I am terrible at the beer mile. With the gastric constitution of a 6-month old, it’s a good day when I manage to keep my breakfast down in any race, never mind one that involves drinking three pounds of beer. So as I enter the fourth and final lap of the Beer Mile World Classic, held on August 12 in London, England, I am literally on the verge of coming undone.
Drinking my last beer, I feel like that elementary-school chemistry experiment that combines baking soda and vinegar. I am become a human volcano.
“Don’t throw up, don’t throw up,” I think to myself as I chug. Any “reversals of fortune” entail a penalty lap, essentially ending your competitive race. But midway through this last beer I retch… and catch warm beer in my mouth. I nauseatingly and disgustingly swallow it back down. Oh, so gross. So very very gross!
I finish the beer, start the final lap, and promptly throw up everything in lane 2.
Welcome to the beer mile!
My involvement with the event began, characteristically, over drinks. A month earlier, the Beer Mile World Classic’s organizers, John Markell and Nick MacFalls, invited me to cover this summer’s championship event. “Here’s the thing,” Markell tells me at a house party over IPA. “A beer mile is really hard. Sure it involves booze, but these guys are near 4-minute-mile pace during the run.” Markell, a Canadian now in the Bay Area, helped standardize the “Kingston Rules” for the beer mile. MacFalls is directing the logistics for the event. “We’ve assembled one of the deepest beer mile fields in history” he tells me. They convince me to travel across the Atlantic to check things out.
The beer mile has indeed gotten fast. The world record is now a mind-boggling 4:34.25, set by Canadian Corey Bellemore at last year’s World Classic. The women’s record is 6:08, held by American Erin O’Mara. The former world-record-holder Lewis Kent has a decent sponsorship from Brooks. He was even featured on Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show.
With professionalization has come a detailed, almost arcane, set of event-specific rules. These are outlined by Nick Macfalls at a pre-race meeting the evening before the World Classic. It is held (unsurprisingly) at a pub near London Bridge. All beers must be 12 ounces and consumed from their container of sale (no solo cups). The beer must have an ABV of at least 5 percent. Drinking must occur on the track’s “chug zone” before the start line. The total liquid remaining in the containers of the finished beers must be less than 4 ounces. Broken bottles result in a DQ. “It’s a bit complex,” Macfalls admitted to me earlier in the day. He was boxing up chemistry beakers to accurately measure the beer for each athlete. “But this ensures an equitable and fair race.” The effort extends track and field’s quantified competition—timed results and set race distances— into the realm of binge drinking.
But the beer mile hasn’t abandoned its playful roots. This is evident after the pre-race meeting, when everyone promptly gets smashed. It is unlike any pre-race night I’ve ever experienced. Instead of drinking pasta and crashing in front of Netflix, the athletes are double-fisting. John Markell opens a tab for the elite milers and drinking games promptly ensue. It gets even rowdier as we watch the IAAF World Championships on TV. By 11 p.m. one of the Australian athletes, Charlie Blanche, has drunk himself into a human puddle. He remains polite as he staggers down into a chair next to me, chinking my glass. We chat a bit before he wanders off, eventually micturating on the floor of a local hostel. Hell hath no fury like an Australian drinking on someone else’s tab.
The following evening we head to the race venue. The World Classic is being held on a track around the rugby pitch of Saracens Stadium in Allianz Park. Most of the hundred or so folks gathered in the venue are participating in all-comers heats preceding the main event. But there are a some spectators in the stands, including a couple stag parties. The production value is high. MC’s costumed in garish tuxedos entertain the crowd. The beer-mile celebrity Lewis Kent, kept from racing by a knee injury, is commentating on a live stream. A camera crew wanders around the track.
Despite my own botched race, I take some solace in watching the struggles of more accomplished beer milers. About 90 runners competed in six heats, including the elite women’s and men’s flights. The first section of the men’s championship race is an overture of vomit. One runner throws up four times. At one point, stumbled onto his knees, he clamps his hand over his mouth. Malty froth sprays through his fingers like a grotesque fire hydrant.
The women’s race flirts with greatness before collapsing into foam. American runner and Brooks athlete Allison Grace Morgan comes into the final lap with British elite Laura Riches. They are on world-record pace. But as they finish their bottles, beer backs out of their mouths. It’s not much, but race director MacFalls watches it happen. He sadly raises his red penalty flag. The world record slips away and Byrony Pearce of the UK earns the win in 7:32.
By the time the men’s championship race begins, the motley crowd is at fever pitch. Those who ran in the earlier heats have kept drinking into the evening. The stag parties are getting rowdy and the English fans are taunting the American runners with football cheers.
Dale Clutterbuck is the obvious local favorite. The Englishman has just set the WR in the “chunder mile,” a variant involving imperial pints. And with a suds-free 1500-meter best of 3:38, he is the strongest on paper. But he faces a score of American talent, including national-record holder Chris Robertson (4:46), Brandon Shirck (4:47 PB), and Garrett Cullen (4:54 PB). The men hold their first beers at the ready, awaiting the start. The gun goes off. The sound of a dozen opening bottle tops cuts through the cheers. The race has begun.
The elites prefer bottled beer. It’s easier to open and, more importantly, the beer pours faster. “The key is adjusting your angle as you chug,” American Garret Cullen explained to me beforehand. “Holding your beer closer to horizontal at the outset allows in air, preventing a vacuum from forming.” As their beer empties, the runners hike the bottle vertically to drain it quicker. They keep their mouths open as they swallow, again to prevent a pour-slowing vacuum.
The Americans have come to drink. They inhale their first beer and explode out of the chug zone. Clutterbuck looks flustered as he takes off, but his leg speed is evident. He zooms down the backstretch and puts the entire field in his wake. By the second beer he is firmly in front and expands his lead over the next lap.
But others are drinking better. Chris Robertson, who for some mystical reason drinks the sugary Blue Moon Ale, is having an inspired race. The Iowa State alum furiously sprints into the chug zone behind Clutterbuck for his third beer. But he switches into another headstate as he grabs his bottle. He moves calmly as he opens the beer, and smoothly empties it down his throat. Then he shifts back into run mode and flies off, passing the English runner.
Clutterbuck, forced onto his heels, tries to respond. To be fair, the Kingston Rules—with its 12-ounce beers in closed containers—favor the North Americans. The Brits are used to open-glass pints and the pacing affects Clutterbuck. On the final lap, trying to match the American’s quick swallow, Clutterbuck goes for broke and rushes his beer. It’s too much. He pukes yards into the final lap. He walks off, retching in lane 4. The favorite is out.
But the Americans are resplendent. Robertson, who owns a 4:13 open mile PR and now compete for a Nike-sponsored Fleet Feet team in Chicago, sprints for home, taking the win in an impressive, even if not record-breaking, 4:52. He attributes his win to patience on the run: “I tried to avoid running too fast. The whole point was to make sure I had enough breath left to get the beers down in one gulp.” Garret Cullen finishes 10 seconds back in 5:02 for second. Brandon Shirck finishes off the podium and America goes 1-2-3 to win the team race.
I watch, soaking it all in. After the men’s race the carnivalesque event teeters precariously, nearly plunging into a straight-up debauch. The beer works its way into everyone’s bloodstream. Folks are getting rowdy and a bit weird. An injured runner chugs a beer out of his walking boot to great acclaim. Eventually stadium security kicks us all out and we wander into the night. Unsurprisingly, we end up at a bar.
Welcome to the beer mile!