The beer mile - a thoroughly American invention

James Nielsen will (or might) go down in history of some sort for his brewski Bannister-like feat.
James Nielsen will (or might) go down in history of some sort for his brewski Bannister-like feat.
Posted: May 09, 2014

SIXTY YEARS ago this week, Englishman Roger Bannister ran the first sub-4-minute mile. In a tribute that could be dreamed up only by a beer drinker, Californian James Nielsen pulled on his running shoes, headed to the track, stretched a few times . . .

And cracked open a can of Budweiser.

Make that four Buds. One for each lap of a quarter-mile track in Marin County.

In an achievement that - even if it's not quite as historic as Bannister's - lit up YouTube and Facebook, Nielsen became the first man to run a sub-5-minute beer mile.

The world cheered.

Nielsen belched.

The beer mile is one of those thoroughly American inventions that combines heroic athleticism with, well, beer. Competitors line up, chug one 12-ounce beer, run a quarter-mile lap, then chug another, and continue racing.

Four laps; four beers.

Until Nielsen, the record, held by an Australian, was 5:04.9. According to BeerMile.com, an authoritative database of races, the women's record, 6:42, was set in 1997 by a Canadian.

Those are incredibly fast times when you factor in 10 seconds or so of chugging per beer. With 48 ounces of gurgling alcohol in the gut, it's no wonder many beer milers finish with a spew, a penalty that demands they run an extra lap.

"I've always been able to pound beers and run," said Nielsen, 34, a marathoner and two-time NCAA Division III champion in the 5,000-meter run.

College teams and running clubs sometimes end their seasons with a beer mile. When Nielsen was a senior at the University of California-San Diego, he ran it in 5:17. (His best nonbeer mile is in the low 4s.)

"Everyone was, 'Wow, how the heck did you do that?' " Nielsen said. "So, over the next decade or so, it was always in the back of my mind that I should aim for a sub-5."

He took a job as an executive in the tech industry, founded a nonprofit running organization and kept up with his training.

"Then, last year, on the 59th anniversary of Bannister's mile, I thought I should try to do it on the 60th anniversary," he said. "I started training hard, to drink even faster and run with all that beer in my stomach."

He had planned to take his shot on Tuesday, the exact anniversary of Bannister's feat. But word in running circles was that others had the same idea, so he jumped the gun so he could be first.

On April 27, James "The Beast" Nielsen warmed up and headed to the track with his wife, Mimi (also a competitive runner). He stood before a camera to declare he would break the 5-minute barrier, "which many people believe is a physical limitation."

The YouTube video (youtube.com/watch?v=HZ-XFC5qzyM), which has drawn more than a million views, is priceless. With tongue in cheek, he explains that he'd "studied the anatomy of the esophagus and the upper sphincter . . . [to] maximize the amount of volume in the shortest amount of time."

Then, with Mimi urging him on, he cracks the first can, gulps and heads into his first lap.

His quarter-mile splits are crazy fast: 63 seconds, 68, 67, then a final lap of just 63 seconds. And - given all the heavy breathing between laps - his chugging is equally impressive, averaging 9 seconds per can.

On the final lap, his wife calls out his time ("Let's go babe, you can do it!") and giggles hysterically as he crosses the finish.

Four minutes, 57.1 seconds. A world-record beer mile.

She follows him with the camera and asks him to make a historic statement on his feat.

Bent over in agony with hands on his knees, Nielsen grimaces. "It's really painful."

He told me that he did a lot of belching during the race. "I had stomach cramps on both sides," he said. "It's kind of a miserable experience, to be honest. You kind of feel like you're drowning.

"But I was excited that I'd set the record. Plus, the alcohol was hitting the bloodstream at the same time. So I was really pumped. It was pure elation."

ESPN, "The Tonight Show," "Good Morning America" and other media reported the story. Facebook and online forums buzzed, though a few skeptics wondered if the record was a hoax.

As for those four cans of Bud, Nielsen said that if he had had his choice, he would've preferred a California craft beer - an Anchor or Lagunitas. Under the rules, any beer is acceptable as long as it's a minimum of 5 percent alcohol.

"I was actually thinking of a stout because it might have less carbon dioxide," he said. "But, for some reason, most beer milers choose Budweiser and I decided to do that, too.

"I didn't want an asterisk next to my name."


"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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