Runner’s World

August 1979

Two Steps Ahead of the Running Boom

Tomorrow's Running Trends Are Displayed in the Bay-to-Breakers

Following the third-place finish at the Boston Marathon, Bob Hodge-a member of the Greater Boston Track Club, whose more famous members include Bill Rodgers and Randy Thomas-became swamped with telephone calls. The calls came from race directors around the country. There are only a limited number of "name" runners (including Rodgers, Garry Bjorklund, Frank Shorter, etc.) and a seemingly unlimited number of races seeking a "name" runner to legitimize them.

Hodge, a low-key, 23-year-old from Hanover, Massachusetts, where he works at The Runnery resoling shoes, was best known as the three-time winner and course record-holder of the annual Mount Washington (NH) Road Race, an event almost as low-key as Hodge himself. That was before his performance at Boston.

Of the phone calls Hodge received within the days following Boston, there was one to which he paid special attention. It was a call from the organizers of the country's largest, perhaps most bizarre road race, the San Francisco Bay-to-Breakers. They wanted him to join the other invited runners who would like up at a frail starting line while roughly 20,000 other people tried to crush them from behind and from both sides. Hodge accepted the invitation.

Within a month, then, he had gone from the relative serenity of challenging a mountain in New Hampshire, to the excitement of challenging the greatest marathoning field ever assembled when he raced at Boston, to accepting the challenge of outrunning 20,000 wild and crazy runners along a 7.6-mile course from San Francisco Bay to the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean.

Neither Mount Washington nor Boston had prepared Bob Hodge for the Bay-to-Breakers.

The Bay-to-Breakers began in 1912, sponsored by the San Francisco Bulletin. There were 186 starters and 121 finishers, and the winner was a young man named Bobby Vlught, who covered the distance for what was billed as "The Cross-City Race" in 44:10. Vlught credited his win to good coaching from Otto Rittler of St. Mary's College and his mother's good cooking. According to The Human Race, a book on the history of the event, the post-race victory breakfast consisted of IXL tamales, beans, day-old buns, hot dogs, coffee, and hot chocolate. The IXL tamales were a play on the words "I Excel" (sic).

The race continued to grow at a very modest rate. In 1962, 50 years after its inauguration, the event was still known as the "Cross-City Race." The finishers were still in much the same volume they'd been 50 years before. The race was so modest, in fact, that the AAU made attempts to move its traditional date of the third Sunday in May around to make room for swimming and track meets. The race had not yet arrived as a force to be dealt with in the city.

Things began changing in 1964, however. There were several factors involved. Sponsorship for the race was taken over by the News Call-Bulletin, the name was changed to The Bay-to-Breakers, and someone in the journalistic world (Walt Daley) began covering the event with insight, accuracy, and a sense of the race's importance. The great irony had always been (and still is) that the race received precious little newspaper coverage despite the fact that newspapers had always been its sponsor. (Coverage of the 1979 race in the morning San Francisco Chronicle consisted of a front-page photo and a story on page 22 that consisted of 9? inches plus a two-column photo of the winner.)

From the mid-1960s, the race would never be the same.

There had been years when there were less than 50 finishers. Beginning in 1964, there would be only one year when the number of finishers would backtrack. In 1965 there were 182 finishers, in 1966 there were 277, and in 1967 there were 473. People who'd never run a step in their lives wanted to start. Running was on the verge of breaking into the 1970s as the decade's very own sport; the race was also on the verge of creating a running superstar.

For six straight years (1968-1973), Kenny Moore of Oregon traveled to San Francisco to win the Bay-to-Breakers. The seventh year he was on assignment in England doing a story on Roger Bannister and was unable to attend the race. During Moore's domination (he made the Olympic marathoning team in 1968 and 1972), entries skyrocketed and the race began developing its current style. In 1968 there were 804 finishers when Moore completed the course in 38:15; in 1973, Moore covered the course in 37:15, ahead of 3519 finishers. His consistency was almost frightening. But so was the direction the race was taking.

Whereas at one time runners entered a race with the hope of winning it, the 1970s saw runners entering certain events merely to be a part of them. The Bay-to-Breakers was in the vanguard of that trend. It was understandable that such a trend should begin in San Francisco. The city had at one time spawned the Barbary Coast and at another time had produced the prototype of a national subculture at the corner of Haight-Ashbury. Now, the city annually hosted a "race" that spanned the entire runners' spectrum. There were racers who came to challenge the course and themselves; there were joggers who enjoyed having a mass race where they could socialize with people similar to themselves and run farther than ever before; and there were people who ran the race because it was a sort of mobile carnival-an excuse for them to act weird one more day out of the year by wearing a gorilla suit or running nude.

