Elite amateur Josh “Harry” Harris looks like he’s on his way to a record mile time at the historic Rawlinson Track in Melbourne, on May 3, 2014.
Pixie-size, with legs pinwheeling, the 23-year-old Australian runner is about to arc through the first bend of the bell lap and is a half-lap ahead of the 30-person chase field when he unexpectedly comes to a near stop. Something is wrong. The rowdy spectators who’ve spilled onto the track’s outer lanes to bellow “Go, Harry, go!” fall hushed.
Stumbling, Harris glances over his left shoulder to see if anyone is close. Later he’ll recall thinking, Oh no, it’s gonna come up. The crowd leans in, keenly waiting for it. Then, suddenly, Harris lifts his head, pushes off hard, and heads into the backstretch. He’s managed not to puke his pre-race meat pie, and he’s running again, with 300 meters to go.
It is the burden of the beer mile’s finest competitors to endure hellish gastric moments like this one. Retching is possible at any instant. Much of the field at Melbourne’s Autumn Classic, the most decorated event in the sport, is wondering where the burping ends and the barfing begins. “You pray for mercy,” a racer explains.
The beer mile isn’t a new phenomenon—especially here at the Rawlinson Track, which has played host to nearly 200 participants and Harris’s record-setting times over the past several years. But lately it has garnered a surprisingly large worldwide audience. The race is defined by the task of running four laps on a standard oval track—that’s the mile part. The beer part is the requirement to drink a 12-ounce can or bottle of suds with a minimum of 5 percent alcohol before each lap. The most consequential of the broadly accepted rules governing the event is a penalty lap if you hurl. Finish times with video links are submitted to Beermile.com for ratification.
Many of the beer mile’s most avid participants are world-class runners. That guy lining up in the front row at the New York City Marathon or in the blocks for the 1,500 nationals in Eugene, Oregon? Chances are he’s had a go at the beer mile. The holy grail is a sub-five-minute time.
“Beer miles are what we do for fun instead of gambling in Vegas,” says 35-year-old James Nielsen, an NCAA Division III 5,000-meter champ who has been doing beer miles since his senior year at the University of California at San Diego. “It’s always been a big deal for runners. It’s just that now everybody else has started to hear about it.”
American Nick Symmonds, a 30-year-old two-time Olympian and 800-meter silver medalist at the 2013 World Track and Field Championships, in Moscow, attempted a sub-five-minute beer mile in 2012, then recommitted himself to the elusive record in a blog post after his Moscow medal. It was akin to Roger Federer winning Wimbledon but saying in his victory speech that he longed for the beer-pong title that got away. For beer milers, at least, Symmonds’s publicized quest made perfect sense. “Why pander around being the 2nd best 800m runner in the world when you can be the number 1 beer miler,” one commenter wrote. At the time, in August 2013, the record was 5:04.9, set by Harris. Though Symmonds was hopeful that he’d break it in early 2014, his busy competition schedule and an injury kept him from trying.
But on April 27, only five days before Harris’s sub-five-minute attempt in Melbourne, the aforementioned Nielsen, a comparative unknown in the beer-mile fraternity, snuck onto a track in Marin County, California, and drank and ran faster—4:57!—than anyone had ever done before. The resulting YouTube video, shot by his wife and posted on April 28, complete with Nielsen’s colorful explanation of his yearlong training program, was evidence of the first-ever sub-five-minute beer mile. “Holy shit,” he heaved as he emerged from hunched-over agony. “Oh man.”
Nielsen’s video quickly reached 1.2 million hits. The beer mile, a niche indulgence among track stars, triathletes, and former college runners, was suddenly a viral sensation.
“I think I can do a 4:53,” Harris announced before the Melbourne race, clearly still a bit shaken by the unexpected news from California and intrigued that a much larger audience was now paying attention to his performance on this rainy, gale-battered Saturday night. Three video cameras were rolling, and a Deadspin reporter eight time zones away, in Nashville, Tennessee, was awaiting a post-race comment. The bookmaking site SportsBet.com was taking wagers on the outcome. “I’m running faster than I ever have,” 1.25-to-1 favorite Harris said. “But I’m afraid I’ve been running a lot more of late than I’ve been drinking.”
