After church one Sunday morning, 44-year old Chris Kimbrough rolls by the Bailey Middle School track in Austin, Texas, craning her neck to see if anyone is occupying the oval. She takes note of a man sauntering slowly down the backstretch at the otherwise vacant facility. Satisfied, she sinks her foot into the accelerator of her Toyota Sienna and races home.
“The track is empty, let’s go!” she says to her husband as she throws on her running clothes and blue New Balance training shoes. She grabs four cans of a local craft brew and a stopwatch as they rush out the door.
It’s November 2 and Daylight Savings Time kicked in the night before; there’s no way she’ll have time for this the rest of the week. Weekdays are booked solid shuttling around her six children, between 18 months and 16 years old. Plus, her four-year-old wants to go to the park later this afternoon and she has to cook dinner before her 13-year-old’s baptism tonight. It’s now or never.
Upon arriving at the track, Kimbrough spots a family she shares a swim-team carpool with playing nearby. She was hoping to be discreet, but she figures she can explain later. After a short warm-up, she toes the starting line.
On her husband’s mark, the 5-foot-3-inch, 108-pound Kimbrough cracks open a can of the ale and throws her head back, letting it drain down her throat like a fraternity pledge. Ten seconds later, the can is empty. She tosses it to the grassy infield and takes off on her first lap, barreling around the worn, rust-colored rubber track.
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The sport of running has always had a bit of a wild streak. Even as it has become increasingly mainstream, eccentric greats like the late Steve Prefontaine remain the sport’s superstars. The icon who helped inspire the Nike brand and ignite its success back in the 1970s was well-known for both his world-class running prowess and his partying off the track. One of today’s biggest stars, Olympian Nick Symmonds, recently published a frank memoir to great fanfare chronicling his hard-partying college days and detailing past sexual exploits.
The beer mile is a part of that tradition. Once confined to university hijinks, it has been an unofficial part of end-of-season celebrations for many collegiate cross-country and track teams across North America for years. Practiced under the cover of night, long after stadium lights have dimmed, beer-mile tales sometimes end with campus police in hot pursuit.
The universally agreed-upon guidelines for the event are known as the Kingston Rules, set forth by a scrappy group of runners at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, in the late 1980s. A member of the Connecticut-based Wesleyan University track team named Patrick Butler stumbled across a rudimentary website hosted by the Kingston crew sometime between 1994 and 1996—he can’t recall exactly when. He promptly adopted their rules with a few modifications, put them online, and helped organize a beer mile for the Wesleyan runners.
A couple years later, Butler bought the domain name “Beermile.com” on a whim, figuring he’d find some post-college amusement in overseeing a site that proselytized the Kingston Rules and aggregated beer mile results. “I had already hosted all the rules, so I decided to just spend a few weekends programming the site so that it could be dynamic and self-maintaining,” he said. “The first version was a way to celebrate the glory days of college.”
According to Beermile.com, the Kingston Rules are fairly simple, requiring each runner to drink four cans of beer and run four laps around a track in short order: “Start—beer/lap, beer/lap, beer/lap, beer/lap—finish.” Guidelines ensure uniformity in containers, with “super mega-mouth cans” and “wide-mouth bottles” strictly prohibited. The beer itself “must be a minimum of 5 percent alcohol by volume.” Additionally, they keep anyone from taking advantage of puke-and-rally tactics, stating: “Competitors who vomit before they finish the race must complete one penalty lap at the end of the race.”
In the annals of beer-mile history, 2012 marks the year the event evolved from underground antics to public spectacle. It was then that Symmonds, who can run a mile in 3:56, posted a video of himself online attempting the feat. Finishing in 5:19, he missed the world record by a full 10 seconds, a mark set back in 2007 by Jim Finlayson, a former Canadian Marathon champion. Despite falling short, Symmonds’ video was widely watched.
Suddenly, people outside the collegiate running scene started talking about the beer mile.