The Bay-to-Breakers of the 1970s had become a crazy festival that moved from the Embarcadero area near the wharves, up Howard Street, across Market, up Hayes Street (a sizable hill that separates the joggers from the runners), and down through Golden Gate Park to the Great Highway skirting the ocean. The start of the race, though prompt the past few years, has generally been a nightmare. Top runners are seeded at the starting line and given color-coded ribbons, which they attach to themselves to later confirm that they'd run the entire distance. Then they are turned loose into a melee.

The problem comes about because at least a quarter of the starters begin the race from side streets beyond the starting line, rather than from behind it where a sea of runners swarms like an ant collection gathered around a dollop of honey, the mass of runners from behind surges forward as the starting gun is fired, giving those in front no choice but to run for their lives. Unfortunately, more masses are pushing in from side streets, creating the sensation that you are taking part in a serial cliffhanger with walls closing in on you from both sides.

Bob Hodge, after traveling all the way from Massachusetts, had the urge to quit almost as soon as the starting gun fired as he saw the two walls of humanity converging, about to crush him. He couldn't very well quite, however, because although there were at least 2500 runners pressing in from each side, there were another 15,000 runners pushing from behind. In desperation, he turned on some speed and squirted through the imbroglio, searching for daylight, along with a handful of other top runners.

In 1978, eventual winner Gerard Barrett (of Australia) started the race a block ahead of the official start. He had planned on arriving a half-hour before the race, assuming that he would have time to make his way to the starting line. There was not enough time, and he found himself coming off a sidestreet with the pack, where he worked his way around the joggers and pushed to the lead. His time was a record-breaking 35:17.4, although when he explained in the post-race interview what had happened to him, a howl of protest was raised. In typical San Francisco fashion, however, Barrett's victory was allowed to stand. (His record was unofficial, though, and was broken this year.)

Also in typical San Francisco fashion, the race had taken a quantum jump, becoming a celebration of the city's rather eccentric reputation. Even serious runners began to take the Bay-to-Breakers less than seriously. In 1978 a highly competitive local running club headquartered at the University of California-Davis entered 13 members as a giant centipede, complete with pipe cleaners taped to their legs as exaggerated hair. For 1979 the club had managed to generate enough centipede enthusiasm to be challenged by other groups of 13 runners in centipede costumes, running under a separate set of centipede rules. The Aggie Running Club successfully defended its centipede title against a strong challenge from arch-rival West Valley Track Club; the Aggie centipede was so fast, in fact, that it placed 20th through 32nd.

There was also a rivalry between a huge six-pack of Budweiser and a six-pack of Heineken beer. The Heineken six-pack had some structural damage before crossing Market Street, but managed to repair itself and pass the Budweiser on the way up Hayes Street Hill. A great deal of enthusiasm for that particular rivalry came from city firemen stationed as intersections along Hayes Street.

It a blatant show of sexism, a nude male runner was led off the course by city police while a nude female was allowed to run unmolested. The comment of one runner to another as the female jounced past: "She must be getting more mileage in. She looks like she's lost a few pounds since last year."

There were again gorillas running the route, making overtures to young ladies, who took all of it in stride. There was a group of toga-clad youths who had constructed a chariot that lost a wheel a mile into the race. There were costumed superheroes who waved to the crowds and who took time to shake hands with kids along the route. A runner again ran with a bag over his head, commemorating the Unknown Jogger. A middle-aged couple, both slim and athletic-looking, ran in formal wear. One fellow wore a gas-mask, tights, and a checkered-flag-type cape with mirrors sewn into it, topped by a sign declaring University of Mars Track Club.

The eccentrics at the Bay-to-Breakers make it unlike any other race in the world. But the race's very size comes from the local closet runners, many of whom compete in no other race all year. They go into training two weeks before the Bay-to-Breakers and hang up their tennis shoes again for a year afterward. Many, though, use the Bay-to-Breakers as their first-ever race and go on to many of the hundreds of other races held annually in the San Francisco Bay Area. Still others enter the race knowing they are going to have to walk much of it, but also realizing they will have plenty of good-natured company along the way, both huffing and puffing next to them and offering encouragement from the sidelines. One hooker along the north side of Hayes Street yelled herself hoarse extolling all the "beautiful runners" to "go get it, make that hill," while making side comments to acquaintances about how it was worth staying up until this hour (8:00 a.m.) to see something like this; she used as much energy cheering on the runners as the runners used struggling up the long hill.

