Beth’s Beer Mile: the story of her world record run
By Dave Hunter
Before we complete yet another full year of serious track & field analysis, it somehow seems appropriate to conclude 2014 with a glimpse at the whimsical side of our sport. I’m talking Beer Mile.
If you follow track & field – and unless you’ve been living in a cave – you know about the Beer Mile: a unique good-natured event which combines middle distance racing with speed drinking. The Beer Mile is a timed event in which competitors consume a 12-ounce (355ml) beer from either a can or a bottle in the customary track exchange zone before each of four quarter-mile laps around an outdoor track. Any competitor who throws up is sentenced to complete an extra penalty lap.
Athletes with an Iron Stomach
The Beer Mile is perhaps the marquee event of a shadowy subculture that revels in “digestive athletics.” To be a top performer, you have to be skilled in both the running and the drinking facets of this 4 lap gut-buster.
Last month, Flotrack – always pioneering new ways to showcase all aspects of our sport – hosted the first annual Beer Mile World Championships at the Circuit of the Americas – a Formula One racetrack in Austin, Texas. Elizabeth Herndon – a 29 year old Assistant Professor of Geology at Kent State University – decided to give it a go.
Dr. Herndon, not merely a beer quaffer, is an accomplished runner. She embraced the sport – sans beer – at an early age. “I started running in middle school, my sixth grade year, and I continued through high school and college,” she explains. The Fort Wayne native was a top shelf collegiate athlete while earning her undergraduate degree at Washington University in Saint Louis. “I was not a miler,” she laughs. “My favourite sport was cross country,” notes Herndon, who was a two-time University Athletic Conference cross country champion.
Her collegiate track performances were quite good but not exceptional. “I was actually much better at cross country than I ever was at track. On the track my 5K PR was 17:34 and my 10K PR was 36:54. I had some good races, but I never qualified for nationals,” she says. “One of the reasons is that I have never had a lot of speed. I am more of a strength runner,” states Herndon who relocated to Kent, Ohio in August. Not long after her move, she linked up with Coach Glenn Andrews and his talented running squad – Cleveland Elite Development. “Recently, I have been doing a lot of speed workouts. So I think I may be as fast now as I have ever been in my life.”
Finding the perfect brew
With Coach Andrews honing her middle distance skills, Herndon – a veteran of three prior beer miles – knew she had to polish up her chunder abilities as well. “I hadn’t run one [a beer mile] in about a year and half. So my preparation was just to chug a few beers so I remembered what it felt like,” explains Herndon who notes that selecting the correct brew is a pivotal element of the competition. “My husband and I went and got a ton of different kinds of beer,” notes the good doctor who ultimately settled on Belgian-style Fat Tire as her beverage of choice. “I thought it tasted pretty good. I don’t like cheap beer. And so I didn’t want to drink anything that was going to taste bad to me. I liked the taste of Fat Tire and it is pretty mild. It wasn’t going to be something that would be hitting me with a lot of flavour. I tried it and it went down pretty smooth. It was definitely my favourite.”
When race day finally came, Herndon was ready. Running controlled, Herndon ran a negative split mile, posting 400m splits of 72-76-74-71 to ring up an inflight all-in running time of sub-4:55 – not including her 4 stops for beer consumption. Taking the lead with authority with about 500m remaining and with a spirited last circuit – her fastest 400 of her race – Herndon turned back all comers and was first across the finish line in 6:17.8 – setting a new women’s beer mile world record by 10.84 seconds.
The Professor earned a glittering loving cup – suitable for post-race beer drinking – and a handsome payday: $2500 for the win and $2500 for setting the new world record. But for the new world record holder – whose 5:03 mile PR was set 7 years ago – her accumulative running time might have pleased her the most. “My 400m splits from the Beer Mile added up to around 4:55. So I would like to think that it [the Beer Mile] opened my eyes to break 5 minutes.” That sub-5:00 mile might come easy to her now – especially if she doesn’t have 48 ounces of beer sloshing around inside of her.
Secrets to a Record Run
There are tactical elements to an orthodox middle distance race. But is there strategy in the beer mile? “Yes,” Herndon exclaims unequivocally. “There are a lot of little things. I did think a lot about how things were going to pan out. I think the biggest strategy is that you have to run as fast as you can without really losing your breath,” outlines Professor Herndon as she explains the importance of staying within one’s aerobic threshold. “Because if you get to the next beer and you can’t breathe, you can’t drink the beer. So I tried to stay pretty controlled on all of my laps so when I got to my next beer…,” Herndon trails off. “Well, I was still kind of out of breath and you could tell I was having trouble drinking the beer very quickly,” Beth confesses. “But I still was able to put myself into the situation where I had to stop and breathe for a few seconds and then drink the beer.”
But after that 4th and final beer with only the last lap remaining, the better runners can put the hammer down. “On the last lap, I just took off as hard as I could,” offers Herndon. “You need to be careful that you’re not going to throw up,” she warns. “But you definitely have the ability to run faster. And that last lap was my fastest split,” she proudly proclaims.
Another one of those little things is spillage or unconsumed beer left in a can or bottle. “We didn’t talk about spillage too much. They [the Flotrack officials] were concerned about racers leaving beer in the bottles or cans,” explains the new champion. “So after every lap they would take our finished can and pour the dregs into a measuring cup. We weren’t allowed to have more than three ounces of beer total left over in our measuring cup,” states Herndon. “In the video [of the race], you could see I would finish my beer and then I would start to run and then I’d think, ‘Wait, I hope I finished it all,’ and then I would try to shake out the last few drops before starting my lap.”
The need for speed in all departments
Herndon is quick to point out that nimbleness in guzzling the 4 beers is just as important as speed around the oval. “My running splits were around 5:00 for the mile, so speed in running is definitely a factor. “But,” she adds, “speed in terms of drinking is a big factor, too. There were some women who were running about as fast as I was, but they had longer chug times – especially towards the end. The second place finisher Andrea Fisher – she was killing all of us on the chugs,” laughs Herndon. “But her 400 times were a little slower. So she didn’t have quite the speed.” Acknowledging the need to blend swift running with swift drinking, Herndon concludes, “Somewhere you need a combination of the two.”
Not unlike the then-nascent women’s steeplechase was a decade ago, the newly-emerging popularity of the beer mile renders Herndon’s world record vulnerable to additional record runs in the not-too-distant future. But is there a Bannister-esque mythical beer mile barrier that women may target in future record assaults, say, 6:00? “I think that’s definitely possible,” declares Herndon boldly. “I think that there are not too many people who have tried it. So there are women who are probably capable of doing well. In our race, all of the women were using cans. But the guys have figured out that bottles are a lot faster. And so it would seem if we switch to bottles we could take some time off.”
But there is more to Beth Herndon and her running than simply the 15 minutes of fame she earned in winning the Beer Mile World Championship and setting the world record. Earlier this fall, she finished 6th in the Twin Cities Marathon, posting a sparkling Olympic Trials qualifying time of 2:39:18. In less than 14 months she’ll be toeing the line as one of over a hundred women marathoners chasing after the three USA Olympic team spots for Rio. To be sure, it would take a stunning – and perhaps unlikely – performance improvement in Los Angeles for Herndon to finish in the top three. But with more than an additional year of Andrews’ Lydiard-like training with the top flight Cleveland Elite Development athletes, a sizable PR improvement by Dr. Herndon in the Trials race would not be surprising. And if that would occur, chances are that Beth Herndon just might find a few post-race celebratory beers to be in order.
Used with permission from RunBlogRun