John Markell is racing a mile around the track at San Francisco State University on July 22. Silver-haired and fit, the elite master runner is flying into his third lap when disaster strikes. Rounding the track’s first turn, he suddenly gags. He heaves up, but shuts his mouth quickly to force things down. For a few moments, 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 the runner’s mouth, refracting in the sunlight as a visceral fountain of foam. Everyone winces and Markell drops his head, defeated. But after a second he composes himself and carries on.
Such are the vagaries of the beer mile, an event that combines the challenge of a 1-mile foot race with the frat-boy insanity of a drinking competition.
On its face, a beer mile is simple: runners drink a 12-ounce beer with at least 5 percent ABV before each of their four laps around a 400-meter track. Any emetic activity, like Markell’s malty display in San Francisco, results in a one-lap penalty, which is almost as bad as a DQ given the loss of dignity among beer-running peers. The beer mile has a cheeky, almost illicit, vibe to it; perhaps inevitable given that the event involves chugging multiple beers as quickly as possible while also running four laps as fast as possible.
But the beer mile is no longer an amateur affair. Indeed, it is telling that this weekend’s Beer Mile World Classic in London will overlap with the IAAF World Championships, which are also in town. This third edition of the World Classic, being held at Saracens Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 12, is mere kilometers from the world champs stadium at the Olympic Park.
Despite his mishap this July, Markell is one of the better beer milers in the world. He is also one of the co-founders of the World Classic with Nick MacFalls. The event was launched in 2015 to bring together the world’s best beer milers in a single event.
“We hope the World Classic highlights that the beer mile requires real athleticism,” Markell says. “It requires an incredible effort to run one quickly.” Indeed, the sport has professionalized in the last few years with top athletes securing legitimate shoe sponsors like adidas and Brooks.
The beer mile went mainstream in 2014. That year a runner from the San Francisco Bay Area, James Nielson, broke the 5-minute barrier, opening the floodgates for other elite competitors to get involved. For a few heady months, beer miles were everywhere. Event participation grew considerably. Former frat boys, gym rats and college runners jumped in, fancying their beer-swilling abilities. Flotrack sponsored a championship in Austin, Texa, to draw in its collegiate audience. Daytime television got in on the action. Ellen DeGeneres featured former world-record holder Lewis Kent’s chugging prowess to add a bit of spectacle to her talk show. Even Lance Armstrong attempted a beer mile. (He dropped out after one lap.)
But once the beer mile’s novelty wore off something happened … the pros didn’t leave. Quietly, elite runners have chipped away at national and world records. The fastest time is now a mind-boggling 4:34.25, set by Canadian Corey Bellemore at last year’s World Classic in London. The women’s record is 6:08, held by American Erin O’Mara. 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.
Brandon Shirk, who finished third at last year’s Beer Mile World Classic, is one of America’s best hopes for a victory at this year’s championship. He ran collegiately for Cal Poly and owns an open mile PR of 4:04 and a 1500 PB of about 3:46.
“The World Classic is like nothing else,” Shirck says. “Unlike other international events, this event is not about monetizing the experience…it’s about the competition and national pride.”
Such pride emanates from the World Classic’s national team competition. The rivalry between Anglophone countries—England, Scotland, Australia and the United States—is particularly intense, and it draws legitimate competition. Most of the male runners near the front pack have non-beer-mile bests approaching the four-minute barrier. This includes Dale Clutterbuck, who will toe the line with a 3:59 mile best and a 3:38 1500 personal record. Clutterbuck finished second last year behind Belmore despite minimal beer-mile experience. However, this year he enters the World Classic as a heavy favorite, having just set a world record in the “Chunder Mile,” a British variation using 20-ounce pints. Elite athletes from Germany, Ireland, Denmark and elsewhere are also expected at the World Classic. Another American, Chris Robertson, could be the top American, having just set the American record in 4:46 and has a non-beer 1500 best of 3:55.
But even as the event becomes professionalized, it has held onto its fun and irreverent heritage. The race organizers, Markell and MacFalls, as well as several beer milers, were spotted this week at the bar of a London hotel, which housed athletes for the IAAF champs. Over a few drinks, they tried to convince several professional runners to race the beer mile. If they succeeded, it will only add to the fireworks on Saturday.
Venue: Saracens Stadium at Allianz Park
Schedule: Gates open 5:45 p.m. (12:45 p.m. ET), Open heats begin at 6:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m. ET), Elite athletes start at 7:45 p.m. (2:45 p.m. ET).