Alyssa Davis grabbed a red solo cup full of Bud Light, stepped to the starting line, and took a deep breath. When she heard the word “Go,” she slammed the beer in less than 10 seconds, dropped the cup, and took off.
With 25 other runners gathered at a city park in Livingston, Davis was competing in the beer mile, a sport that combines drinking and running and where the fastest runners don’t always win. Instead, the playing field is leveled by how quickly you can drink. Variations have existed on college campuses for decades, but the sport was hoisted into the public arena this year following several high-profile, record-setting attempts and the first-ever Beer Mile World Championship in Austin, Texas.
Davis knew her strength was running, not drinking. The previous year, her belly had red-lined halfway through the final lap, forcing her to pull off to the side and rid her tummy of the 48 ounces of Bud Light that were sloshing violently inside.
This year, the 44-year-old ski travel agent resolved to keep it in, and to win.
Davis’s hot pink running shirt and black shorts were a blur as she worked to build a lead on the women chasing her. If she could keep the beer down, she was confident she could bring the trophy home.
I’d first heard of the beer mile when its race director approached me after a local 5k. He told me of a different kind of race he hosts each year. He said it was only advertised by word of mouth.
I love to run. And I love a good beer. How hard could it be? By the start of lap 2, I was finding out how wrong I was.
What normally came naturally was now feeling clunky and heavy. I ran through the grassy park, burping and gasping for breath simultaneously.
The beer mile is not easy. Lance Armstrong tried one in Texas in 2014 and dropped out after one lap, saying it wasn’t what he expected. “My friends have more respect for me now that Lance couldn’t even do it,” Davis said.
The Livingston race is one of the only annual beer miles held in Montana. Originally, the race took place on the high school track, but it was moved to the city park following grumblings from the school board. The idea of Livingston’s civic leaders and school administrators slamming beers and running around the track raised some eyebrows.
When the race first began, the lumber mill and railroad were the two big employers. Now, writers and artists fill the cafes and taverns on Livingston’s busy main street. As the dynamics of the town change, the beer mile draws from a diverse spectrum of the community. A fleet-footed doctor won it two years in a row. He was eventually beat by a fast-drinking firefighter.
I stood in the drinking area next to several other out-of-breath runners, alternating between gulping beer and gasping for air. The second beer polished, I let out a belch and headed out for the next quarter mile of carbonated complication.
By the start of lap 3, Josh Pierce was asking himself a familiar question. “Why the hell am I doing this?”
He slammed his third beer in an alarming three seconds. A tall, athletically built firefighter with blond hair and blue eyes, Pierce is not a runner. “I hate running with a passion,” he said with a quick laugh. “It’s my least favorite thing to do, right up there with roofing and sheet rocking.”
But the guy can drink.
It’s a skill he didn’t discover until six years ago. “I didn’t drink at all in college,” he said. “I didn’t know I could chug beer that fast until the first beer mile.”
Pierce has earned Livingston’s beer mile champion title four times.
“The trick is to do it really fast,” he said. “By the time the beer sets in, you are done racing. Then you can be miserable and sitting still, instead of miserable and running.”
Pierce has some other secrets that help him excel. He eats two pieces of bread before the race to soak up the alcohol. He forces himself to belch as much as possible while running. (“I can belch on command.”) And he sticks with Pabst Blue Ribbon for its lightness and chug-ability.
Most beer milers agree it’s more important to be a fast drinker than a fast runner. “It takes some heavy drinking skills,” Pierce said. “Something your mom can really be proud of.”
Davis, who finished second to a speed-drinker for the past four years, said the fastest drinkers have another advantage.
“It can totally get in your head when you see those empty cups drop at the start of the race, while you’re still drinking,” she said.
By the time I finished waddling through the third lap, I was ready to quit. Or vomit. Or both. The carbonation had built up to the point where I could no longer belch. My already overfilled stomach felt as if it had been shaken violently and the cork was ready to pop.
But to puke is to lose.
Rules vary — the Livingston rules say if you vomit before crossing the finish line, you can’t win. Beermile.com rules say you must run an extra lap. Either way, I needed to pull it together.
I had ceased to care about the competition. I was now in what runners often refer to as “The Pain Cave” (although the term is generally reserved for runners suffering through the final miles of a marathon, or a 100-mile race. I had only run three-quarters of a mile).
The final drops drained, I tossed the cup to the ground and set out at a blistering stagger.
The world slowed down. I could see people ahead of me — people who should have been far behind me. I needed to stop the beer from sloshing violently in my stomach, so I switched from the bounce of a runner’s gait to something with less up-and-down motion. I call it my “smooth hustle.”
Others might call it walking.
They will tell you it’s all about the camaraderie of accomplishing a feat. They will say it’s just a fun social event that brings runners together. Some even suggest it’s simply the uniqueness of getting to drink and run that draws them in. But the truth goes beyond that. When the cop and the copy-machine repairman, the doctor and the firefighter toe the line at a beer mile, the playing field is leveled. No longer does the fastest runner or strongest athlete automatically win.
Davis, a shorter-than-average runner, recalls the year a tall, athletic-looking woman with “super long legs” showed up to the race talking smack right from the start. “She dropped after two laps,” Davis said.
Davis admits she will never win a standard running race. But she finally earned the beer mile trophy this year.
That’s the beauty of the beer mile, it transcends the rules of nature.
And everybody likes to win.