Bay to Bonkers : They Come to Make Political Statements, Have Some Fun--and Even Run

Times Staff Writer

Kevin Keane, artist and runner, looked like an artichoke. His head was shaved and he was painted green all over. He wore a belt consisting of 30 artichokes strung together and he carried a basket of steamed artichokes.

It may sound strange, but Keane fit right in during this city's Bay-to-Breakers race Sunday.

The Bay to Breakers has become the Spruce Goose of footraces. It's a huge, unwieldy, out-of-control festival that annually takes over the streets--and hearts--of San Francisco.

Sunday's race had a few elite runners sprinkled in to keep things honest, but the Bay to Breakers has always belonged to the people. The 74-year-old race embodies the spirit of the people of this city. In turn, the city has embraced the Bay to Breakers, which is sponsored--and heavily publicized--by the San Francisco Examiner.

The Bay to Breakers is a local race, but it attracts loyal, some would say rabid followers from across the nation and the world. Race officials thought there were about 90,000 runners Sunday, although they were not sure.

It is as difficult to keep track of the runners who jump in the race as it is to rein in the registered runners. Like herds of cattle they tend to wander. Some wander home after a few miles or a few blisters and some wander into bars along the 7.5-mile route across the city from the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.

Along the way it's a party without a host and with only a few rules. Runners, a term used loosely here, may run alone or in groups. There is a special division for groups of 13, a configuration called a centipede. This, despite the fact that an adult centipede has at least 15 pairs of legs. So who's counting.

As for the elite runners, well, they run at their own risk. Although they start before the masses, elite runners have in the past been trampled by centipedes careening out of control and oblivious runners barreling down this city's steep streets.

Ibrahim Hussein and Joan Benoit kept out of harm's way long enough to set course records in winning the men's and women's divisions Sunday. Hussein, last year's winner, ran a 34:53 and Benoit a 39:54.8.

The winners get the use of a BMW for a year, two plane tickets to Sidney, Australia, computers and other prizes. Also, Benoit got an undisclosed but large appearance fee. Sunday, she raced with oven mitts shaped like lobster claws. Benoit lives in Maine. Get it? Maine lobsters.

Her victory marked the first time the top woman had finished ahead of the top centipede team. Benoit seemed delighted with the news, but the top-finishing centipede of 13 men had to endure questions such as, "How does it feel getting beat by a woman?"

But for most runners, this race is not about competition. Some, like Keane the Artichoke, were more interested in making a statement. Keane's philosophies were tattooed on his chest and back--an artichoke and a corn stalk.

Keane explained it this way: "You can't take art too seriously, if you do, you'll choke." Get it? Art-choke--artichoke. Zany guy.

Some runners prefered political statements. Such as Ray Zamboni. He came dressed to make a political statement about the arms race. Zamboni's costume was divided down the middle. His left arm was encased in a papier-mache submarine piloted by a bear (signifying the Soviet Union), and his right arm was shaped like a white, pointy MX missile (signifying the United States). Last year, Zamboni ran as Ronald Reagan running for reelection.

For many, the race got off to a slow start. Even though all four lanes of Ninth Street were open to the runners, it was more than 15 minutes after the starting gun before runners in the back began to move. As the race progressed through the streets, spectators stumbled out of their homes, dazzled by the colorful display trooping by.

At the top of Hyde Hill, the notoriously steep incline early in the race, the crowd had so crushed in that it nearly closed ranks around the runners. The hill also slowed the already snail-like centipede representing the San Francisco Post Office Express Mail. It was a slow centipede.

The latter stages of the race are run through Golden Gate Park, where picnickers waved chicken legs at passing runners. Otherwise docile family dogs took out after the more garishly-costumed runners. A nurse running with a three-foot tall pill bottle brandished the prescription jar menacingly at one pesky poodle.

The scene at the finish, with its narrow finishing chutes, was reminiscent of a major deparment store opening on the day after Christmas--a mad dash wherein large groups of people tried to squeeze through a small opening. From there the runners were shepherded back to the park where the real fun started: a post-race party for 150,000, was held on the huge, grassy polo grounds rigged with a wide stage and a large video screen.

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