Bay-to-Breakers race a time for celebrating fun aspect of sports
Joan Benoit, the women's Olympic marathon champion and last Sunday's San Francisco Bay-to-Breakers foot-race winner in the female division, waved to some 100,000 or more fellow runners, friends, and spectators at the award ceremony, her hand ludicrously gloved with red lobster potholders. The quiet Mainer had caught the spirit of the wackiest race in the world -- and the crowd roared its approval.Skip to next paragraph
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Benoit had been chased for seven and a half miles by a 13-man costume called the California Aggie Centipede, a 400-pound, 50-foot plastic-covered lobster, and various other goblins and ghosties among the estimated 85,000 official and unofficial entrants in this 74th edition of the self-proclaimed largest moving block party and running race in the world.
San Francisco, a city which revels in its eccentricities and its ability to laugh at itself, was an appropriate host for this hugging Carnivale on feet. It's also in keeping with the city's character that runners, fast and slow, recovered from the past year's Olympian seriousness, and learned to smile at themselves again.
Charlie Spedding, one of history's fastest marathoners, was asked what he thought of Gary Fanelli, running's certified crazy, who ran as ``Billy Chester Polyester,'' complete with early '50s garb. ``It's great,'' grinned the Olympic bronze medalist. ``I know Gary well. It's all right,'' he smiled, ``just as long as I beat him.'' He did, but not by very much.
In front of most of the costumed fun-runners was a small group of elite racers like Benoit, fellow US Olympic team members Paul Cummings and Julie Brown; British stars Spedding and two-time Boston Marathon winner Geoff Smith; New Zealand Olympic bronze medalist Rod Dixon, and a gentle Kenyan steeplechaser named Ibrahim Hussein.
The defending champion Hussein crested the infamous Hayes Street Hill first early in the race, and strode to the finish ahead of Smith in record time of 34:53.3. Smith, who had tried valiantly to close the 20-yard gap he lost on the Hayes hill, also sprinted under Rod Dixon's 1983 course record of 35:01. US Olympian Paul Cummings, who lost a furious sprint to Hussein in last year's race, also fell behind on the critical hill and finished a well-beaten but still swift third.
But it was the women runners who attracted the most attention, especially Benoit. While Brown was expected to give Benoit the toughest competition, her most celebrated matchup was with the Aggie ``centipede'' (by definition, 13 or more runners linked together in one costume.)
The California Aggies are well-known for their many national-class runners, but even better known for their Bay- to-Breakers Centipede, the easy winner in this class for the last seven years. The Aggie 'Pede, with mock macho bravado, had proclaimed loudly that they still intended to beat all the women again, even if they were running against an Olympic champion. The Aggies suffered a decisive defeat by over a minute to Benoit, and were further embarrassed as three other women outkicked the 'Pede in the stretch. Following Benoit, and happily ahead of the Aggies, were two local favorites, Nancy Ditz, the defending champion, and surprising Janine Aiello, just ahead of Brown. Benoit's time of 39:54.8 was good for 72nd place overall as she and four other women all broke Laurie Binder's 1983 course record of 41:05.5.
The Aggies took their defeat erratically, as usual. They surrounded Benoit and serenaded her with a peculiarly original tune called ``We are the world, we are the cent-i-pede.'' Benoit could only laugh while receiving their grudging congratulations.