If you look at the submission numbers from Beermile.com, almost 60,000 individual entries have been logged since 1996. Half of those are from the last four years, with nearly 10,000 attempts in 2014 alone. Times have come in from eight Canadian provinces and all 50 states, as well as places like New Zealand, Singapore, Sweden, and even a cruise ship off the coast of Belize.
With its rising popularity, a former two-time 5,000-meter NCAA Champion named James “The Beast” Nielsen went and broke the former men’s record in April, finishing in 4:57.1. It was only a matter of time until the women’s record would be contested. All it took to inspire that attempt was the announcement of the inaugural Beer-Mile World Championships, to be held in Austin on this Wednesday, December 3, and hosted by Flotrack, a popular website that covers track and field.
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Chris Kimbrough was an unlikely candidate to pursue the beer-mile record. Her six children notwithstanding, she didn’t run in high school or college. It wasn’t until her mid-30s that she got into running, but it didn’t take her long to discover she had some talent. She qualified for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in the marathon and between subsequent pregnancies, collected several national titles in the masters division in 10K and 8K events. “I really loved running right away,” she told me. “Having kids and staying home, it gave me something outside of being a parent to set goals for and have time to myself.”
Having watched Kimbrough compete for years, Jack Murray, owner of the event company organizing the beer-mile world championship event, encouraged her to do a trial run and see if she could score a time fast enough to qualify for the elite field. “She’s just built for distance running and is super competitive,” he said. “I knew she was fast and I knew she liked beer; what I wasn’t sure of is if she could chug beer.”
Kimbrough herself was equally uncertain of her aptitude for chugging, but she figured, why not try? Hoping to avoid advertising that she was considering entering the event, she set out to log an attempt on November 2 at the local middle-school track near her home with only her husband to man the stopwatch and a couple friends to videotape for proof.
Watching the video, one can’t help but marvel at Kimbrough loping effortlessly around the oval that first lap, apparently unfazed by the carbonated ale sloshing around her gut. It takes her 18 seconds to down the second beer before taking off for her next lap. She comes through the half-mile mark in 3:07, well ahead of the women’s world-record pace of 6:42.
She chugs the third beer in 17 seconds before springing into her third lap. By the time she wheels around for her fourth and final beer and lap, her husband reads from the watch, “4:46, 4:47” as Kimbrough pops open her last beer.
“What is it?” she gasps urgently a few seconds later.
“Five minutes,” he continues.
She downs the final brew between labored pants. She knows she has just a little under two full minutes to best the women’s world record time. She burps through the suds, seeking some release as the carbonation burns down her esophagus. “That fourth beer was really hard to drink because I had so much air in my stomach,” she told me. “But the hardest part is probably trying to drink while you’re catching your breath.”
Firing off the line for her fourth lap, she takes quick steps and leans into her stride. Her long blonde ponytail dances wildly as she accelerates into the homestretch. When she crosses the line in 6:28.55, shattering the record, she puts her arms up in celebration, laughing at the hilarity of what she’s just accomplished.
“Do you need to throw up?” her friend asks.
“Nope!” she says triumphantly.
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In preparation for the championships, Kimbrough will log around 50 miles per week, typical for her usual training regimen. She’s hesitant to admit whether or not she’ll be practicing her chugging technique, but she says she hopes to do at least one more trial run before the big event to be held at Yellow Jacket Stadium on December 3.
Murray says that while the beer mile may be a little ridiculous, it’s harder than it looks. Even Lance Armstrong recently attempted the sudsy feat, finding it impossible to finish and remarking, “That was not what I expected.”
With professional runners and Olympians on the men’s and women’s start lists, Kimbrough knows her world-champion status hangs in the balance going into the big event. Indeed, Murray predicts both records will go down, suggesting the women’s record will be bested by Kimbrough herself. “I doubt anyone will be able to beat her, but I think she has a good shot at breaking her own record,” he said.
“I’m going to be the old lady out there,” the now 45-year-old Kimbrough said laughing. “But I think it’ll come down to who can chug the best—there are going to be much faster runners racing, so I better chug faster than them.”