There are certain inadvisable things you do because they seem like they might make a pretty good story later: jump out of a plane, swim with sharks, go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line. But my friend Zach Freeman and I had a much simpler dream: to conquer the body-and-mind-wrecking Beer Mile together. There are parameters, records, and an official governing body, but it comes down to a very basic set of rules:
- Run four laps around a track, drinking 12 ounces of beer (at least 5% ABV) in the designated area before each lap.
- Finish each beer fully.
- If you expel the beer at any point, you’re assessed a fifth penalty lap. (Only one lap is given as penalty, no matter how many times you do the thing your body really wants to do.)
We first heard about the... sport?... via this fascinating story of Lance Armstrong DNF-ing a beer mile. Survive the beer mile, we figured, and we would objectively defeat a famous disgraced athlete! Zach had never chugged a beer before (which is shocking, as he’s a former Texan), but has run multiple marathons. I, meanwhile, love drinking beer early and often, but hadn’t raced on a track since fifth grade, when I quit after realizing that track meets are as boring as church but much longer. With one runner and one brewery employee in the mix, it was a perfect matchup.
So Zach and I found a time (a beautiful Sunday morning), a place (an undisclosed track that was tolerant of our shenanigans but probably wouldn’t want to endorse them), and a crew that could help us further study the impact of beer on the run. Since John vs. Zach (Beer vs. Mile, Blobs vs. Snobs) was the core conflict, we assembled our roster around these two poles:
- John: Grudging former Turkey Trot participant, beer writer, and simmering garbage bag of imitation White Castle.
- Zach: Ten-time marathon finisher. Former racing event writer and current comedy writer.
- Cindy Kuzma: Runner’s World contributor, beer 5k organizer, wrote a book on the body’s reaction to running. Total ringer.
- Kamal Williams: Cohost of the Beerz & Barz hip hop and beer show. Was possibly fed a lot of barrel-aged stout and coerced into agreeing to participate.
- Sam Carruthers: My brother, former cross country runner and three-time marathon finisher. An eight-years-younger version of me, so basically the real-life 1080 Snowboarding ghost.
We also had a race organizer and individual timers for each of us. Would physical fitness win the Beer Mile, or would time spent in the dive-bar trenches offer a unique edge? Let’s find out.
John: “Oh god, we’re doing this. And it’s my fault,” could have been tattooed on my forehead as our timer counted down the seconds. But the first beer made things better, because that’s what beer does. I was the first to finish the beer and immediately thought, “Hey, I could maybe take this first lap!” And indeed, I was the fastest man in the world.
For one lap.
Zach: I felt a sense of resignation as to how badly this was about to go for me. The word “Go!” was issued and we all grabbed our respective beers. As expected, I was the last to finish the first beer. I took off running with a sinking feeling, expecting liquid and massive carbonation to slow me down, but instead I felt… fine.
In fact, I felt great. And then I started burping. Not small burps. Big, game-changing belches like Charlie and Grandpa Joe use to save their lives at the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Zach: And then, suddenly, I was back at the starting line grabbing a second beer. Remarkably, this one went down quicker than the first. Against all expectations, I was enjoying myself.
I think it was during this second lap that I took the lead, burping the whole time.
John: You think. While Glory Boy there was strutting around, I was finding that the second beer was markedly not as enjoyable as the first. Moreover, I had to keep running, which had a bit of that forced-gym-class feel we know and love from the Presidential Physical Fitness Test days.
Zach: The third beer went down just as easily and the third lap may be one of the greatest running experiences of my life. It was 50 degrees, the sun was out, and there was a slight breeze. Everyone I was racing against was behind me. And, although it would be at least another 10 minutes before I truly realized it, I was wasted.
John: The struggle. I should not have picked one of my favorite beers for this contest. Beer #3 was that cold, hard moment where I thought about quitting. And it wasn’t just me having issues. Halfway through the lap, I encountered Cindy (who’d passed me by a bit earlier) hovering over a trash can with that worst of looks in her eyes. Not fear, not nausea, not pain—inevitability. But she was fine, because she’s generally superior.
Zach: As I grabbed my fourth beer, I wasn’t sure if my stomach could actually hold the contents of the can. But I chugged (carefully gulped) it down, tossed the can, and took off… at an extremely cautious walk, with my head thrust up to the sky as if introducing a new angle would make it too complicated for the liquid to escape and ensure it stayed down. About halfway into my final lap, staring up at the sky, I realized the worst had passed and I started jogging again. And I jogged across the finish line high on victory, exercise, and, of course, hops.
John: The fourth beer is where I drew upon my years of training in “we’re staying for one more, right?” I did the whole head-over-the-can-spit-and-mutter-to-self song and dance, but eventually had my own moment of mind over barley and a gigantic belch.
And time be damned, this one actually felt the best since Lap 1. By the end, I had the jaunty trot you fake at a 5k finish to pretend you aren’t the guy who was beaten by most of the strollers and a startling percentage of middle schoolers. I finished two minutes behind Cindy, which is something that I couldn’t do without the aid of performance-enhancing beverages. I remain confident that with additional belch training, I have a bright future in this sport.
(Also, Zach’s fourth-lap posture was straight out of a Max Fleischer cartoon.)
Against all odds, we didn’t get one full-on puke in the bunch. Sam did what we judged a “foam yak” just into the second lap and took the penalty for it. He also almost quit after the harrowing ordeal.
“I didn’t know you could foam at the mouth without having rabies,” Sam said. “The sound of it hitting the track was revolting, and I responded by veering all the way to the right side of the track and laughing, like an insane person. The third lap was shame-filled and my mouth tasted like ears.”
But he finished, only slightly worse for the wear, as did we all. And hey, believe it or not, the runners were the best at the whole timed-running part:
- Zach - 11:25
- Cindy - 12:50
- Me - 14:34
- Sam - 17:39
- Kamal - 19:14
But the real point of this experiment was to get all FiveThirtyEight on things and measure the physical and emotional fortitude of our athletes.
Prior to the event, we had each runner run a timed non-beer mile (which you may know as “running a mile”) to compare. We then calculated the percentage increase to see how everyone fared with beer. The results shook things up a bit:
- Zach - 8:12 regular mile, 39.2% time increase
- Kamal - 12:42 regular mile, 51.4% time increase
- John - 9:26 regular mile, 54.4% time increase
- Sam - 9:30 regular mile, 85.8% time increase
- Cindy - 6:30 regular mile, 97.4% time increase
Zach is annoyingly competent at this for someone who texted me the entire month prior to express his nervousness at chugging a beer. Double golds for him. And Kamal, who brought up the rear, was the second most iron-willed chugger of the day. I finished middle of the pack, which is very on-brand, and Sam just behind me, which I will remind him of at all family holidays until he inevitably pushes me down the stairs. Finally, if the film Inside Out is at all accurate, trained athlete Cindy definitely had a bunch of tiny people within her screaming, “WHAT IS HAPPENING?!? OH GOD, WHY?! AHHHH!”
The (perhaps inadvisable) lesson: If you aren’t happy with your mile performance, maybe start drinking and bump yourself up into a higher percentile of World Class Athlete. Because 48 ounces of carbonated liquid is quite the thing for anyone to carry around, no matter how fit they are.
The second lesson: All five of us are objectively superior physical specimens to Lance Armstrong.
The last and most important lesson: Don’t do a beer mile. But if you do, may your beer stay within.