SAN FRANCISCO – Preparing to sleep during a groggy Monday-morning flight home last May, I noticed a spot of bright green paint in the ear of the guy sitting next to me.
Then I saw green remnants beneath his fingernails. And a 2- by 4-inch bandage on the side of his right foot.
I knew immediately that we had been at the same place the day before: Bay to Breakers, the 12-kilometer footrace that travels west across the San Francisco peninsula from the bay to the Pacific Ocean’s breaking waves.
Sure enough, when I asked about his foot, the man, a 24-year-old named Jon, said: “I was running across the tops of some Porta Potties, and my foot went between them. I cut it open.
“I’m pretty sure I was dared to do it. People were cheering me on – I remember that. The people in the Porta Potties weren’t too happy.”
And the green?
“I was dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle,” he explained.
A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle running across the tops of portable toilets? Exactly what kind of 12K is this?
In a sense, Bay to Breakers is a serious race. As many as 50,000 people from all 50 states and 25 countries traverse the 7.46-mile course, which follows some of the city’s most handsome neighborhoods and legendary peaks, including the long, sloping Hayes Street Hill.
Bay to Breakers has been a qualifier for Olympic trial races and – perhaps the clearest sign of its legitimacy – the top four male and top six female finishers last year were Kenyans and Ethiopians.
In another (and possibly more accurate) sense, Bay to Breakers is a party. In years past it has included costumes, floats and booze – among both the runners and the unregistered thousands trailing behind.
Think mobile San Francisco Mardi Gras, but with sweaty people in shorts and tank tops in the lead.
Bay to Breakers started as the Cross City Race, with 122 runners, in 1912 to lift spirits following the earthquake that had devastated the city six years earlier.
Its current state can be traced to 1940, when the first costumed runner took part. Though Captain Kidd finished last, he gave birth to a movement.
Last year’s crowd, among runners and nonrunners, included astronauts, clergy, penguins, dinosaurs, airline captains and fetching flight attendants, Cap’n Crunch, several Marios and Luigis (of video game fame) and even more Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
This being San Francisco, there were mock BP executives smeared with oil and bird feathers and tea party impostors holding signs that asked, “Where’s Obama’s birth certifikate?”
Also common is no costume at all – that is, good ol’ progressive nakedness.
But at its 100th running, Bay to Breakers finds itself at a crossroads.
In recent years, organizers have threatened to ban floats and alcohol but relented in the run-up to the race. The ban is on for this year’s race on May 15, and there will be no relenting, said spokesman Sam Singer.
Zany costumes are still encouraged, as is nakedness. “Naked runners are very good patrons of Bay to Breakers,” Singer said.
For the first time in years, though, floats and booze will be forbidden.
“Last year got out of hand,” Singer said. “We’ve tried accommodating the pro-alcohol and pro-float crowd, but they just don’t have the ability to police themselves.”
The race can get a little rowdy; 30 people were taken to hospitals last year, according to news reports, and I saw a few people relieving themselves in the streets.
That said, there has been such tough talk before with little or no impact on the party. Bay to Breakers regulars still will assemble floats and will take their chances with the beverages they pour into plastic containers.
No matter the flavor of the Bay to Breakers this year, the combination of serious running and festive play makes the event – whether you think of it as a race, a party or a parade – a cultural must.
Bonus points if you enjoy running, then quenching your thirst with whatever creative beverage your neighbor is pouring, like the “Turtle Ooze” one band of Ninja Turtles was offering last year. (Gatorade and vodka: That often doesn’t end well.)
But in the end, what makes Bay to Breakers so memorable isn’t the booze, the floats or even the costumes; it’s taking your time while crossing one of the world’s great cities. Slowly drinking my way through the course made me want to come back to run it with clear eyes.
One person thought that was a ridiculous notion.
“No way,” Jon said. “There’s too much fun to be had. The friends I’ve had who have run it regretted it because they missed the fun. And they’re in no shape to party.”
Which goes to show that Bay to Breakers is what you make it.