Challenging 12K Run to an Eccentric Beat

A team of 13 runners are tethered together for the centipede competition.  Credit: Photo by Sport Photo
While the San Francisco's ING Bay to Breakers 12K is often depicted as just a city-crossing party in the streets, serious runners contend that it is much more than that.

All agree that the event's wild, party atmosphere and on-and-off-course tomfoolery are a fun and inextricable part of the ING Bay to Breakers equation -- not to mention a colorful reflection of its host city's own spirit of tireless revelry and charmingly eccentric beat. Still, they insist that the fun and games in no way detract from the competitiveness of the event, nor lessen the desire of serious athletes to win it.

A True Challenge

"Bay to Breakers is a pretty big deal within the running community," explains former elite miler Richie Boulet. "It's one of those races where, when another runner finds out you're from the Bay Area, their first question is usually, 'Have you done Bay to Breakers?'"

ING Bay to Breakers has become an annual family tradition for Boulet and his wife, Magdalena Lewy-Boulet, who was the top American woman to cross the finish line at the event in 2006 and finished 12th at the ING New York City Marathon that same year. "The people who win [Bay to Breakers] are absolutely some of the best in the world," he adds.

"It's a hard race to win because the quality of the field is absolutely phenomenal," says Peter Gilmore, the top American finisher at ING Bay to Breakers in 2005. In 2006, Gilmore placed seventh at the Boston Marathon and was the first American to cross the finish line at the ING New York City Marathon.

"It's definitely world-class," he adds. "In the 10-12K range, there are three or four races that I'd say are sort of cream of the crop. And Bay to Breakers is definitely one of them. They get the best [athletes] every year. If you want to win, you better show up ready."

"In terms of competitiveness, the organizers have done a great job marketing it to serious athletes," says Boulet. "And the prize money has really helped put it on the map."

The course too makes the ING Bay to Breakers more challenging than similar races. While affording competitors a run-by tour of six uniquely different parts of San Francisco -- from the wide avenues of the bayside Embarcadero, the sky-touching glass-and-steel towers of the downtown Financial District and edgy urban cool of South of Market, to the quaint village charm of Hayes Valley, the Victorian beauty of the Alamo Square Park area and the sprawling green of Golden Gate Park.

Over the Hill

The ING Bay to Breakers course also presents a unique challenge -- the much-dreaded Hayes Street Hill.

Just two-and-a-half miles into the 7.46-mile race, runners find themselves at the base of the Hayes Street Hill -- a steep and intimidating 11.15 percent grade incline that takes them from sea level to 215 feet above sea level in five, long blocks.

In 2006, race organizers created the Hayes Street Summit Award, a first-ever cash prize to the first runner in both the women and men's open division to reach the top of the hill.

"There are harder courses, but that hill is tough," explains Richie Boulet. "It's pretty unusual to find a hill that steep in the middle of a road race."

"Yeah, it's bad," jokes Celedonio Rodriguez, the top American finisher at last year's ING Bay to Breakers. "Bay to Breakers literally has its ups and downs. For me, it's not that bad going up. It's coming down that's hard, because you've just finished climbing and your legs are trying to recover."

But, for Peter Gilmore, the challenge of the Hayes Street Hill is more mental than physical. "What's tough is that, once you've attacked that hill and you get to the top, you know you've still got a long way to go."

A True Team Effort

Another unique aspect of the nearly century-old event is the centipede competition in which 13-person teams run, literally tethered together. It is believed that Bay to Breakers was the first race in the country to create a centipede division and award cash prizes to centipede teams.

Centipede members say that, while the centipede aspect presents a unique set of challenges, it also presents a unique set of rewards. That may explain why the organizers of ING Bay to Breakers are reporting an increase in the number of registered centipede teams.

"It's not easy for 13 people to run at the exact same pace," explains Richie Boulet, who captains the AutoDesk-sponsored TranSports Adidas Racing Team centipede. "In fact, it's pretty tough. We're all pack animals, but running is inherently such an individual event. So it's fun to run with a bunch of people you're friends with. I'd say that, in some ways, it's even more rewarding."

Adding Fun to the Run

Putting a fun spin on the athletic but staid nature of running events is the never-a-dull-moment aspect of ING Bay to Breakers -- a one-of-a-kind event where superstars of the running world gladly share the limelight with thousands of costumed revelers under a hail of airborne tortillas.

"It definitely makes it more interesting than a lot of the other events," says Peter Gilmore.

"I think I actually run faster when I'm distracted," jokes Christine Lundy, the top American female finisher at the 2004 Bay to Breakers and the top American female finisher at the 2006 Los Angeles Marathon.

All joking aside, the athletes insist that, even though ING Bay to Breakers' thunder is often muffled by the resounding boom of bigger and better-known events, serious runners still consider an ING Bay to Breakers win to be a personal and professional highlight.

"Sure, winning Boston or New York would be a big deal," says Peter Gilmore. "But winning Bay to Breakers, for me personally, would mean a lot too. I would put it close, as far as prestige level."

Richie Boulet adds, "It's one of those things that every runner should experience at least once."

ING Bay to Breakers: May 20, 2007 in San Francisco, CA For details, visit

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