treated me to a cold beer. Just what I needed.

If you missed the California Gold Rush or the Oklahoma Land Rush, there’s still a chance to get in the history books with next year’s Bay-to-Breakers!  

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