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Bay to Breakers - A Race To Remember


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My Bay to Breakers Sunday started unlike any in the past 19 or more years and it was even better than the "KGO coolness" of the last seven years. From 2002 to 2007, I'd get up at 4:30 in the morning to meet my friend Beth at the KGO Radio "Morning Stretch" held in the lobby of One Market Street before the start of the run. The basic advantage of being with KGO Radio was the free coffee and orange juice in the morning, plus we were at the start of the line, right where I could get hit by flying tortillas and giant beach balls. Sadly, in 2008 KGO Radio pulled its sponsorship of the event but we still managed a front-line position.

This year was just plain different. My constant trips between California and Georgia where my Mom lives made planning for the B2B difficult this time around. I'm not complaining, it's just the fact of family life right through here. But just by asking I managed to score a press pass to the event, and Mom being understanding (and in good health), I flew back to the Bay Area Thursday and got in by the skin of my teeth; the press conference was the next morning.

That luncheon and media-op was a fun look at the other side of the Bay to Breakers, but just when I thought I'd seen it all, Sunday gave me an experience impossible to forget and captured on video here.

Unlike past B2B mornings, I got up at 5:50 AM, worked on a blog post, talked to a friend, and worked on a tech issue, all the while mindful of the passing of time; I needed to arrive before 7:30 AM. I decided to take BART to the Embarcadero Station then walk over to Howard Street and the race starting line area. Just as I was making my way to downtown Oakland BART station, I got a call from Eva, one of the B2B media relations staffers that they were waiting on me and the press truck was getting ready to leave!

Yikes! It was 7:13 already?!

I called and said I was headed toward BART and to "Hold the truck. I'll be there." That was a request I must have repeated three times. And all the time, I later learned Eva was certain I would miss the truck. I got on BART at 7:24 AM. I was running late.

A Really Crowded BART Train Car

The train car I was on was too crowded for words; we were literally "smushed together" as a friend would say, and it seemed any inch of space was occupied by an arm or a leg. It was clear BART didn't put enough trains on the Sunday morning schedule to comfortably take all of the patrons heading over to downtown San Francisco. Still, just as I was on my way and confident I was going to arrive without a hitch, there was one.

We arrived at Embarcadero BART and as we did I called Eva, who said I had three minutes to get to the press truck or they were gone (Which reminded me of Balok's famous "THREE MINUTES" warning to Captain Kirk and the crew of The Enterprise in the Star Trek episode "The Corbomite Maneuver .") So I high-tailed it, but forgot one thing: I had to add money to my BART ticket, which would have eaten the "three minutes" I had.

I went to a BART Policeman for help, but the very relaxed officer told me to talk to the station agents, so I ran over to the agent booth, and one man dressed in what looked like a Kangol cap said "Why do you say you have a press pass?" I could not believe it especially because it was around my neck; I frantically explained my situation and begged for his help. The internal clock in my head turned into an alarm; I said "I've got to go; I talked to the cop." And I bolted.

I jetted up the stairs and onto Market Street, cell phone in hand, calling Eva that I was "running to ya." I arrived at Howard and saw the red truck with Eva on it, and yelled into my phone "Look for the bald black guy" and waved frantically. She spotted me and told the police to let me in; they did. I ran over and jumped onto the truck, feeling like I could just collapse.

But the race was about to start.

My focus turned to the "ING" branded start line, and so did my camcorder, and with the intent to follow-up on a story line I was interested in: the 2008 Bay to Breakers Champion Lineth Chephurui from Kenya, versus the challenger Deena Kastor from the USA. Yes, it wasn't the "battle of the sexes" storyline the race organizers were advocating (even to the point of having the elite women runners start 4 minutes and 40 seconds ahead of the male runners just to "even out" the race at the end) and that's because I have a personal hatred for such contests. With the rate of divorce so high and all of these forces pushing men and women apart, why a "battle of the sexes?"

I just hate the concept in any form. Sorry.

Besides, the race organizers managed to lure the 2004 Olympic Bronze Medalist and American Kastor to participate, and let's face it, African runners, and particularly Kenyans have taken over the Bay to Breakers. Kastor was billed as the best chance for someone representing the "Stars and Stripes" to win the race in a long time. The women held the most compelling story.

A Group of Speedsters

The women were so fast they actually caught up to the truck which must have been going around 15 MPH at the time. Someone said "Speed up! You're too close" (you can hear this in the video) and suddenly we lurched forward with such force, I thought I was headed off the truck! At that point, the women were right at the rear of the first press truck, so they must have been running at around 20 MPH just to catch us. Whatever; they were moving!

Here, Kastor and Chephurui were the leaders of a dense pack of runners including Teyba Erkesso of Ethiopia and the party remained intact for much of the first two miles of the run.

