Part Olympic Games and part Crazy Town, the inaugural World Beer Mile Classic held on Aug. 22 in San Francisco, was to be about “Failing and Failing Miserably…but it may be more fun to watch than to compete,” race organizers recently suggested on its Facebook page.
But some people could not resist the urge to compete. One was Letsrun.com blogger Scott “Slicko” Anderson, a former 1,500-meter runner from Princeton who ran in one of the open heats.
“My brother lives out here, and this was a great excuse to come out and visit him,” said Anderson, who flew out from Washington, D.C. “I saw this beer mile and thought I’d do it. This was always an underground event and it’s great that they have promoted this into a really big event.”
The austere, windswept setting on Treasure Island represented a gathering of the clans, marking the first time most of the best beer milers in the world had the chance to race each other head on. More than 1,000 spectators came to watch victory rise like a Phoenix from the carbonated carnage.
Others were left scratching their heads.
“I don’t know how this is even a sports event,” said bemused San Francisco police officer E. Wu, who was on hand to make sure things went smoothly. “Oh, and be sure to spell my last name correctly,” he quipped jokingly. Or not.
Most of the beer mile’s luminaries came to City by the Bay to gawk, run, chug and party with one another for glory, and most importantly, for fun. And fun was had by all. Prior to the main event, numerous seeded open, masters and sub-elite races transpired—all following the same format of alternately chugging a 12-ounce beer with at least 5 percent alcohol content and running a 400-meter lap around part of the island—and then repeating that sequence three more times—in a riotous combination of competitive versatility, athleticism and debauchery.
Elaborate costumes were more slanted toward nuttiness personified than nattily attired. Among those were patriotically-themed one-piece outfits, silver or gold tights, color-uncoordinated tutus, and lurid super hero capes.
PHOTOS: 2015 Beer Mile World Classic
Getting to the heart of things, one competitor’s plain white T-shirt cautioned “Don’t Trust the Burp!” … aptly citing the event’s principle caveat.
In a number of cases, an ominous gurgling followed by the unwelcome burp preceding vomiting would prevail over self-respect.
“Let’s give him a half-hearted round of applause,” chided the relentlessly cheery PA announcer JT Service to a hapless, puking figure still on the course.
“It’s OK, we think he’ll be OK,” Service’s witty sidekick Josh Muxen added.
Few were spared from their good-natured barbs which riled-up the tipsy, fun crowd.
The combustible combo of endorphins and alcohol colorized the backdrop of the Inaugural Beer Mile World Classic. Individual competition was stoked further by three-man team scoring competitions between squads from Australia, Canada and the U.S. The crowds and competitors grew increasingly restive as the moment of truth—the women’s and men’s elite races—drew near. Fired-up chants of “USA-USA-USA!” with fist-pumping flags rolled across the Great Lawn of Treasure Island as impassioned spectators became fully invested in the moment. Curiously, this element has been somewhat lacking in more traditional track & field events in the U.S.
The beer mile became more official in “about 1989,” when John “The Godfather” Markell first attempted a beer mile as a young college runner for Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. But he acknowledged informal beer miles had been taking place since the 1950s.
“This used to be an underground event,” said Markell, one of the Beer Mile World Classic’s chief organizers. “We were serious runners but not necessarily going to make Olympic teams. We wanted to do something fun that created a sense of camaraderie after the end of the track or cross country season.”
Legend has it Markell has survived more beer miles than any living man or beast, and with ex-college teammate Dan Michelak, the veterans helped standardize the Kingston Rules in 1993 (beermile.com/rules). These range from FAT (fully automatic timing) to chug zones, finishing all but less than one shot glass per beer of 5 percent beer from a bottle at the end of each lap.
When Markell moved to San Francisco in 1997, he joined the West Valley Track Club and found he had enthusiastic teammates like Todd Rose, who helped put the beer mile on the map locally.
“With our club, we’ve always had 60 or 70 people just come out to watch,” Markell said.
A perfect storm nurtured by hard work helped this underground event to blossom into an overnight sensation. Markell’s West Valley Track Club teammate, Nick MacFalls, was instrumental getting the word out and generating enthusiastic support from all over the area.
It was not easy. “We had to get something like eight city permits and two insurance battles, but everyone made it happen.” It happened all right.
Throw in some solid pre-game planning among the elites, over a thousand raucous spectators, food trucks, a PA announcer issuing non-stop zingers, lots of beer pressure, and more beer, and the venue resembled Mardi Gras meets track and field, an oddly appealing combination.
