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.

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.

The front-runners were watched with considerable interest and enthusiasm, but it was the common everyday runners and costumed menageries for whom thousands erected lawn chairs and munched picnic breakfasts, some as early as two and a half hours before the race surged into Golden Gate Park. Parties -- those not in the street -- were in nearly every apartment overlooking the race. Music, of the extremely loud variety, blared from every available electronic gizmo, and the runners, even up the steeply famous Hayes Street Hill, were smiling.

A local restaurant constructed the lobster centipede, powered by chanting waiters, waitresses, and harried management. There were at least 40 pairs of ``Blues Brothers,'' complete with ancient suits; a flock of flamingoes; two huge green tennis shoes; and dozens of wandering silicon chips. The University of California at Berkeley marching band strutted through the race in high style, although the tuba players dragged a little at the end.

Everyone seemed to have fun, regardless of his or her running speed. And everyone seemed to like the rest of the fellow migrating running lemmings.

``It was my happiest moment in sport,'' said blind runner Tom Sullivan minutes after being guided across the finish line by 1983 New York Marathon champion Dixon. Unable to run at his normal competitive level because of an injury, Dixon had cheerfully offered to guide composer and musician Sullivan through the throngs. ``People were shouting encouragement all the time, and Rod was giving me a hilarious commentary on the costumed runners. It's great that a world-class runner like Rod will run back in the pack with someone like me. I wish I was in better shape and we could have gone faster. But in this race it doesn't matter. I do know,'' Sullivan continued, ``that I have found a very great friend.''

While Sullivan and others admired the gallant Dixon, the greatest affection was saved for Benoit.

Since bursting onto the world running scene as a Bowdoin college student wearing a backwards Red Sox hat to win the first of her two Boston Marathons, the tiny Mainer had set the women's world record and become the first women's Olympic marathon champion.

Bay-to-Breakers crowds had watched along with millions on TV as the frail-looking but determined Benoit had destroyed the finest women's marathon field ever assembled at Los Angeles last summer.

Many also recalled her astonishing earlier victory in the US Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., just 17 days after surgery on her knee. Not knowing if she could complete the distance at any speed, Benoit ran one of the most ferociously willful races in history, and then endearingly burst into tears at the finish.

That night, after the awards ceremony, she melted into her husband-to-be Scott Samuelsen's arms, no longer needing to be so independently strong. She perched her tiny track shoes on Samuelsen's large feet, and shuffled along to the music in exhausted relief. It seemed clear then that whatever Olympic madness lay ahead, Benoit had friends, and win or lose, she would always be loved.

If the Bay-to-Breakers was Sullivan's happiest moment in sport, it was also one of sport's happiest moments as well. Forgotten in the cool morning fog were sport's recent troubled history, controversies, and turmoil. Finally, last year's burden of Olympic perfection dissolved, allowing the stazrs to become human, and making modest lives and achievements admirable and acceptable again.

As Benoit waved her lobster paws goodbye to the adoring thousands, the shrill cry of ``Go for the Gold'' had finally been quieted, smiles were everywhere, and sport was on a lower key once again.

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