In Melbourne, the 30-person field of male and female participants showed proper IDs to confirm they were of drinking age, but otherwise the paperwork was minimal. Organizer Hamish Beaumont, a local attorney who won the inaugural four-person Melbourne event in 2006, explained that a signed liability waiver would legally suggest that the event existed, which wasn’t in any organizer’s best interest. A grainy replay video from last year’s Autumn Classic ran on the wall. The highlight was footage of a woman careening off the course and heading for a green recycling bin, where she buried her head and heaved—repeatedly.
Beaumont, 38, is a member of the Melbourne University Athletics Club and a coordinator for the city’s popular cross-country series. He first learned about the beer mile a decade ago from a friend who had traveled to Canada, researched it, and found examples of other pioneering efforts. Old-timers from the “uni’s” club told him about the days when spectators would choose a runner during a 10K and drink each time that runner started a new lap. “I can’t recall anyone finishing,” shrugs Beaumont.
Meanwhile, the sport was taking off on other shores as well. Back in the early eighties, I ran with a group called the Barleyhoppers, the best-known U.S. antecedent, started by a crew of runners out of Boston’s famous Bull and Finch Pub (a.k.a. the Cheers bar). Their annual championship event, the Great Boston Beer Chase, was a five-to-ten-kilometer road race that required drinking five-ounce beers at anywhere from six to twelve bars. In the downtown edition, which roughly shadowed the city’s Freedom Trail, I raced for the finish but was undone by bloating and Boston’s long wharfs. I puked everywhere.
The modern performance era of beer racing didn’t emerge until the early nineties, when athletes on the Queen’s University cross-country team in Kingston, Ontario, developed and popularized a new approach. They’d heard of chug runs, recalls team member John Markell, but Queen’s runners adapted the concept to their preferred distance—the mile—and inaugurated an annual event, the Kingston Classic. The widely accepted rules they came up with—a beer before each lap, a prescribed drink zone near the start/finish area of the track, a penalty vomit lap—were disseminated over the course of a collegiate meet in Pennsylvania, according to Markell. They would later be dubbed the Kingston rules.
In short order, a relatively standardized beer mile was taking place at a bevy of fine New England schools, including Tufts, Amherst, and Wesleyan. Times were recorded and league titles claimed. Runners talked to other runners. When Markell moved to the Bay Area, he brought the beer mile with him, launching the annual West Valley Track Club Summer Classic in 2006. The same year, Patrick Butler, a beer-miling enthusiast from Wesleyan, acquired the domain name beermile.com to archive results. The unsanctioned events tended to attract a small and trusted circle of runners, for fear of open-container arrests and community scorn. In 2005, near San Diego, an elite band of triathletes (including a Kona Ironman winner or two) gathered around the holidays but kept things hush-hush by not releasing details until 24 hours beforehand.
According to Beermile.com, there were 159 events in 2013, from Bahrain to Brooklyn. The site is a beehive of results and records, broken down by country, state, and type of beer. Thanks to decades of record keeping, we know that Budweiser is favored by an almost four-to-one margin and that Jason “Little Rosey” Rosenberg holds the record in international waters from when he and his brother, Brian, went toe-to-toe on a cruise ship off Belize.
The new interest in beer miling and the surprising widespread affection for it has brought the sport, its organizers, and its participants out of the shadows. The former angst over public shaming, recriminations from coaches, and potential job terminations seems over. When The Wall Street Journal published an amiable beer-mile feature last spring, it was like an all-clear sign had been waved. “The Beer Mile makes the front page of the Wall Street Journal; hell drops a few degrees,” Beermile.com reported in a Facebook post.