Katie Takes Over

For the first two miles I was just talking into the camcorder explaining the action, then pure instinct said I should brave standing up in the truck bed and talk to this woman who seemed to know a lot of the course and wasnt shy to share her knoweldge. So I just pointed the cam at her and asked questions.

The "her" is Katie Harrar, who's a veteran runner and now Manager of Event Sales and Logistics for the Bay to Breakers, and possesses a voice for commentating. Aided by the spotters in the truck cab, and her great eyesite, Katie was able to spot where the runners were at a distance, which was useful when we got so far away from the runners it was hard for the untrained eye (mine) to determine who was who without my camcorder.

Kastor Falls Back; Chephurui Takes "The Hill"

The Hayes Street Hill is the hardest part of the Bay to Breakers course. It's known around the World as "The Hill" and can test even the best runners, and that was true on Sunday. Harrar informed me that it has an "11 degree incline" but I must add it has the added pain of being situated in such a way that the morning sun beats right down on it and its victims. One of them was Kaptor.

Deena started out well ahead but by the top of the Hill there was only Chephurui, who would win the $5,000 prize for reaching the "summit" (as if Hayes Street were a mountain to climb.) But the problem with reaching the top of Hayes Street is even those who've ran the Bay to Breakers before think it's all over from that point; they've got five more miles to go, as Harrar reminded me. The way to take the next five miles if you're a normal runner is to coast as it is mostly downhill, unless you're an elite runner in a race, where you look for any opening to increase your speed. Chephurui relaxed and for the moment she did, Kastor raced past her, veered from right to left on Fell Street as they approached Golden Gate Park and for the next mile appeared to be the new women's champion of The Bay to Breakers.

Then it got hotter.

I've ran the B2B on hot days before, and Iv'e done it with 15 pounds on my back (as Beth reminded me) but I was happy to be in the press truck Sunday. It' wasn't just warm it was humid and in Golden Gate Park the unusually warm weather took its toll. the younger legs of the Kenyan Chephurui and the Ethiopian Erkesso (21 and 26 years old respectively) caught the American, Kastor (36), passed her, then dusted her.

It was down to those two.

For a time, it looked like the idea of giving this gifted group of women the 4 minute, 40 second headstart would result in a female overall winner. But after seeing one police motorcycle pacing the women and behind us for most of the race, suddenly another one was only 50 yards behind the women's escort, and closing fast. It was the men's escort which meant the male runner were gaining: fast. There was one man running quite literally like the wind: Sammy Kitwara.

Now, I've seen a lot of things, or would like to think so, but I've never seen anyone run as fast as Sammy did after the six mile mark. He would set a course record of 33 minutes and 31 seconds for the race, which means at 7.46 miles he was averaging a mile every 4.46 minutes, or about 13.45 miles-per-hour, average. (Double check that if you want.) But it seemed he was going at about 20 miles per hour over that last stretch.


The "Breakers" of the Pacific Ocean and that nice cool breeze. Kitwara admitted as much later: "Yeah. Yeah. When I came down the hill it was cool; I just went."

His blazing speed caused our truck to accelerate to around 40 miles per hour just to get to the sideline area so we could get out of the truck and over to the finish line. Getting from the truck to the finish line was a blood-rush of a trek I'd like to see Ray Ratto try sometime. We arrived just in time to see Kitwara glide in the winner, followed by Tilahun Regassa a full minute later at 34:15 and John Yuda of Tanzania at 34:23. Then the women, Erkesso, Chepkurui, and Kastor came in at 38:29, 38;35, and 39:05 respectively.

Erkesso, the very shy Ethiopian woman with the lovely braided hairstyle was the surprise winner but she only beat Chepkurui by just 6/100ths of a second; they were that close. That means Chepkurui placed first and second in consecutive years running the Bay to Breakers and should be the favorite for 2010. Why? She says she's coming back, whereas Erkesso said to me "Maybe. I don't know."

Kastor indicated she may return and given this was her first "go" at the course, I'm sure she wants another crack at it.

But the overall winner was Kitwara and he says he's definitely coming back. Why not? He won something like $25,000 in prize money overall, taking the Hayes Street Summit Awards for the men (Chepkurui was the women's winner), winning the "Battle of The Breakers", then taking the men's prize as well. While runners like San Mateo's Peter Gilmore complained of the heat, Kitwara said "It wasn't hot." Well, not for him, but for us mere mortals the weather was the only thing hotter than his amazing performance.

Back To The Future

For me the Bay to Breakers didn't end with the race - I wanted to see how the revelers were responding to the new policies I discussed in an earlier post - so after brunch at the Beach Chalet I went to "Footstock" with friends and through the park with my camcorder and their antics (That's another blog post to come). Later in the day, I went back to BART, told another station agent what happened that morning with the "Kangol Guy" and he reset my ticket and let me through. Nice. That made up for that one miscue in an otherwise incredible, unforgettable experience.
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