San Francisco footrace: a competition of costumes

On the starting line at the corner of Howard and Spear, Bullwinkle the moose and the Bay Bridge are jockeying for position. A herd of yellow foam-rubber M&Ms weaves through the crowd, chased by a gangly gent shouldering a 7-foot oak toothbrush. Boooom! The gun sounds and 80,000 costumed crazies are off in the annual Bay to Breakers run.m

Last weekend, on a dare, I ran in the world's biggest and funniest footrace. Seven and a half miles over cable-car hills, past gingerbread Victorians, through Golden Gate Park, finishing at the Pacific Ocean. Bay to Breakers. San Franciscans' rite of spring. Woodstock on sneakers.

I confess I am not, and never have been, a jogger. The only running I do is a chilly 10-yard dash to retrieve my morning paper from the bushes. But for the last several months my San Franciscan friends badgered me: ''Come on. This isn't a race. Think of it as a moving block party, a joggers' parade.'' Against my better journalistic judgment I succumbed, figuring it couldn't be worse than covering the World Wrist Wrestling Championship in which I got throttled by a 390-pound Hawaiian named Homer. So I rose at dawn, tugged on my purple swimming trunks, stuffed a $20 bill in my tennis shoe (in the event my legs gave out on the Hayes Street Hill and I had to hail a cab), and headed for the Ferry Building on the Bay.

Eighteen minutes ago the starting gun went off and only now am I stumbling across the starting line. Thousands are still behind me, shoulder to shoulder. In 17 more minutes New Zealander Rod Dixon will break the tape at the finish line on Ocean Beach. As he wins, hundreds of runners downtown are still crossing the starting line.m

The first race, run on New Year's Day in 1912, celebrated San Francisco's quick recovery from the devastation of the earthquake six years earlier. One hundred twenty-one runners finished the first Cross-City Race, and until 1964 the number never exceeded 126. But this year runners outnumbered even the 73,000 American troops who hit the Normandy beaches jogging on D-Day. So much for the loneliness of the long-distance runner in 1983.

About halfway up the infamous Hayes Street Hill (runners call it ''THE HILL'' as if it were a grade B horror flick), a loudspeaker in the fourth-story window of a Queen Anne Victorian is blasting the theme song from ''Rocky.'' I lumber past a roller-skating hockey player and am gaining on the Velveeta Cheese. Coming from behind is a chain of college boys wrapped in green plastic trash bags, carrying ficus branches and chanting ''The Hedge! The Hedge!''m

There are a few seeded runners, but the most serious competition is the costumes. This year entrants disguised themselves as everything from post cards to redwood trees and the Transamerica Pyramid. Some ran in garbage cans, others in wedding dresses. (One year, two joggers were married during the race.) The ''human centipede'' division (in which at least 13 people run linked together) included a ''mobile fern bar'' complete with hanging plants and pinwheel fan, a cardboard Mayflower shouldered by 13 Brits dressed as pilgrims, and 26 Chi Psi fraternity brothers who ran with a 132-foot replica of the Bay Bridge over their heads.

In Golden Gate Park, by the buffalo paddock (where nine buffalo roam), my legs begin to mutiny. I scan the horizon for the press truck. No such luck. At Mile 7 I pass three grunting cave men close on the heels of 13 housewives in bunny suits. Then I begin to feel a breeze off the Pacific. Finally, the Great Highway, breakers on the beach, and the Stanford marching band to greet us. Near the finish line comes a shout from the rear: ''Tutu coming through!'' A frumpy fellow in pink tights and ballerina costume scurries past the finish line near a bronze bust of Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who discovered the South Pole. I could have sworn the old Viking smirked.m

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