In just the past year, the love affair has mushroomed on the strength of Nielsen’s million-plus YouTube hits and Harris’s 100,000 before that. In August, Nielsen tweeted that he’d been officially sponsored by the management company Soul Focus Sports to do a Beer Mile Collection apparel line. Symmonds confirmed that he would help promote and run in the first Beer Mile World Championship, which would be held on December 3 in Austin, Texas. The organizing sponsor, Flocasts, is a new-media company that chronicles elite running and other underrecognized sports. It planned to bring in leading beer milers, like Canadian Corey Gallagher (fastest time 5:01.6), Aussie Jack Colreavy (5:17), and Elizabeth Laseter, a former Johns Hopkins track and cross-country runner whose 7:07 personal best is 25 seconds off the current women’s record. Harris cannot attend, and Nielsen hadn’t committed as of press time. “There has never been a field like this,” said event organizer Joe Williamson. “The world record is going to get broken, and Nielsen should come try to do it again.”
Symmonds told me matter-of-factly that he got interested in the sub-five-minute quest because it sounded fun and, well, track racing could use a little fun. There were bragging rights to be won and America’s reputation to defend against Canadians, Brits, and Aussies. As normal as that sounds, it’s important to note that it’s really not. Symmonds is a professional track and field superstar. There is something culturally extraordinary about the intersection of high-end running and low-end entertainment. It’s a true window into the sick, secret world of runners.
A few days before the Autumn Classic, I accompany Harris to a practice session at a large open training ground behind Melbourne’s Aussie-rules football stadium. It’s early evening, and much of the pitch is taken up by frenetic youth teams. Except for the strange, overstuffed-looking “footie” ball and the exotic Southern Hemisphere bird chatter, it could be any field in the U.S.: there are coaches with whistles, schoolkids racing through cones, parents on the sidelines.
Harris weaves his way through this slice of sporting life with a backpack full of clinking Coopers 62 bottles. He positions his drink zone behind a large metal light pole. It helps that he doesn’t look like a degenerate. He is in a purple singlet trimmed in bright orange that matches his shoelaces. His fresh face and light brown locks make him appear young and angelic enough that if he’s caught drinking in public, I have no doubt that I’ll be blamed.
Tonight’s training session, he explains, won’t involve all four beers—he needs to do some normal, nonalcoholic training afterward, so he’ll drink some and run some to get a read on where he is.
Harris loops the grassy field three times, and prior to each lap he chugs a beer. The running is just plain running, but the drinking is special. One foot is slightly ahead of the other. His back is straight and his head is tilted back so his eyes point almost straight up. The beer can’t wait to rush down his throat. It’s over in five or six seconds. He doesn’t run that far—maybe a half-mile, all told—but that’s not the point of this exercise. “I really like the way I’m drinking,” he exclaims.
Harris leads a seemingly quiet life. His nonalcoholic athletic accomplishments include steeplechase and 5,000-meter titles in Tasmania and 42nd place representing Australia at the 2012 World University Cross Country Championships, in Poland. He remotely attends the local uni in Launceston, Tasmania, where he’s getting his master’s degree to teach. He lives with his mother to save money and races on the weekends. His PR for the 1,500 is 3:51.2.
The beer-mile mastery came about almost by accident. On his first try, during a camping trip, he ran an eight-something. With a little refining of his drinking technique, he lowered his time into the sixes, then the fives. Two years ago, he showed up at the Autumn Classic and, in a performance soon to go viral, set the unofficial world record at 5:02.5. The record wasn’t confirmed, however, because he forgot to flip his finished beers upside down over his head to prove completion. The next year he ran a 5:04.9 and received official record confirmation, besting the Canadian Jim Finlayson’s five-year-old mark by five seconds. Harris might have gotten a sub-five but for a last-lap struggle with the twist-off cap on his Coopers 62.
