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."

Chika is so small that Poulson had bought her a half-size, six-ounce can of Asahi. But, proving her heart is bigger than the rest of her, Chika insisted on chugging the 12-ouncer. Running our lead-off leg against two other Japanese women, she was the slowest out of the gate, but gamely polished off the beer and made the loop in a total of about 2 ½ minutes. We were in third place of the three teams in our heat.

Gareth gained us ground, pulling into second place. As I saw him come towards me, I began to get nervous. I hadn't chugged a beer since college, but that was by shotgunning it--poking a hole in the side of the can, then holding your mouth over it and popping the tab so that the air pressure forces the beer down your throat.

In the Beer Mile, shotgunning is prohibited. Gareth slapped my palm. I opened the beer and tilted my head back. I tried to think about how thirsty I had been while playing soccer earlier in the day, when I had easily downed two bottled waters and an iced tea. I was taking huge gulps, and finished about two thirds of the can before the carbonation hit me and I had to pause. 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.

I was a little unsteady. My legs were sore from soccer--that must have been the problem. I couldn't be drunk already. Then, just as I moved into first place, I let out a burp--in mid-stride. Ahh, I felt better. I made the turn around the horseshoe-shaped course and headed for home. That's when I saw, from the corner of my eye, Jay Johannesen--one of the team's best runners--come sprinting past me. He had finished the beer-drinking portion in third-place, but he is such a strong runner that it didn't matter. I was in second when I handed off to Fabrizio. (Poulson later told me my beer-run split was about 1 minute, 40 seconds.)

Fortunately, Fabrizio is also an amazing runner and he was able, in the final 50 meters, to overtake the leader and win the race by a few steps. Our team's final time: 7 minutes, 37 seconds.

After the race, we retired to a public bath--common in Japan to soak tired muscles--then went to a nearby restaurant for bar food: mini-sausages, French fries, bite-size chicken, asparagus, and dumpling soup. The wait-staff also brought out pitchers of beer. Someone on the team had called ahead to order nomihodai--all you can drink. Two more hours of unabashed drinking ensued--good thing we ordered all that food.