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By Howard Wolinsky

It happens the third Sunday of May every year.

People put on their running shoes — or walking shoes — and gather by the tens of thousands near the San Francisco Bay before the 7:30 a.m. starting time.

Tortillas, in an unexplained tradition, fly into the air, as news helicopters hover like dragonflies to capture the spectacle of the throng dressed in costumes as pirates, Elvises and Marilyns, Supermen, Wonder Women, oompa loompas, ears of corn.

Welcome to the Bay to Breakers race. This 12K event is one of the biggest destination races on the circuit and one of the wackiest as well. More than 40,000 people officially register and another 25,000 or so drop in on this event, which is like a Mardi Gras or Halloween party with a sports theme.

This May will be the third time my wife Judi and I joined in the fun. The first time we were on an early morning walk and serendipitously ran into the race and joined in. The fun was infectious, and we have come back from Chicago for more.

Bay to Breakers started in 1910 to boost morale after the city was devastated in the April 18, 1906, quake.

It is a serious race. Elite runners, including the crew from Kenya, come out of the chutes at 7:30 a.m. And they typically are challenged by Elvis impersonators in the paunchy stage.

The best runners are finishing up in under five minutes as we ordinary mortals come out of the gate. We took 2½ hours, taking in the spectacle, going at our own pace from the Bay to the Pacific Breakers.

B2B offers a grand tour of the city on the roped-off streets on the 7½-mile course. You trek through the Financial District, past the quaint Victorians, up and down Hayes Street Hill and on to Golden Gate Park and past the Conservatory of Flowers, the windmill and finally the Breakers of the Pacific Ocean.

We’re guessing how people will come dressed this year. It’s a good bet there were will be gaggles of Obamas, Hillaries and McCains and Olympic torches. Participants often play off the news. The first year we went there was an Iraqi tank crew moving backward in retreat along with the requisite Saddam Husseins.

This race isn’t for prudes.

The Bay to Breakers rules warn that drinkers and nude runners may be picked up by the constables. But that’s just the official version. In reality, this free-thinking, tolerant city that so respects individuality, chaos and disorder doesn’t mess with nude runners or drinkers as long as they don’t become too disorderly.

We saw the Painted Ladies, the colorful Victorian houses and also a comely lass in elaborate body paint that gave a new definition to the term. She posed with aplomb — and nothing else — on the arm of a San Francisco cop who looked as though his face had been painted red.

The streets were littered with sweat shirts, T-shirts, pants discarded by runners. And plenty of people were drinking alcohol dispensed by drinking establishments disguised as floats, including a tiki bar accompanied by a large group wearing blue-and-white aloha shirts, and a Beer-A-Mid.

We walk. Others run, jog, bounce on stilts, or roll in wheelchairs. There’s even a school of salmon swimming "upstream," taking the course backwards from the finish line.

Everyone marches to the beat of his own drummer. It is San Francisco after all.

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Howard Wolinsky is a Chicago-based travel and technology writer,
who enjoys toting a bag of gadgets along with him on his journeys.

Tagged: California

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