Bay to Breakers
San Francisco, California
15 May 2016
After months of anticipation, planning and preparation Bay to Breakers had arrived. It was time for me to put my naked running hobby to the test in a completely different situation. My previous naked runs had been easily categorised either by being in complete nature, barefoot on a mostly deserted beach, or in a naturist context as part of a timed, organised naked run surrounded (and organised) by other naturists.
By contrast, this would be my longest timed race (previously 10k), my longest naked run (previously 8k) and my first naked run through a city with an assembled crowd watching.
Bay to Breakers is different to other 12ks. It is the oldest (so they claim) continuously operating timed race in the world (105 years and counting). It is running through the city streets and Golden Gate Park. It is mostly clothed (more on this later) and it has more recently become the king of the wacky costume races. When I knew I was returning to California, how could I ignore the opportunity to run through this fabulous, liberal city naked? One of my biggest concessions was the fact that the UK Naturist Foundation would be holding their twice-annual 5k naked run on the exact same day. So running Bay to Breakers meant that I’d have to forgo the opportunity to run that timed naked race for the 3rd time.
Nevertheless, I looked forward to Bay to Breakers with great anticipation.
However, my body and mind had other ideas: an unconscious, yet consistent sabotage was occurring within me over the two weeks prior to the race.
First my feet went on the blink. Not quite as badly or as painful as Achilles tendonitis three years ago when I started running for the first time, but still incredibly sore and debilitating. I still don’t know what exactly went wrong, but the timing of this annoying niggle was perfect to reduce my training (instead of every other day, I didn’t run in the week prior to the race) and this prompted me to consider giving up the run altogether.
Second was the weather forecast. As documented elsewhere on this blog, I run naked for how it feels and this is more easily achieved on warm, sunny, calm days. After a stretch of beautiful weather in April, May has been consistently cold in the City by the Bay, especially in the morning. The race forecast was for 12c and fog. Yuck. Not the conditions for naked running I seek or appreciate and reminiscent of my difficult naked run on Fuerteventura in February.
Third was the events of the prior day. I usually – for longer timed runs, naked or clothed – forgo food the day before so that I run with a completely empty digestive system. (This may be the subject of a dedicated blog post one day). Suffice to say here that fasting makes me feel significantly lighter and more limber on the day of the run. But I bailed out on this normal behaviour: I had a huge lunch the day before the race. I knew what I was doing. It was as if I was building up reasons to abandon the race the following morning.
Fourth and most importantly was how Bay to Breakers has become a corporate behemoth in a city that is growing more quickly more conservative as it transitions from liberal hippie enclave to the seat of the world’s most important companies and their employees. For the past three years (exacerbated by a change in laws regulating public nudity in San Francisco) police have been on an apparent crack down against the naked participants of Bay to Breakers. Being a Bay to Breakers virgin, I was keen to understand the risk I may be taking in running naked. Selected runners in previous years had been cited with tickets and/or chased down by police men on bikes. This is not the naked running experience I’m interested in, so I spent quite a lot of time trying to understand and anticipate what might happen. I was prepared to bail out at anytime if I felt like the run was not providing me with the orgasm of the psyche.
Observing all of these points, the night before I decided that I would see how I felt on the morning of the race. If I felt up to it, I would go. If not, I wouldn’t force myself.
I woke hours before my 06:30 alarm clock (by the way: who decides to have races start at 8am? This is the stupidest decision ever!). And, lo and behold, the sky was blue, there was no fog and the temperature was already 15c and rising fast. The weather forecasts were completely wrong. The sun/climate always make the final call in my personal universe, so I enthusiastically decided “I’m doing this!“.
To warm-up, I ran down to the starting corrals wearing my lightest, skimpiest running shorts and a disposable t-shirt; I didn’t want to get cold in the 30 minute wait for the starting gun. I passed by the spot where the Bare2Breakers organised group of naked runners meet prior to the race. I’m glad I did! I had tried to find someone in my speed category to run with but hadn’t had any lunch. This friendly group put me at ease immediately and one of the runners was in my corral so I would have a veteran to accompany me, at least until the starting gun fired.
It was a zoo. 40,000 people. Most in extravagant costumes. My corral however was mostly ‘serious’ runners in running gear and fitness bands, only a few hundred meters from the official starting gates.
The SOMA Flats
After a long wait we set off. As the crowd started to shuffle towards the start line I discarded my redundant t-shirt and slipped off my shorts (balled up into my hand for the next hour). It was quite a scrum, but well-managed so no one got crushed.