Frustratingly, science has been slow to answer the question: How hard is a sub-five-minute beer mile? One way to look at this is to consider that there are a limited number of 4-to-4:20-milers in the world—which is the pace parameter for potential record success. More limited are the number willing to drink and run. Four beers might take a talented drinker eight to twelve seconds each, averaging 40 seconds total. That takes a 4:10-miler up to 4:50. Of course, few can go as fast as they normally do with large amounts of gassy liquid rumbling in their stomachs. Mid-fifties lap times easily become mid-sixties—though Harris has done a 58-second split. The effects of the alcohol aren’t to blame: elite runners barely break form, since it takes five minutes for the alcohol to move through the small intestine, into the bloodstream, and to the brain. The overdose of CO2, on the other hand, wreaks cruel havoc on the system, and side-searing cramps are common. A five-minute beer miler has to burp on the exhale and breathe on the inhale. “Burping is the key,” Harris says.
A water-torture analogy isn’t a bad one. It can feel like you’re suffocating—especially, as Harris feels compelled to relate, when “you throw up in your mouth.” Mentally you’ve got to want it. As record chasers lament, there’s always a little piece of them saying, “It’s OK, go ahead, vomit.”
Where is the gravitas that substantiates a superhuman effort in drinking while running? Does the motivation come from doing something better than one of the world’s best? When Symmonds, a 3:34-minute 1,500 man, ordained the beer mile as part of his 2014 résumé, the unknown territory below five minutes intoxicated the imagination, a Death Zone for elite runners only. In Harris’s words, something often viewed as semi-stupid became semi-awesome.
James Nielsen perfectly understood the moment the beer mile was having. At UC San Diego, he could run mid-five-minute beer miles without any special preparation and wondered what he could do if he tried. What if he took a lifetime of lessons learned in training for serious objectives like, say, the Olympic Trials (which he qualified for in 2008) or the NCAA Division III 5,000-meter championships (which he won twice) and applied them to achieving the first-ever sub-five-minute beer mile? He’d retired from competitive running six years earlier to work at a tech company and raise his family, but he was still fit. “I’d always wanted to do a sub-five beer mile,” he says. “I know it sounds silly, but it was on my list.”
Between April 2013 and April 2014—as Harris was mistakenly thinking his record was safe from everyone but Corey Gallagher and Symmonds—Nielsen surreptitiously went all in. He added Saturday track workouts and searched for ways to drink faster and retain liquid better. “I read about the competitive food eaters and how they were able to expand the capacity of their stomachs through training,” he says. While famed hot-dog-contest record holder Joey Chestnut relied on water and pasta feasts, the weight-conscious Nielsen seized on another stomach-stretching technique: watermelon loading, which took the form of routinely procuring the largest watermelon he could find and devouring it in one sitting. He improved his beer drinking by perfecting the pre-swallow, which he says “opens the upper sphincter of your esophagus so you can empty the thing in just a few seconds.”
His plan was to unleash his beer-mile record attempt at his annual college-reunion running event, the Gut Check Mile. The date, May 3, was within days of the 60th anniversary of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile, on May 6. It had been Nielsen’s dream to make his sub-five-minute attempt on the Bannister anniversary. However, as the month drew nearer, he noticed the tweets coming from Melbourne. The Autumn Classic event was also planned for May 3 but would precede the Gut Check by about 12 hours because of the time difference. In late April, Nielsen did some test 400s and decided he was ready. “I came home fired up and told my wife, ‘I’m not waiting. If this guy [Harris] beats me by 12 hours, I’m going to shoot myself.’ ”
On April 27, Nielsen performed his time trial at a Marin County track with only his wife, Mimi, in attendance. She kept the time and yelped for him to pick it up when he seemed to be flagging. In an almost divine intervention, Nielsen recalls an unexpected cough/burp/dry heave that freed him from distress and sent him flying into the bell lap. He crossed the line in 4:57, notching his last lap in the same time as his first, an astonishing 63 seconds. He’d had to dig deep. He later told a reporter that he had stomach cramps on both sides. “It’s kind of a miserable experience, to be honest,” he related. “There’s nothing fun about it.”
