The Asparagus Wore Sneakers

Clowns, caterpillars head for sea in oldest footrace in the US - a letter from San Francisco

`TO understand San Francisco you have to run Bay to Breakers," said a man wearing a multicolored, balloon headdress that could put Apache chief Cochise to shame.

"You have to feel the hills, smell the smells," he said, "bump shoulders with the people."

I had received similar enticements from local newspapers (Chronicle, Examiner), Channels 4, 5, 7, and 11 as well as the live news copters that buzzed outside my hotel Sunday at 7 a.m. like invading bombers. Just below, 80,000 strong, were the "people" - participants of this city's annual rite of sanctioned lunacy, the 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) footrace from South of Market Street (The Bay), through town, Golden Gate Park, and finishing at Ocean Beach, Pacific Ocean (Breakers).

What the Rose Parade is to Pasadena or the marathon is to Boston, "Bay to Breakers" is to San Francisco.

With the very thin excuse of running for charity, participants dress as cave men, Vikings, clowns, animals, plants, appliances, buildings, food. There are dozens of collective costumes - multiple bodies-become-one - from caterpillars to bridges to submarine sandwiches. And when the going gets tough, the zaniest - about 60 this year - get nude.

I had heard about this race before. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it is the oldest footrace in America, begun in 1912 to celebrate the city's rebirth after the 1906 fire. Now sponsored by the San Francisco Examiner as a major charities fund-raiser - collecting $12 a pop for entrants - the race has become one of the most famous in America for its ever-liberalizing celebration of let-it-all-hang-out individualism.

"It has become sort of runners and weirdos unite," the Examiner's Paul Avery told me. "And it's not just San Francisco's race anymore. They come from all over America and around the world."

A few hundred serious runners still vie for cash prizes, sanctioned records, and Olympic berths. But the great majority use the "race" as an outlet for pent-up creativity, donning foam, paper, and cardboard for exaggerated limbs and bodies. "I gotta run in my stocking," said the placard of one man, wearing a 12-foot papier-mache leg, covered with makeshift "fishnet" nylon.

Pulled in by the clamor and communality, I changed to walking shoes and joined the proceedings. Half urban, half rustic, the race's city smells give over to eucalyptus and chirping birds inside Golden Gate park. A different, live band twangs away every mile. The upbeat mood is infectious.

At the six-mile mark, five judges with rating cards meet and greet the costumed contestants: Michael the Milkman from Palo Alto, a woman from Kansas dressed as a bagel, a drag Whitney Houston. My favorites were 20 guys in Hawaiian shirts with cardboard shark fins for hats, five people dressed as a San Francisco kelp bed, seven in styrofoam Viking horns.

I also met some walking asparagus from Stockholm, a toothbrush from Sydney, and two guys on skis from Menlo Park.

Just past the judges, it's all downhill to the sea. Tables of bottled water greet the finishers, who collapse briefly on the beach then revive for the one day when the city's several neighborhoods unite for the same dance, food, and music festivities.

Post-race exhaustion augurs well for the dropping of social niceties, and taste. Bad puns abound. I asked one parking meter how he felt after running six miles in hot sun beneath cardboard. "Expired," he replied. I took the cue when my headress-festooned acquaintance caught up to me collapsed on the curb.

"Do you have a better feeling for the city having run its most famous race?" he asked.

"I only walked," I said. "So my understanding remains pedestrian."

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