The first thing I noticed as I negotiated – slalom-like – the surprising number of random walkers meandering down the race course (were they drunk already at 8am?) was the almost lack of observers along the route. Where was everyone? This was supposed to be one of San Francisco’s spectator events akin to the Gay Pride Parade (in fact many locals have renamed Bay to Breakers ‘Straight Pride’). But to my surprise the crowds were light for the entire length of the course. Perhaps becuase I was starting early with the serious runners? The participants would continue to depart the starting gate for over an hour, so spectators had plenty of time to assemble.
Within the first km I overtook another naked runner. We waved in appreciation. Like many of the naked crowd he was more of an exhibitionist than me and played up for any assembled crowds. At about km 3 I was over taken by the only other naked runner I encountered: a very young guy with dreadlocks who I later learned was the first naked runner across the finish line. I know there were more, but as I had started near the front no one else caught up with me.
The Dreaded Hayes Hill
I set off full of energy – surprising at 8am – and recorded, I think a personal best first kilometer of 4:20/km. I mostly maintained this pace for the first 4km… until the notorious Hayes Hill which features a 5% average incline (peaking at 11%). Had I taken the first 4k slower, I would have had the ideal energy for this climb. But being this was my first Bay to Breakers, I had miscalculated. I had over exerted myself. I ended up having to walk about half of the climb and my pace on that km plummeted to 5:44/km.
If this all had transpired differently, I would have sailed speedily downhill for the remaining 7k. But I had tired myself out. I still did very well, but next year I’m going to attack the course differently.
As I ran, however, I was extremely conscious and cautious of the plethora of police officers everywhere… When was I going to be stopped and cited. It was very difficult to relax with this potential threat hanging over me. At every street corner (How many corners did I pass? A hundred?) two or three officers were positioned for crowd, vehicle and security controls. Every few blocks were officers on bikes, who I read chased a few runners in previous years. And near the end of the race was a group of officers on motorcycles (with their engines running).
In retrospect I should have learned to ignore them. But given the huge build-up about how the police had reacted in 2013 and 2014, I was still concerned. As I approached an area they were stationed I would reposition myself to the other side of the road. I kept focused on the run, passing with speed and confidence.
And not one of the many hundreds of police officers I passed gave me a second glance or were at all interested in me. All of the concern was a waste of energy. I later came to the conclusion that there were two reasons for this: 1) I was a serious runner, not threatening children/families with my nudity and 2) I did not have my face or eyes covered with a hat, sunglasses, mask or any other object that may prevent face recognition equipment from identifying me; in other words I wasn’t perceived as attempting to hide my identity while naked. Next year I will not worry about this and get on with feeling the run.
And that’s what the constant worrying about the police did: it dampened the fire in my belly. It was a great run, but I couldn’t focus as much as I’d like on how it felt, as I was concentrating on the circumstances. Like my solitary runs, the first run through a new setting is always more about getting my bearings and adjusting to the new physical experience. This run was no different. The second time I do it will feel completely different.
The Plateau and Golden Gate Park
The highlight for me was in Golden Gate Park passing the religious zealots with the “gays must die/go to hell” signs and the zealot with the bull horn shouting insults. I really wanted to stop and stand in front of him and have someone take a picture! Instead, so as to not slow my progress or attract police attention, I diverted my track right past them and waved my hands in the air. Wow, he didn’t like that! Naked and gay! But unlike my naked running experience in Greece, I was the one with moral authority and the other runners – who had mostly ignored me until then – cheered as I stood up to the crazy people.
And suddenly it was the end. There was even no fog at Ocean Beach for the first time in weeks and arriving at this traditionally windy, foggy spot on a warm, sunny morning was a thrill.
All of the fears I had built up over the preceding week (weather, feet, police, etc.) proved false obstacles that my subconscious had thrown in my path. And I had overcome them all.
Three years after running for the first time in my life I had completed my longest timed competitive run. And my longest naked run. Through a beautiful city on a stunning day. And I had completed the 12k in under an hour. Naked. What has happened to me?
Whatever it is, I love it.
On the shuttle back to the city centre I found myself sitting next to P, a naked runner and a follower of this blog. We had a great chat. What’s the chance of that? 40,000 runners (ok, not many of them finishing that early, but still), on the same shuttle bus at the same time. It was super to connect with someone who engages with the idea of naked running. I hope to run with P at a race in the future.
Maybe at Bay to Breakers 2017?
NB: a special word of thanks to the member of Bare2Breakers (whose name I have forgotten) who accompanied me to the starting gates; it is very possible that I would have abandoned ship without his support.
Naked Run Facts
Date: 15 May 2016
Location: From Howard & Main to Great Highway at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California
Time of Day: 08:00 to 09:00
Air Temperature: 17c
Conditions: crystal clear deep blue sky, calm winds
Run Length: 12k
Duration: 59 minutes, 33 seconds
Barefoot or Shoes: shoes
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