Hayes Street Hill was both literally and figuratively the high point of the race. Besides separating the joggers from the runners, it also separated the Heineken from the Budweiser (the Heineken took the hill with relative ease, primarily due to a superior suspension design). And it was here that the Aggies' centipede broke the challenge from the West Valley and Hodge used his hill-running ability to put the competition in perspective.

"At a mile and a half," Hodge said, "there was a pack of about 10 of us. I felt at a disadvantage because I didn't know who my competition was. A guy from Colombia (Joaquin Leano, who would ultimate place second) was about 50 yards in front of us. At first we didn't know if he'd just jumped in or what. But pretty soon, from watching the way he moved, we knew he was a real racer.

"I keyed on him," Hodge continued, "and had closed to about 10 yards of him by the time we reached Hayes Street Hill. I didn't know what to expect from the rest of the guys in the lead pack, because several of them were from New Zealand and I'd never run against them before. But my strategy, since I'm a pretty good uphill runner and terrible on downhills, was to blast Hayes Street. I really chugged up that hill! At the top I was about 50 yards in the lead but I was really hurting. I sailed the rest of the way down through the park on momentum. If I hadn't been leading by the top of the hill, I'd never have won."

While the army of volunteers in the scoring chutes along the Great Highway positioned themselves for the onslaught of 12,000 official finishers-and about 8000 unofficial runners who would have to be weeded out of the chutes before they reached the official scorers-Hodge began to assert himself more confidently. The route behind him, meanwhile, was an unprecedented river of humanity from curb to curb and more than two miles long.

Along the Great Highway, with the Pacific Ocean sending in winds that are so forcefully consistent that trees in the vicinity grow at odd angles with the direction of the wind, a convoy of trucks stood nearby ready to display their wares to the army of approaching runners. Everything from bottled water and T-shirts to running newsletters and massage services, from running shoe resoling to mobile podiatry clinics, were represented. When the wave of runners came following Bob Hodge's record-setting 36:50.9, it was much like the ocean that beat against the shore 100 yards away; wave after wave of runners rolled against the convoy of trucks until everything but the tops of the trucks was obscured. And still the waves came.

The crowd snaked back for miles, a thing of varied colors that wound through Golden Gate Park, contrasted sharply against the greenery and the knots of spectators who had braved the earlier-than-usual hour this year or who had happened into the park for an early-morning stroll, only to find the park, so quiet at that hour except for the deep-throated sound of the fog-horns keeping freighters off the rocks, filled with thousands of happily-perspiring runners and kooks. Some of the starters had dropped off along the way, finding that either the lures of the neighborhoods they'd passed through were pulling too strongly on them (In one neighborhood beyond the downside of Hayes Street Hill, a group of beer-drinking spectators were blaring Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty" out their second-floor window, inviting runners to join them for some socializing.), or that the slightly insane spark that had managed to get them out of bed so early had faltered and died and that it was leaving them with a new respect for running, for hills, and for 7.6 miles.

Coming up behind the nearly 20,000 runners were the traditional "meat wagons": Two community ambulances that were doing a sweep of the tail of the snake of runners, ready to pick up and take care of anyone whose enthusiasm had outrun their physical preparation for the distance. Occasionally, the tail-end people would pass a runner who was lying beside the course, being administered to by fellow runners; the scene and reaction was the same on those scattered instances: Someone who had been enthusiastic but untrained, who had tried to go out with the leaders instead of staying with his own kind, where he could enjoy it, paying the price. At the sight of the several prone runners receiving aid and comfort from their fellows, a murmur went through the field, with a wary comment of "Don't they know this is supposed to be fun?" surfacing.

The real spirit of a race the size of the Bay-to-Breakers was probably best summed up by a 5-year-old who was doggedly and seriously running along just slightly behind the middle-aged couple, trying desperately not to seem too pleased by the frequent applause he'd received for his efforts from spectators along the curbs. When a relatively quiet and unoccupied 10 square yards of roadway presented itself, the little guy looked up at his father and asked, just loud enough for his father to hear: "Where's Mommy?"

Without missing a stride, the boy's father, misunderstanding him, replied: "She'll be here next year."

More than any expert observers of the trends in the Bay-to-Breakers, that boy's father had summarily summed up the future of the race.