Why Racers Wear Costumes At The Bay To Breakers, And The Knuckleheads That Started It All (...My Dad!)
By Murphy Park
On a warm day in San Francisco, two men are at the starting line of a foot race wearing full-length vinyl rain coats. It's 1974, and the race is the “Bay To Breakers”. With a starting point near the San Francisco Bay, a few blocks from The Embarcadero, the 12K race runs west through the city and finishes at the Great Highway, where racers crash onto the Pacific Coast's Ocean Beach. The two men in rain coats are John Park and Greg Brown, and as the announcer calls the racers to the starting line they remove their coats revealing their intent: to run this race in tuxedos, decked with tails, white gloves, and Peter Max tennis shoes. “Everyone thought we were going to streak” says John.
Moments before the race began they pulled the final touch out of their pockets, two large cigars, and lit them at the starting line. “We taped 6 'strike anywhere' matches together to make sure they would light” he says while lounging comfortably now in our living room. Of course, a lit cigar was not a popular thing at a 12k race starting line, but two men running in tuxedos still attracted a lot of attention and excitement.
By the time they finished the race they were practically celebrities, with other racers asking to take pictures with the two sharp dressed men. What they didn't know when they crossed that finish line, tails and all, was that this would be the start of something new and weird that would eventually take on a life completely its own and become the signature characteristic of the now-famous race!
Last week as we were prepping our upcoming events here at Sound In Motion, I saw that one of our Senior Staffers, Kevin O' Scanlon was booked to DJ for the Bay To Breakers next week. I was compelled to ask my co-workers: “Do you know who started the costume thing? My dad.”Yes, a lot of people have bragging rights passed down from their heritage, but this one is particularly cool. We felt it was only fitting, given Sound In Motion's involvement with the Bay To Breakers this year and my dad and Greg's legacy with the race, that I tell the story. It's a story that has been well-documented in many forms, including Runner's World Magazine, The San Francisco Examiner (May 5, 2003 ed.) and even the book The Human Race written by Len Wallach, where a picture of my Dad and Greg in their tuxedos graces the back cover.
After the success of the first year, they showed up in their tuxedos the next, this time without the rain coats. They also had added a flask to the costume “It was filled with apple juice” Greg said. One year my mom, Sheri Park, met the boys at the finish line with my 1 year old brother Duffy dressed in a mini tux, tiny Peter Max tennies and all. For the next 5 years they ran the race in their suits, and every year more and more racers around them began dawning the tuxedos. And then people were wearing other and weirder stuff like multi-person caterpillars, policemen, circus clowns... you name it! The trend grew and grew and grew.
Today the race is synonymous with wearing costumes. “We just wanted an adventure, we thought this would be the start of something, but we've had a hard time topping it” my dad says, now a retired elementary school teacher. He and Greg are still best friends; Greg teaches, coaches and counsels at Yuba College and is married to fellow teacher and family friend Sandy Brown.
Except for maybe a single framed picture on the wall, you'd never know they were the trendsetters. When I asked my dad to see the articles written about it, he didn't pull out a humidified briefcase with a handcuff, he pulled out a disorganized stack of loose paper and magazines from below a buried bookshelf. When they ran the race for the first time in '74 they said there were maybe 1,500 racers. “We actually had room at the finish line” Said Greg on a recent phone call with my dad. Things have certainly changed.
In 1986 the Bay To Breakers broke the Guinness Book Of World Record for most runners in a marathon with 110,000 participants, most of them in costumes. They never intended to start the trend, and they certainly never imagined the scale of their influence; but with one trip to a thrift shop and spark of a cigar they stepped to that starting line, securing their place in “Bay To Breakers” history, and giving weight to all of my (and the rest of their children's) claims that “My dad is cooler than your dad”.