City Paper is not for tourists
At the height of public interest in the beer mile, YouTube videos of runners drinking four cans (or bottles) of beer and running four laps around a track racked up millions of views. FloTrack, a media company that streams running videos and covers track and field, hosted the beer mile world championships. Elite runners engaged in a fierce competition for the world record. And shoe companies offered standout beer milers like Lewis Kent professional contracts.
The beer mile, a niche, novelty event within a niche sport, was yet another non-traditional race that was gaining popularity in the world of running, and one that attracted both hardcore running enthusiasts and newcomers to the sport. In late 2015, Kent says, he did about 40 media interviews in two weeks, including an appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. And even as interest has waned slightly in recent years, the beer mile still draws crowds.
“People love these quirky weird talents,” says Kent, who once owned the world record of 4 minutes 47.17 seconds for chugging four bottles of beer and running a mile. “The human body can do incredible things. A vast majority of people have drank beer before, they’ve a run mile. It’s very relatable to people.”
This Saturday, the D.C. area Pacers Running store will host a beer mile at a parking lot just east of Nationals Park. The Great North American Naughtical Beer Mile, as the company calls it, took two weeks to sell out this year and registration was capped at 300 people, according to Pacers owner Chris Farley.
The store doesn’t need to advertise the event, Farley adds, and while logistically it would be difficult to host more than a few hundred runners, he predicts “thousands” of runners would participate if they could.
“It’s a lot different than it was five to ten years ago when road races were interesting or compelling enough for runners to sign up in droves,” says Farley. “That’s different now. You have to have a much more compelling story for people to sign up for your race. You got to have more of a hook.”
When James Nielsen broke the five-minute barrier in April 2014, the feat went viral and it introduced the wacky concept of chugging a beer, running a quarter-mile, then repeating it three more times, to a new audience.
One of those people was Kent, then a student and track athlete at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.
Kent qualified for the inaugural FloTrack Beer Mile World Championships in late 2014 and then lowered the world record, as recorded by beermile.com, the following year in August to 4:55.78. He lost the title as fastest beer miler in the world two months later but then regained it in November, which led to a shoe and apparel deal with Brooks Running.
The beer mile was everywhere.
“My opinion is that it definitely skyrocketed in 2015, toward the end of 2015 it really hit a peak and plateaued through 2016,” says Kent, 24. “It was really exciting. It wasn’t as big then, and then all of a sudden, people broke [the world record] left, right, and center. It was a good news story. There was a rivalry.”
FloTrack disbanded the world championships last year, and it’s unclear whether or not it will return. The novelty of the beer mile has worn off, and while participation is high for smaller beer mile races, the national attention is a fraction of what it was in what Kent has called the “golden years” of the beer mile.
“With any event you put on that you have, it takes money, time, effort, staffing,” says FloTrack senior producer Gordon Mack. “We loved doing it for the three years. It was put on ice mainly to make sure we rethink it. …We’re not just a beer mile company, we’re FloSports. We have a lot of other priorities. We’re growing rapidly in other sports so we have to be more strategic in what we put our efforts toward.”
Three summers ago, Niki Cochran and a few of her friends decided to host their own beer mile in Takoma Park, Maryland. Cochran, 32, ran competitively in college and is an avid beer drinker and figured it made sense to combine the two activities.
“I knew I would be good at the running, but I didn’t know if I’d be good at chugging,” Cochran says, “but it turned out I was really good at that. I was beating everyone.”
A non-runner friend in her text group mentioned to Cochran earlier this year that Pacers is hosting their own, more official, beer mile, and asked if Cochran was interested. Yes, Cochran replied. Obviously.
“I had a baby a year ago, so this will be my first triumphant return to road running,” says Cochran, who also runs longer distance races and competes in triathlons.
The Pacers event has drawn an elite field in previous years, including Kent in 2016 and Pacers beer mile women’s record holder Bethany Sachtleben of Manassas in 2017.
Last year, local professional marathon and ultramarathon runner Michael Wardian competed alongside his brother, Matthew.
Wardian, 44, doesn’t typically drink alcohol and says he had not had a beer in the three years prior to the race. But to his advantage, he once owned a Guinness World Record for running the fastest marathon while pushing his son in a stroller, among other running records, and wanted to challenge himself and be part of the festivities.
“I think it’s established now,” Wardian says of the beer mile. “I think it’s something people do. I think people—at least people I know—they realize it’s a talent, it’s a skill. There’s value in that. I think it’s fun. …It’s like tailgating. It’s a pregame. There’s a lot of crew and stuff. You chill out, but you’re also doing something active. I don’t see it going anywhere.”