Centipede Running – Bay to Breakers
The World Centipede Running Championship will take place next Sunday, May 16 as part of the ING Bay to Breakers. This will mark the twenty-fifth year of official centipede competition at Bay to Breakers.
For Bay to Breakers, centipede racing consists of thirteen connected (tethered) runners and one or two floaters. The floaters run alongside the centipede and can substitute in for a runner who can no longer keep up. It is also the floater’s job to help warn other runners that a centipede is coming, communicate between the centipede runners about the pace, and block other runners from getting in the way.
There are numerous other rules and regulations that you can read about on the Bay to Breakers website. The centipede should be no longer than sixty feet long and there should be four feet between each runner. There are two divisions, seeded for the more serious teams and fun for those who don’t want to focus on speed. The rules differ slightly between the two divisions. While artistic costumes are encouraged in both divisions (it is a San Francisco race and IT IS Bay to Breakers) the fun division “requires” twinkie feelers on all runners and a stinger on the back runner.
The origin of this type of centipede running traces back to 1978 and the Aggie Running Club. At that time the Aggie Running Club was a UC Davis club, nowadays the Aggies are sponsored by Asics. Peanut Harms, still active in the running scene, was a co-founder of the club and he was there when the first centipede was born (or hatched).
In a 2009 Cal Track & Running News article (page 17-23) with Mark Winitz, Harms described how the centipede got started. Then Aggie club president Angel Martinez is credited with coming up with the name centipede and for writing the official rules. The Lenichi Turn is a 360 degree turn that the fun centipedes must do on John F. Kennedy Drive by Lindley Meadow. In the interview Harms describes the origin of the Lenichi Turn, “The Lenichi Turn was brought to the U.S. by Igatoo Lenichi after Pete and Oscar Sweeney visited Poland and befriended the entire town of Lenichi in 1978.” I leave it to you, the reader, to determine the validity of Harm’s story. …How could anyone come up with details like that if they weren’t true?
After the 1978 race the Aggies began to focus on running fast. In 1986 Bay to Breakers created an official centipede division. The Aggies have dominated the race, winning the men’s division 19 out of 24 years and the women’s division 19 out of 23 years. The official records, held by the Aggies, for the 12K course are 37:40 (men; 5:03 pace) and 47:11 (women; 6:20 pace).
Over the years the Aggies male centipede has had some spirited battles with the first overall woman, earning a story in Sports Illustrated about them. The first woman to beat the Aggie centipede was Olympic marathon gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson in 1985 (she stomped on the centipede, winning by over one minute). The Aggie centipede returned in 1986 to take on Samuelson and Grete Waitz. Waitz and the centipede pulled away from Samuelson after the Hayes Street Hill and the fourteen of them (Waitz and the thirteen centipede runners) ran stride for stride together through Golden Gate Park. In the final 240 yards Waitz pulled ahead, the front runners of the centipede accelerated but the back runners did not, and the centipede as a whole got tangled up allowing Waitz to win by five seconds. After the race Waitz had this to say about the centipede, “When I came to Bay to Breakers, I didn’t realize how big a thing this centipede was. After I finished, I realized that to beat them was something special.” At the 2009 Bay to Breakers the first woman, Teyba Erkesso of Ethiopia, beat the Aggies 38:29 to 40:27. This gives the women the upper hand over the centipede in three out of the last four years.
At this year’s Bay to Breakers, LinkedIn is trying to set the Guinness World Record for the longest human centipede. The current record is 2,026, set in Japan. Last year The Town of Etxebarri in the Basque Country (Spain) attempted to break the record but could only get 1,449 people together. In order to set the record, not only must 2,027 or more runners be attached together, they must move thirty meters. LinkedIn is cleverly using this as the motto for going after the record: One person alone can only accomplish so much. But when you’re connected to other people through LinkedIn, imagine what you can accomplish.
And that pretty much sums up the reason for running in a centipede!
Good luck to the Pamakid Runners’ Centipede on Sunday. Team captain Steve Holcombe with Justin Mikecz, Danielle Bisho, Jocelyn Rodriguez, Greg Taleck, Zack Hedling, Kenley Gaffke, Jeff Huizinga, Simon Novich, John Gieng, Michael Cunningham, Mark Hermano, Jimi Smith, and myself as the floater will be in the seeded division running with style on Sunday!