I Dropped Out of a Beer Mile And It Was Still Awesome

If you study the literature from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, you will read a lot about vomit. 

I'm not kidding. It was a useful metaphor in an age of philosophical dispute, religious division, and self-reflection. For example, Shakespeare turned to the gut for the presentation of truth. Overwhelmed by sadness, Titus Andronicus explains, “my bowels cannot hide her woes, but like a drunkard must I vomit them.” The religious reformer Martin Luther condemned Roman Catholics as doing “nothing but vomit, throw, and blow out devils.” Even the poet John Milton got in on the purgative action, declaiming monarchical bishops as giving “a vomit to God himself.” The bishops were so odious even the Creator couldn’t keep his lunch down.

The Annunciation (or When God Ate a Bad Chicken Sandwich) by Melchior Broederlam

It is a sign of the times then that emetic activities have returned to the cultural forefront—perhaps a reflection of the new medievalism of the political moment? In any event, no endeavor squares our corporeal fascination with distance running and the mysteries of the gut better than the beer mile.

Indeed, beer miles are now hip. The event broke into pop culture in the wake of James Nielson’s sub-5 effort in 2014, documented on YouTube. Before long, other professionals had jumped in and the beer mile—drink a beer, run a lap, and repeat three more times—had gone mainstream. Even Ellen got in on the action. Lewis Kent’s chugging prowess added a bit of spectacle to day-time television:


Since then, the beer mile has quietly become even more professionalized. 

The world record is now a mind-boggling 4:34.25, set by Canadian Corey Bellemore at last year's Beer Mile World Classic in London. And there is a striking amount of depth in the event. There have been over 170 verified sub-6-minute beer miles, the majority of which have occurred in the last five years.

So when John Markell, one of the organizers of the World Beer Mile Classic and owner of a 5:29 best, invited me to a beer mile at SF State University, I had to check it out.

I was pretty exhausted when I arrived to Cox Stadium. I’d spent most of the previous afternoon, evening, and morning up in Tahoe, running 25-odd miles around the Sierras for a trail-running relay event. And bear in mind: a beer mile is not a light undertaking. Novices imagine something akin to a hash-run: “Hey, another combination of beer and running. Sounds swell!” But the beer-mile culture was established by male collegiate and post-collegiate runners. So it shares in the self-flagellated, pushed-to-the-limit culture that defines competitive running circles. In other words, it ain’t no picnic.

2015 World Beer Mile Classic

I decide that since my body is in pretty rough shape, I’ll stop after two beers. And then I will watch the front runners finish up.

Among the athletes milling around the starting area is Brandon Shirck, whose beer-mile best of 4:47 makes him the fifth fastest in the world. When he takes off his shirt to change into a singlet, Shirck outs himself as an elite middle-distance athlete. His torso is a symphony of right angles. I start to feel guilty about shirking my own core routine as he flexes into some pre-race strides.  Garret Cullen is also here, a former American-record holder in the event.  And quietly warming up is Jonathan Charlesworth, who is going for a best in the “Chunder,” a variant in which runners drink larger imperial pints from open glasses.* It’s much more beer, but an easier pour.

There are a few others on the line. And you can tell by their confidence that this is not their first rodeo. It's evident from the start. After the signal, most down their first beer in seconds and fly off the line.

I have actually finished a beer mile.

My run ends almost as quickly as it begins. The beer hits my gullet and collides against acid reflux. “So this is what middle age feels like,” I think, taking breaks between gulps of my first fucking beer. The fluid glugs down my throat unwillingly, burbling through my constricted esophagus between inflamed tissue and bile. I step last off the line and by the time I reach the second turn, I’ve some wicked heartburn.  Nope, nope, nope.  I stop after the first lap, without the least regret. Cutting my  attempt so short means I get to watch the leaders run their last two laps.

And it is a thing of wonder.

Anyone who’s run a beer mile knows the event is not a pretty affair. But Jonathan Charlesworth's consumption of beer is inspired. He tips the beer over while simultaneously snapping back his head, mouth opened into a something like a smile. The movement is strikingly sudden. It looks near instinctual, the way a dog might shake a bit of water of its coat. This is all the more stunning considering he is consuming four extra ounces of beer for each lap.

Shirck doesn’t have Charlesworth’s advantage of drinking from a pint glass. He has to wait for the beer to bubble out of a bottle. But his movement with the beverage is impressive. He never pauses throughout the race; his body is in constant forward motion. Entering each transition zone in a near sprint, he grabs his next bottle. As he pours beer into his mouth he continues to walk forward, finishing his beer as he approaches the last foot of the exchange zone. And then he’s off again, approaching 4-minute-mile pace by the time he reaches the 100-meter mark.

There are casualties. 

I hear Markell gag as he finishes his third beer. He almost saves it. He heaves up a bit of malt, but shuts his mouth quickly to force it down. For a few moments, we bystanders witness a battle play out: a man locked in tense combat with his own gastric complex. And then, it is unleashed: fluid erupts from John, refracting in the sunlight as a visceral fountain of foam. Everyone winces. Markell drops his head, defeated. But he carries on to his final beer and an additional penalty lap.

Brandon Shirck, left, and John Markell, center, at the 2015 World Beer Mile Classic

Despite the extra beer, Charlesworth passes Shirck during the final chug. He takes off with a sizable lead. But on the back straight, Shirck starts to crank up into his kick, dragging Garrett Cullen along. As they approach the home straight, Shirck moves into the lead and dips just under 5 minutes. Charlesworth and Cullen finish right behind him, notching 5:00.4 and 5:02.2. Admirable runs for all. But I’m utterly astounded when someone reminds me that Charlesworth’s effort meant he ran a five-minute mile whilst consuming 4 pounds of beer.

Reed Lyon and Todd Rose kick in just under the six-minute mark. It’s a testament to how fast the beer mile has become that sub-6 runs have been relegated to also-ran status. Back in college a decade-ago, if someone on my track team had cracked 6 minutes they would have achieved legend status.

Reed Lyon finishes a beer with style at the 2015 WV Summer Classic

Todd and Reed shuffle to the grass beyond lane eight. Bent over, they gag and cough. They stare at their shoes, spitting at the space between their feet. Their eyes are fixed as they do some internal wrangling and debate with their GI-tract. They seem to have the upper hand in the negotiations; I don’t see anyone retch.

All of this is just a tune-up for the World Beer Mile Classic, a championship event that will bring together some of the best European and Anglophone runners to north London on 12 August. I’ve been told there is an open heat for mere mortals, so I have a chance to redeem myself. It looks like I’ll have to check a bag with a few Bud Heavies.

See ya’ll in Barnet.


~ ~ ~
A stream of the 2017 West Valley Summer Classic is available on Facebook.
This year's World Beer Mile Classic will be held at Allianz Park (Saracens Stadium) in North London on 12 August. Registration and race details here.


*Sadly, Charlesworth's Chunder attempt was unofficial. He used American pints, which are smaller in quantity than the required Imperial pint.

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