Most assumed his talk of a stomach-stretching routine was a joke. He swears it wasn’t. “Not only did I run the fastest beer mile in the history of mankind,” he says, “I ate the most watermelon in the history of mankind.”
In the days afterward, Nielsen acknowledged the need for a true race, with rivals all in one place going stride for stride and belch for belch. Meanwhile the video of his world record was certified by the arbiters at Beermile.com, but questions linger. “I’m not saying it isn’t legitimate,” says Harris, “but did you see how fast he drank that beer on the second lap? I just want to know how he did it!”
Of course, Nielsen had the answer: his upper sphincter.
Right before the start of Melbourne’s Autumn Classic, the racers receive their last-minute instructions. Beaumont, in a kilt, tie, and tall socks, says he has no doubt they’ll have a good time and reminds them that “if you make a mess on the track, you’re expected to clean it up.” There’s a low groan, then the runners scurry to the start, filling all eight lanes three or four rows deep. Many are in costume, including top amateur Ash Watson. Returning from injury, he won’t be able to push Harris tonight, he says, but promises to be good for the post-race celebrations. He’s dressed as a beer can.
Harris is in lane three with a Coopers 62 in hand. At the gun, he raises the beer to his lower lip, tilts his head back, and lets it flow. “Put it in the hole!” someone screams, and five seconds later a deafening roar erupts as Harris explodes off the line and slams his empty into the recycling bin. “Harry! Harry!” the cheer rises up.
Harris builds his lead to ten seconds after the first lap and doubles it again after the second lap and third beer. He needs a fast but not impossible 1:02 over the final 800 to beat Nielsen’s record. But the third lap isn’t as quick, and on the first turn of the fourth he stumbles to a standstill, nauseous.
A desperate attempt to make up ground fizzles a few moments later when another wave of nausea hits him on the final turn. His 5:28 finish is nowhere near his best, but it’s easily good enough for a record fourth Autumn Classic victory.
Later, Harris will say that he might have misjudged it all. After setting the record a year earlier, he’d focused on real running, not beer running, hoping to transition into an elite marathoner. Maybe being a young man with a promising amateur career still in the balance made him uncertain of where his true destiny lies. There are very few men in the world capable of a 2:15 marathon, and according to Harris’s coach, he might be one of them. But being a 2:11 marathoner isn’t going to get you on TMZ, The Tonight Show, or ESPN. The choices are confusing.
“I think I’ll lay low for a while,” Harris says. “I’m still young.”
What’s to become of the beer mile in the aftermath of a year unlike any other is uncertain. Nielsen says he has no doubt that his record will soon be eclipsed, because yet another “4:10-miler nobody knows will come out of the woodwork who can drink ridiculously fast.” If Symmonds gets serious about the drinking—he’s a slower drinker but a faster runner than either Harris or Nielsen—nobody will be surprised if he breaks the mark with relative ease.
In the lead-up to the Beer Mile World Championship in Austin, slated to feature prize money and celebrity relay matches, Symmonds said he believed the winner would notch a sub-five-minute time. “I’m training hard to make sure that person is me,” he said. His mile repeats were going well, and he was getting in some drinking on the weekends. He wasn’t overdoing it, he said, since “I have a lifetime of beer-chugging experience accrued from my days in the Sigma Chi fraternity.” He was aiming for 12-second beer splits—slow in comparison to Harris and Nielsen but likely a record-securing pace for Symmonds, given his speed advantage.
When I ask the Kingston pioneer John Markell if he’s worried that the renegade, free-spirited character of the beer mile might be changed by the World Championship and lots of media hoo-ha, he surprisingly says no, that he’s happy to see it get its due. It reminds him of a little story: Years earlier, in an executive job interview, he was asked if he’d done anything that had inspired others and been widely passed on. He thought for a minute, and then it dawned on him. “Well, yes,” he answered. “It’s called the beer mile.”
Todd Balf (@toddbalf) is the author of Farthest North.