Running Under the Influence

Photo by David Nakamura

Here's a tip for anyone thinking of pounding a 12-ounce can of Asahi Super Dry while getting ready to sprint 400 meters through a Japanese park on a muggy summer day: try to take in as little air as possible while you're drinking. Lest you be forced to let out a big burp midway through the run.

Call it my personal version of I Survived a Japanese Game Show. In my case, it was the Beer Mile, a race in which runners down a can of beer before each of four laps around a section of Yoyogi Park in downtown Tokyo.

I was there with the Namban Rengo, a Tokyo running club founded two decades ago by Bob Poulson, an American in his early 60s who still runs with the group and still runs faster than most men half his age. (He regularly clocks in at just over 18 minutes for our 5-kilometer time trials.)

I took another swig and, to my surprise, finished the rest of the beer easily. I took off in second place and gaining on the guy in front of me.

As many expats know, running is a great way to see a new country. Shortly after arriving here in May, I began running a 5-kilometer loop around Japan's Imperial Palace, a stone's throw from my apartment in Nagata-cho, the center of the country's national government. Soon, I discovered the Namban Rengo while doing an internet search for more running spots and began joining the group, made up of gaijin and native Japanese, for their Wednesday-evening track workouts at Yoyogi Park.

Then came last weekend's Beer Mile. The event is a worldwide phenomenon, with its own Web site, rules, and record book. One of the Namban Rengo members, Satohi Numasawa, has the 40th best time in the world for women: consuming four cans of Sapporo and running a mile, all in 8 minutes, 46 seconds.

I agreed to give it a try, though last weekend happened to be the Beer Mile relay, meaning I would only have to drink one beer and run one of the four laps. We met in the afternoon at the park, after the group had done an easy 10-kilometer warmup run (I skipped it because I had played soccer that morning.)

"Don't wear your Namban jersey," advised team secretary/treasurer Kazuo Chiba, noting that the group did not want to damage the Namban reputation among Japanese picnickers who might be alarmed seeing a bunch of drunken people running past them.

We divided up into co-ed teams. I was grouped with Chika Kanai, who at well under 5 feet and weighing about 70 pounds is the tiniest member of the Namban; Gareth Pughe, a garrulous Brit with a solid frame; and our anchorman, a compact, speedy Italian named Fabrizio.


Photo by David Nakamura

Before we began, Gareth announced the rules: "When the starter says go, pull back the beer and drink it down as fast as you can. Do not drip too much. You're not allowed to pour the beer over your t-shirt. If you do, you have to run an extra lap. When you're finished, hold the beer over your head to be sure that it's empty. If it's not empty, you have to do an extra lap. We're very strict about that."

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David Nakamura is a staff writer for The Washington Post who believes that safe tap water is an important ingredient for any city that aspires to food supremacy. More

David Nakamura is a staff writer for The Washington Post who missed authentic Japanese food so much that he took a year off to escape to Tokyo on an international affairs fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations. He has written about politics, education, sports and, every now and then, Japanese food for the Post. He headed a team of reporters that was awarded the 2005 Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting after exposing excessive levels of lead contamination in the District of Columbia's drinking water and the government's failure to notify the public. His general philosophy is that safe tap water is an important ingredient for any city that aspires to food supremacy.

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