The Real "Bay to Breakers"

by Dinesh Desai

Day 1

On a pleasant morning in late April, six of us dipped our boots in the waters of San Francisco Bay near Emily Renzel Wetlands in Palo Alto. Our goal was to dip our boots again in the Pacific Ocean after covering 46 miles in two days. I had put together a route that passed through six and a half miles of Palo Alto city streets and the remainder on trails in several parks. A friend, Roger Piazza, agreed to meet us at the end of each of the two days and transport us back to our cars. I dubbed our little trek "The Real Bay to Breakers" after the world famous Bay to Breakers foot race held in San Francisco each year. The race draws the world's elite runners but, honestly, the course stops short of water at both ends. The race was called "Cross City Run" for the first 52 years. When the number of participants dwindled to 25 in 1963, the present day name was coined to make the race sound more exotic.

Bay to Breakers

The Cross City Race was first run in 1912 as a precursor to the world-class athletic events planned for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. There were fewer than 200 participants that first year. Now it is one of the largest footraces in the world. In 1986, with 78,769 registered runners and 110,000 total participants, the race was awarded the title of World's Largest Footrace by the Guinness Book of World Records.

A Kenyan has been the first place finisher for the last 19 years. Currently, Sammy Kitwara holds the record with a time of 33:31. That's an average pace of under four and a half minutes per mile for the seven and a half mile course. But it isn't just a race for the serious runner. In the true spirit of San Francisco, the race is a celebration for everyone. Thousands of costumed participants join with families, weekend runners and people just out for a stroll. As they make their way through the heart of San Francisco, they are cheered by thousands of spectators and live music along the course. In 2009, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, running in his "seventh or eighth" Breakers, set a personal best in 59:04.

"I can't believe I broke an hour," Newsom said. "This is exciting."

However, the mayor did have a gripe or two: "I didn't see any naked people. They had alcohol checkpoints. I felt like I was in another Bay Area county."

We were lucky that most of the first couple of miles of our walk was on beautiful, tree-lined N. California Avenue. It was a real pleasure; we encountered very little traffic in this quiet residential neighborhood. However, we did have to worry about a problem such residential streets pose: there is no place to pee. I had advised others to maybe limit their intake of liquids before the walk. But, just fifteen minutes into our walk, Russ (the name has been changed to protect the guilty) announced that he must find a place to go defecate.

"Here? Now?" I say to myself.

"You just have to knock on some doors. You are on your own, man. We will wait for you at the corner. As a leader, my responsibilities go only so far."

As if by a miracle, Russ found a man standing outside his home and he graciously let Russ in, boots and all. We were all relieved and Russ too, in a manner of speaking.

We used a pedestrian/bicycle tunnel under the Caltrain tracks to reach the business district. We were tempted to stop and enjoy some coffee, but we had to be satisfied just smelling it. A few more miles on California Avenue and a short stretch on Peter Coutts Road in Stanford brought us to Page Mill Road. Though this is a four-lane arterial expressway, we utilized its wide shoulder to walk safely. In less than 10 minutes, we came to its junction with Old Page Mill Road. As we walked this now-abandoned road, a red brick tower came into view. A plaque next to the tower read:

Frenchman's Tower
Built by Peter Coutts as part of irrigation system built in 1875.
Declared County and State "Point of Interest"

As the story goes, Peter Coutts was a wealthy newspaper publisher in France. He was banished during the Franco-Prussian war and he fled to California. His farmland included most of present day Stanford and a large portion of Palo Alto.

Regardless of the statement in the plaque, nobody knows why it is there. It looks like a water tower, but the bricked in windows suggest otherwise. Maybe it was a lookout tower or a prison for the mad Madame Coutts.

hikers next to a cylindrical brick tower about 20 feet tall

Maybe this was used to store wine

We soon rejoined the four-lane road. We now faced the most dangerous part of our walk: crossing the freeway interchange ahead. Many such intersections are designed as if bicycles and pedestrians do not exist. Thankfully, it was past the commute hours and we were able to dart safely between speeding cars.

By the time we reached Arastradero Preserve, we had covered six and a half miles but had gained only a few hundred feet in elevation. We then started hiking and climbing in earnest. We hiked ten miles through Palo Alto Foothills Park, Los Trancos Open Space Preserve and Monte Bello Open Space Preserve to arrive at Skyline Blvd. As we took a short break, Fred took off his boots to look at a toe that was bothering him. The toe was pretty bloody and I was surprised he hadn't said anything earlier. Even though we had less than four miles to go, I asked him if he wanted to stop. Since our destination for the day was a spot further on Skyline Blvd., we could have easily picked him up on our way back. But he didn't want to quit. The four miles through Skyline Ridge and Long Ridge Preserves were easier than the last ten, but Fred was obviously in pain. I am sure he was happier than the rest of us when we spotted Roger's car at gate LR-10 on Skyline Blvd.

As we discussed the next day's plans, I wondered if it would be wise for Fred to continue. In long distance running and hiking, the condition of one's feet is very critical. Muscle fatigue can be overcome with rest and many mountaineers have reached a major summit with nary a thing to eat all day. The next day's hike was a lot longer too, almost 26 miles. In addition, Fred was leaving for an extended trip in a few days. After weighing the pros and cons, he decided not to continue.