Since my days on the Hopkins track and cross-country teams, I've competed in 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons, and marathons—and then there's the beer mile. The rules are simple: Run 1 mile around a 400-meter track while downing a beer before each of the four laps. The beer must be at least 5% alcohol by volume, and it must be fully consumed from a can or bottle. A "reversal of fortune," aka throwing up, results in a penalty lap.
Last year, I clocked a beer mile in 6 minutes, 25 seconds, the third fastest time in the world by a woman. This performance secured my spot on the United States Beer Mile Team and a ticket to compete at the eighth annual Beer Mile World Classic in Leuven, Belgium. After making the trek overseas, I spent a few days prerace exploring Brussels with defending champion Allison Morgan and another teammate, Melanie Podzol. We tasted our way through crisp, pillowy frites, fluffy waffles, and sour cherry beer. The three of us became fast friends.
On the starting line with my teammates in Leuven, I'm teeming with nervous energy. My mental checklist goes something like this: Is my beer ready? Is it the right temperature? What was the last thing I ate? In a few minutes, I would compete against athletes from over 13 countries for the coveted title of Beer Mile World Champion.
Due to the track's no glass rule, this is the first World Classic held with cans. Ask any elite beer miler, and they'll tell you that chugging bottles is faster and easier because there is less foam. This didn't matter to me, as chugging has always been my weak point. The most gifted chuggers open their throats and consume a beer in one fluid motion. Not me. I've tried in vain to replicate the technique, but I always end up with half the beer on my face. So, I've adopted my own method, alternating big chugs with deep breaths. It looks ridiculous—like I'm bobbing for apples—but it gets the job done.
Several minutes before the start, announcer Travis explains the rules. Sporting oversize sunglasses, a maroon suit jacket, and a tweed flat cap, this guy is obviously having fun. He reminds us there are two ways to be disqualified: leaving behind more than 4 ounces of beer in your cans and stepping outside the 9-meter chug zone before finishing each beer.
Travis shouts, "Runners set! Chug!" The whiplike crack of the starting gun sounds, and we're off. I open the first beer, tilt back my head, and bring the can to my mouth. The beer, a 5.2% ABV Belgian Pilsner, is surprisingly crisp. It goes down much easier than the Coors Banquets I'd used in practice. Suddenly, a competitor from Belgium disrupts my reverie with an extraordinary 8-second chug. I finish in 12 seconds, and I'm next off the line.
Lucky for me, her speed doesn't match her drinking skills. I easily pass her in the 100-meter curve of the track. But then, a tough-as-nails rugby player from Great Britain bolts to take the lead. I cling to second place for the remainder of the lap. I finish the second beer in 15 seconds and let my track speed do the work.
The third beer is always the hardest. You're out of breath from running, your stomach is nearing capacity, and you still have one more beer to go. Pushing through the discomfort, I down my beer in 16 seconds. I have never finished my third beer this quickly. I'm fired up. Could I break the world record?
I'm laser-focused on the final beer, but my stomach is catching up with me. I pause between sips to catch my breath, which costs me time, but it's the only thing preventing me from a "reversal of fortune." The can feels empty, but I'm paranoid about leaving too much beer, so I take an extra swig as a safeguard. "Stay in the chug zone!" cautions Nick, the race official. Not hearing him, I start my last lap. As I round the final curve, my excitement builds. I cross the finish line to win in 6 minutes, 15 seconds, a new world record by 1 second.
A few minutes later, I'm laughing with Melanie as the effects of 48 ounces of beer set in. Then, I catch Nick's pained expression, and I realize he's about to make a tough call. I was the beer mile world record holder for a total of five minutes. During that last swig, I'd stepped outside the chug zone—an automatic DQ. Disappointed and embarrassed, I feel like I've cheated the sport. I walk away from the crowd and spot Allison standing by herself. She had also been disqualified, but for leaving too much beer in her cans. We exchange knowing looks, one fierce competitor to another.
Several hours later, Allison and I visit a nearby McDonald's. "This is the best damn cheeseburger I've ever had," I say, my face lighting up with childlike delight. We laugh, order another round, and discuss future running goals. In this moment, I'm reminded of what makes the beer mile community so special. Even in the face of adversity, we never lose sight of one of the most important parts of running: having fun.