At the Aug. 21 press conference held at Markell’s house, competitors shook hands, took photos, ate Mexican food, answered questions and analyzed preferred beer selections and chugging techniques. Some athletes used this opportunity to compare notes and fine-tune their strategies. This included the former women’s world record-holder Chris “The Lament of Insanity” Kimbrough of Portland, Ore., who burst on the scene quickly in 2014.
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After comparing options with other elites, she tinkered with chugging water out of a can and bottle to see which offered a smoother flow. Once she found the right angle to tip the bottle, she made the switch from can to bottle. How did a mother of three get involved? Easy answer was – she showed talent right off the bat.
“Some friends talked me into doing it when I lived in Austin and I broke the world record (in 6:28), so, it was … beginner’s luck?” she quipped.
Beer mixed with running is a lot more volatile than beer after running so why do it? Well, someone had to.
“Beer is the great equalizer,” said Lewis Kent of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.
He should know. Kent, aka,“Capeman, The Whitehouse of Ontario,” set the current world record in the beer mile of 4:55.78 on Aug 7.
“Most of us are 4:15 milers going against 3:55 milers but we can drink beer faster and some of us can beat the best runners,” Kent said. “That makes it really fun!”
The Beer Mile World Classic was the biggest gathering of elite competitors in one race venue to date. (The first beer mile championship event took place last December at the FloTrack Beer Mile World Championships in Austin, Texas, and although it included two-time U.S. 800-meter Olympian Nick Symmonds, it didn’t include quite as deep of a field as this event.)
“This is ridiculously awesome for sure,” said top American competitor James Nielsen (Novato, Calif.), who relished the prospect of facing all of his main rivals in one race. “We usually only know about each other from the Internet, but we don’t get to race each other. It’s great to have a level playing field where we get to race each other and see who’s best.”
The beer mile’s popularity skyrocketed in 2014 when the first sub-5:00 mile was recorded by Nielsen (4:57.1) and Kimbrough set her world mark of 6:28.6. Recently, Nielsen’s mark was broken twice in 14 hours by competitors on two sides of the planet. Nielsen’s record was broken like a bottle of lager by Australian Josh “Harry” Harris, who scorched a 4:56.1 on Aug. 7, and later in the same day, Kent clocked a 4:55.78 on a track in Ontario, Canada.
So now things got serious. There were three beer milers under 5:00, all of them facing each other for the first time, and this was not lost on the general public or in the press. The women’s elite race was also going to be big with Kimbrough headlining the field.
Anticipation continued to build throughout the afternoon as Service’s nonstop chatter started to crest with the sub-elite beer mile event. “These are the sub-elites!’ he scolded. “The reason why they’re sub-elite is because they’re almost so good!”
Strengthening afternoon winds—gusting as high as 25 mph—whipped in from the west, dampening the chances of record attempts, but the elites were fired up to face each head to head. With six competitors and two teams in the field, the elite women went first. Caitlin “Ricky Bobby” Judd from Charleston, S.C., a 31-year-old newlywed, polished off her first beer and opened up a decisive lead she never relinquished. She prevailed in 6:48.2 over Kimbrough (6:59.5) and Lyndsay Harper of Berkeley, Calif. (7:05.6) took third, allowing the American women to sweep the Canadians and win the Queens Cup and team title.
“If you’re not first, you’re last,” Judd said, shaming the rest of the field.
The men’s elite race included 13 competitors, including the fastest three beer milers ever in Harris, Kent and Nielsen. They all went out as a frenzied pack in the first 400-meter loop, but things began to sort out. In lap one, Kent narrowly led hometown favorite Nielsen and Harris. Nielson fell apart uncharacteristically on the back stretch of the second lap, while Kent powered away and the others surged by him.
“It turned out to be a complete disaster,” said an obviously crushed Nieslen.
After the second lap, Kent pulled away from Harris who was rebuked as “The Chunder from Down Under!” by Service over the loudspeaker as he unceremoniously deposited the contents of his beer in the chug zone of his third lap. A fresh-faced Kent went on to an almost effortless victory over his pained competitors littering them in a trail of vomit, unfinished or regurgitated beer and broken dreams, taking the Beer Mile World Classic title to add to his world record in a sizzling time of 5:07.7.
American runner Brian “The Franchise” Anderson, who made the trek from Bloomington, Minn., snared second-place honors in 5:14.7. In hot pursuit for third was Canadian legend and masters (40-49 age group) runner Jim “The Old Gastric Ghost” Finlayson from Victoria, B.C., who ran a cagey race and finished in 5:16.6.
The Canadians won the team title over the U.S. team on the basis of Nielsen’s disqualification. Jeff “Mounty” Mountjoy’s seventh-place finish secured the coveted team victory for the Canucks, giving them the Kingston Cup.
“I’m on top of the world,” said an elated Kent after winning the race. “This means everything to me!”