Bay to Breakers: Out of the Ashes a Famous Race is Born

The race originated in order to boost civic pride and unite San Franciscans after the 1906 earthquake devastation.
When people think of the Bay to Breakers 12K race, they usually think of the beautiful course, the costumed runners and the festive atmosphere.

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Few people are aware that the race originated as a result of a major U.S. disaster -- the 1906 earthquake, which leveled San Francisco -- and that it's one of the oldest footraces in the world.

At the height of the city's reconstruction -- a period of great economic uncertainty -- city leaders determined that an event was needed to boost civic pride and unite San Franciscans.

Thus, in 1912 they inaugurated an annual New Year's Day race to lift spirits; it was called the San Francisco Cross City Race. One hundred fifty runners (all male) ran that first race, and the winner was a local college student and part-time newspaper copy boy named Bobby Vlught who finished with a time of 45:10.

For the first 15 years the race was held annually on January 1st, changing months over the years, before permanently settling in 1957 on the third Sunday in May. The course itself also changed over time due to the city's ongoing economic development and construction of the underground train system. Incredibly, the first Cross City participants actually skirted the fire line of the 1906 quake in order to complete the race.

In 1940, the first woman, Bobbie Burke, ran the race dressed as a man because women weren't allowed on the course. She's considered the race's first costumed runner, setting off a costume tradition -- much imitated in other races -- that has endured to this day.

In a city as progressive as San Francisco, it's difficult to believe that the official women's division was not inaugurated until 1971. Neurosurgeon Dr. Frances Conley won that year with a time of 54:45.

The Cross City Race was renamed Bay to Breakers in 1963 and officially became a 12K distance in 1983 (the course had been slightly longer). In 1986, 76,769 people registered and 110,000 total participants jammed the course, and as a result, the Guinness Book of World Records named Bay to Breakers the World's Largest Footrace.

Between 1993 and 1996, Bay to Breakers was designated the first official 12K national championship by U.S.A. Track & Field, and in 1994 elite runners were allowed to use Bay to Breakers finishing times to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials. Over the years, many Olympians and other world-class athletes have run in the race and have produced American and world records.

This year marks the 99th consecutive race. As Bay to Breakers approaches its own centennial, it continues to grow as a destination race for runners from around the world while remaining a beloved race for San Franciscans.

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