How San Francisco’s Running Scene Is Reaching New Heights


, by Fabienne Lang

Photography courtesy of: Bay to Breakers

Discover why San Francisco is hailed as America's top running city and meet the pioneering run clubs reshaping its vibrant scene. From inclusivity to iconic races like Bay to Breakers, delve into the heart of SF's running revolution.

San Francisco (SF) has become a powerhouse of activity. It recently earned the title of the second most active city in the United States by Mindbody and ranked as the #1 running city in America (KRON).

Before any New Yorker or Angeleno puffs their chest out in indignation, let’s first take a look at what is happening on the ground in SF. Local run clubs and teams have been working hard at creating a more inclusive and larger running community. Then, there are iconic SF races like the Bay to Breakers that gather huge crowds each year. Big effort has gone into the local running scene and it’s paying off.

The SF Running Scene

“The SF run scene is vibrant,” notes Cal Calamia, the founder of the Non-Binary+ Run Club in SF, “and movement is a really important part of the Bay Area's culture. A lot of new run clubs have popped up in recent years which really emphasize the inclusion of folks who have been historically excluded from the sport,” they further explain, highlighting a pivotal shift in the local landscape.

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Justin Williams, the founder of Unseen Run Club in SF, highlights the differences he’s noticed between LA and SF’s running scenes. “Coming from LA, where there is a rich and diverse running community with lots of run club options for everyone - from body type to athletic ability, and more - I felt the SF run scene was different,” he reflects. “I would show up to races and realize there were few people who looked like me.”

Photography courtesy of: Bay to Breakers

Inspired by the need to broaden the Bay Area's running community, Justin, Cal, and others have taken action by establishing their own run clubs. Christine Lampe, a member of and on the board of directors of the locally based Impala Racing Team, attests to this burgeoning diversity. “There are so many new run clubs and teams,” she enthuses, “it feels like there’s a space for everyone.”

Meet the Visual Trailblazers: Unseen Run Club

Let’s dive a little deeper into these running groups, starting with Unseen Run Club.

"I think the initial thing that makes our club stand out is how we look visually," Justin notes proudly. "We automatically stand out in terms of the diversity within our group."

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Additionally, visibility is highlighted within the club with its community-designed merchandise. "I want runners to feel they are seen in the community. When they wear our merchandise and our shirts or so, I want them to stand out and feel good," Justin explains.

His mission is clear: to be accessible, visible, and a welcoming space. Through initiatives like the club's 'Mission Monday' runs in the centrally located Mission neighborhood, Justin makes it easier for runners from all parts of the city to join via public transport. "I'm not trying to be just big in the city. I want to make the city big," he affirms.

Photography courtesy of: Unseen Run Club

Breaking Boundaries: Non-Binary+ Run Club

Another new club in the Bay Area that is working hard to challenge traditional roles in the local running scene is the Non-Binary+ Run Club.

"It is the first run club of its kind," Cal explains proudly. "It's a unique space for trans and non-binary athletes to gather and move together. It's a celebratory community for runners of all experiences and it's one of very few spaces for gender-expansive runners.”

Cal's own achievements underscore the club's impact, as they clinched victories in the Non-Binary division of both the SF Marathon and the LA Marathon. But for Cal, success isn't just about personal accolades – it's about driving systemic change.

"I want to see more run clubs, race organizations, and brands asking the tough questions about who is showing up and what they can do to make their spaces not only more welcoming, but better resourced to support competitive athletes from marginalized identity groups," they urge.

The Non-Binary Run Club. Photography courtesy of Carter Howe / Non-Binary Run Club

Keeping up a Sisterhood: Impala Racing Team

On the flip side there are running groups that have been fixtures in the San Francisco running scene, like Impala Racing Team that has been running strong since 1979.

"It's a really special community," shares Christine. "We're all coming in at different ages and stages of life, with some runners joining in their seventies and eighties and others joining from a young age, and it's like a family community. Like a sisterhood."

For Christine, the longevity of this women’s racing team adds to its allure. "Being established since 1979 really sets us apart in that it's like a lifelong community," she reflects.

Structured as a running team rather than a club, the Impalas bring a more formalized approach to their training. They meet on Tuesday evenings for a coach-led workout and on Saturdays for a long run. To join, applicants must hit a certain time standard, showing the team’s dedication to its legacy and its namesake, offering a space for its runners to take their training to the next level.

Photography courtesy of: Impala Racing Team

The Bay to Breakers Legacy

Which brings us to the 12K Bay to Breakers race. This legendary event has been a staple of the Bay Area's running scene for over a century, since 1912, and unites SF’s running community with its uniqueness. Every third Sunday in May, the city’s hilly streets transform into a carnival of runners, each sporting their wildest costumes for a day of organized chaos and pure fun.

Imagine a colorful parade of runners in eccentric outfits, upbeat tunes echoing through the streets, and yes, even tortillas flying through the air, because, tradition. It's a day where the contagious buzz of excitement fills every corner of the city, from the bay to the hills and ultimately to the ‘breakers’ – the breaking waves of the Pacific Ocean, hence the name.

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This race isn't just historic – it's downright massive. Among the oldest foot races in the U.S., it once boasted 110,000 participants in 1986, earning its spot as the world's largest race.

The Bay to Breakers race embodies Justin's values of inclusivity and accessibility. "‘Bay to Breakers’ is the quintessential San Francisco Bay Area race," he enthuses. "There is space for everyone to participate. It really encompasses the real culture of the San Francisco Bay Area where it’s weird, but it works,” he chuckles.

Photography courtesy of: Bay to Breakers

People of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities come together to revel in the joy of movement and camaraderie at Bay to Breakers, whether they’re a runner or a supporter.

Christine emphasizes this point: "Bay to Breakers is probably the most popular race in SF for runners and non-runners and it’s definitely one of the more accessible races, in that some people are out to be the fastest, but other people are out to make it to the finish line and have fun." she notes. "I think it's special because it has that really wide range."

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Even though the race is inclusive in many aspects, there is always room for growth, and Cal's efforts have helped pave the way for greater inclusivity at the event. "In 2022, I pushed on Bay to Breakers to become a more inclusive event for trans and non-binary athletes," they share.

"This year, I am excited to show up with a deep crew from Non-Binary+ Run Club and celebrate the excellence of trans and non-binary folks in athletics. It's just such a fun race and I am so happy that folks from our crew and beyond can feel truly welcome and included."

Join the Meaningful Fun

The Bay to Breakers and these three dynamic running groups epitomize the inclusive spirit of San Francisco's ever-evolving and ever-growing running scene. It’s easy to see how they are part of propping the city up at the forefront of the nation’s running space.

Make sure to bring your running shoes when you’re next in SF and join one or more of these running groups for some great training. And don’t miss this year’s Bay to Breakers on May 19.

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