How two twenty-somethings from the South Bay breathed new life into a San Francisco tradition
John Park was not going to a wedding. Neither was Greg Brown.
And yet passersby asked the two men repeatedly what occasion they had dressed for, because Park and Brown were strolling the streets of San Francisco in the spring of 1974 in full tuxedos. Only there was no matrimony behind it: just the materialization of a long-running “what if” between the two men. They planned to run Bay to Breakers costumed in formal attire.
“We thought they’d throw us out of the race for [wearing] tuxedos,” Brown said.
Concerned they might be prevented from pulling the prank, the two arrived at the starting line on race day wearing raincoats over their tux jackets and with their pant legs rolled to their thighs.
“Everyone thought we were about to streak — they didn’t realize we had full dress tuxedos under the raincoats buttoned up to our necks,” Brown said. “And that’s how we started.”
Park and Brown both grew up in San Jose; they met through a mutual friend at age sixteen and were inseparable from then on. The two did everything together — including “raising hell,” Brown says. The tuxedo stunt began as another one of their joint pranks.
“I thought we’d be able to find something like that every year we could do,” Park said. “We didn’t realize that the costumes would take on a life of their own.”
Today’s Bay to Breakers is infamous among San Francisco residents for the specific kind of pandemonium that takes place even before runners set out from the starting line. Race attendance began to spike in the mid-70s and early 80s until it peaked at 110,000 in 1986, when Bay to Breakers set the record for the largest footrace in the world, a title it held until 2010. Today, participants and spectators show up along the 7.6-mile race course dressed in costumes that span the spectrum of imagination. That unspoken dress code has become a cornerstone of the race’s identity: Bay to Breakers without costumes is practically unimaginable today.
Park and Brown couldn’t have known that their practical joke would spawn an unshakable costume culture. The two didn’t set out to create a landmark San Francisco tradition: they were, as always, just looking to raise some hell.
A race fit for the Bay
Even before 1974, Bay to Breakers had deep roots in San Francisco and the Peninsula. The inaugural race — then called the Cross City Race — was held in 1912, part of an effort to lift spirits after San Francisco was devastated by the Great Earthquake of 1906. Through the early part of the 20th century, the race was a respectable affair for fairly serious runners. It finally evolved to include women in 1970, when participation was around 2,300. When Brown and Park showed up at the starting line of the 62nd Bay to Breakers, they were met with a much quieter—and entirely costume-free—iteration of the modern event.
Today’s Bay to Breakers regularly attracts over 40,000 registered participants and 100,000 spectators, according to the race’s website. When Jenni Dubman, a competitive marathon runner, moved to San Francisco eight years ago, she heard talk of Bay to Breakers almost instantly.
“It was just something I came across when I first moved out here — everyone would ask, ‘are you running Bay to Breakers? What are you doing for Bay to Breakers?’” she said.
In 2012 when she registered and planned to formally run the race, she was promptly informed by friends that formal registration wasn’t necessary for the full Bay to Breakers experience.
“I learned through my roommates that Bay to Breakers isn’t your average race, and that everyone dresses up,” Dubman said. “They were like, ‘you (registered)? You don’t really do that, it’s kind of a big party.’”
That year Dubman ran in all black, donning a cheesehead — she’s since gone as a registered runner three times and as a spectator numerous others, always in costume.
In the 70s, it wasn’t a city wide party. It was just an excuse for Brown and Park to get together. In 1974 Park was a school teacher working for San Jose Unified; Brown was a rehabilitation counselor in Oakland. Each time they ran Bay to Breakers, they came from different parts of Northern California to reunite, don the tuxedos and goof around.
It was Park’s idea, originally: he’d been long intrigued by a middle-school classmate who bragged that his father once beat a man in a 440 running event wearing an overcoat and smoking a cigar. And he wanted bragging rights.
“John said — we’ll never win this race. Why don’t we win our division?” Brown said.
“Our division was ‘28 years old and in tuxedos,’” Park added. “We actually both took first, because we came across at the same time. I couldn’t stand to watch [Greg] come in second.”
Once an exception, now the rule
In the years that followed — emboldened by their successful first black tie run — they added to their prank.
“In the early days, we’d start at the beginning with cigars,” Park said. “We threw them away as the race began, but we’d pull out kitchen matches taped together to light as we crossed the finish line. It was the illusion.”
They did “the opposite of everything people do in a race,” Brown said, and built it from there. They filled flasks with apple juice and chugged them running up Hayes Street Hill, pretending they were downing whiskey. Their pictures were splashed across the SF Independent: a photograph of Park and Brown is the back cover of former race director Len Wallach’s The Human Race, about the history of Bay to Breakers.
The pair ran Bay to Breakers for eight consecutive years, each time in tuxedo. As their prank snowballed, so did the tradition they’d begun.
“In ’81, the last year we ran it, someone said — ‘oh, that’s the 12th and 13th tuxedo I’ve seen,” Park said. “There were so many people in costumes by then.”
Matt Lane, a third-generation San Francisco resident, watched his own father run in the race as a child in the early 90s. He ran it for the first time in 2018 and is planning to run again this year. Despite himself having run in regular clothing, he says he can’t imagine Bay to Breakers without costumes.
“I try to run two or three races a year, and there’s always a fun energy, but Bay to Breakers is next level,” Lane said, comparing the race to Bridge to Bridge and the SF Marathon. “It feels almost like the San Francisco of yore. I think there’s a perception of San Francisco as slowly losing its soul [to tech], but if you talk to old timers they have memories of the 70s and 80s — and this feels aligned with that time.”
Lane says he hopes it’s a tradition that never goes away. His three-year-old son is excited to watch this year’s race, and Lane hopes he’ll have the same experience he did watching his own father as a child.
As it stands today, Brown and Park have been friends for 56 years. They’re in their 70s now — Park lives in Felton and Brown in Chico. They still make a point to get together as often as possible. (“We’re decomposing together,” Park joked. “We share our ailments.”)
They haven’t been back since running their last race together in 1981 — part of the fun was how unusual running in tuxedos had been, Brown said, and once it was commonplace, they looked for other pranks to pull. But the two say that running Bay to Breakers is one of their fondest memories together.
“I do remember one time we ran the whole thing in 63 or 64 minutes,” Brown added. “Not bad, John.”
“It’s because those were good cigars,” Park said.
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