Sebastian Coe once said that, theatrically, the mile is the perfect distance: “Blink and you miss a sprint, the 10,000 metres is lap after lap of waiting, but the mile is just the right length — beginning, middle, end; a story unfolding.”
If that’s true, then its younger, more delinquent brother — the Beer Mile — is the very much imperfect distance: A horror story unfolding.
The rules are simple: Drink a beer, run a lap of the track, and repeat another three times (with a penalty lap enforced for any vomiting). The beer must be at least 12 ounces (355ml) and 5% alcohol, and must be drunk from a bottle or can, ie no glasses.
And yes, this is now a thing.
Which perhaps is no surprise, given sport has never had such a wide definition, as shown by recent murmurings about eSports (computer games) and pole dancing making their way into the Olympics.
Where did the event come from, though? Like many a foolish idea, it started over a beer.
It was the summer of 1989, and a group of Canadian college athletes were sitting around in a bar when one of them pitched the idea to combine their two favourite activities: running and drinking.
Among them was Graham Hood, who went on to become an Olympian over 1,500m. Later that night, the group of seven headed to their local track to put the plan into action.
What followed was the world’s first Beer Mile, the winner clocking 7:30 amid a chaotic scene of running, chugging, burping and puking.
From the start — and still today — it was frowned upon by authorities but, on college campuses throughout the ’90s, groups would sneak onto tracks after midnight to stage races, aware that such an event would never get the go-ahead from even the most liberal health-and-safety practitioner.
The arrival of the internet and, in particular, social media, saw it gain a worldwide following, however cult-like. People even started training for it, and who only knows what that involved.
Me? I tried my first Beer Mile in 2015, joining a couple of dozen other slightly askew runners/drinkers on a decrepit cinder track in Kilbogget Park, south Dublin. I won, just about, in 5:50 and, while the race itself was as enjoyable as a double maths class on a Monday morning, it invoked a strange feeling of satisfaction.
Then again, that could have been the booze, because about 10 minutes after you cross the line in a Beer Mile a tidal wave of drunkenness washes over you, which makes for some comical scenes at a venue normally reserved for straight-laced sobriety.
For many years, the world record for the Beer Mile loitered around the five- minute mark, which seemed, with good cause, an impossible barrier, until someone broke it.
In 2014American James Nielsen clocked 4:57.1, the video of his race racking up more than a million views on YouTube in the days after.
However, there’s always someone younger, someone faster, so two years later, a 21-year-old Canadian, Corey Bellemore, ran 4:34 to win the Beer Mile World Championships in London.
He drank his four beers, from bottles, in just over 30 seconds total and, despite the constant stop-starting and a progressively bloating belly, he ran the mile in four minutes. Take that, Roger Bannister.
A little over a year ago, I ran into the organiser of that race while in San Francisco and, last weekend, I happened to be there again when a Facebook message came through with an invitation to race a Beer Mile at half-time in a professional soccer match. They were flying in three of the world’s best Beer Milers, including Bellemore, the world record holder and, though the best I could hope for was embarrassment — something I’m well used to — I agreed.
Before the race, as the eight competitors stood around waiting for half-time, I quizzed them about how they prepare for such a thing. Corey Gallagher, the former world record holder, explained how he often turns a regular workout into a “drinking workout”, having a friend hand him beers to chug between reps on the track.
Bellemore, meanwhile, was more a product of nature than nurture, a top middle-distance runner who was born with a freakish ability, though he also admitted he had also downed the occasional beer mid-workout to prepare.
During the race itself, Bellemore was out of sight almost as soon as I finished my first beer, the Canadian downing his bottle in five seconds and powering around the track in about 60 seconds. I’d never felt so ordinary.
Over the years, I’ve won more than a few bets in bars by downing a pint in five
seconds, but that, I can confirm, is a whole different ball game.
In the Beer Mile, when you slow to a stop after each lap, you desperately want to draw breath, but instead have to drown your throat in fizzy suds, which become progressively more revolting with each gulp.
With the noise of a few thousand soccer fans urging him on, Bellemore whipped around his final lap like a running/drinking machine and hit the finish in 4:33.6 to break his own world record. I came home fourth in 5:25, with a pregnant belly, tired limbs and a new-found awe for the trio a long way up ahead.
There was no medal or prize money on offer for Bellemore — there rarely is — but that’s not to say his talent goes unrewarded. In December 2016 he signed an endorsement deal with Adidas, and he’s not the first Beer Miler to earn investment from a shoe company.
In the US and Canada, it’s an event that has caught on more and more with each passing year, and the official website where results are logged, beermile.com, now has over 110,000 performances listed.
Tempted to give it a go yourself? The Irish Championships take place in June most years, and everyone (of legal drinking age) is welcome. Then again, only an idiot would do such a thing.
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