Here at the Circuit of the Americas F1 race track Jack Colreavy, Australia's second fastest beer miler of all-time, is stretched out on the asphalt in a pit lane garage, his head resting on his backpack. The day's sun has been replaced by evening floodlights and 8 jumbotrons, a buzz of circuitry both physical and psychological. We're 12 miles from downtown Austin, Texas. A lone star on the lone star state, isolated from the major city electricity. Colreavy is a stunt double in Unbroken, Angelina Jolie's film adaptation of Hillenbrand's biographical novel about an Olympic runner and war hero. Earlier in the day he called Angelina on the phone to see if she'd be able to come to the race. She couldn't. But really, the thought of who will be in the crowd isn't part of his evening musings. In an hour he'll be racing the first ever Beer Mile World Championships, and his mind is partly on the $2500 first place price and the $2500 world record bonus. Mostly, though, he wants to win this thing out of personal and National pride, and, like the rest of us, he's thinking about how catastrophically it could go wrong if it does go wrong. Most of his competitors are here with him in the pit lane. Cunningham slumps against a white plaster wall. Kent, Tully and Macpherson are lined up next to Cunningham, and Liwing is too. I'm on the other side of Liwing, all of us staring out through the open garage door at the track and the swelling crowd and the dazzling lights. The setting is majestic. Gallagher's in the vicinity, too, but he's over there being interviewed. CNN. ESPN. The New York Times. Gallagher is the favourite and everyone wants a word with him before the race. I twist the cap of a Budweiser Light Platinum bottle with gentle pressure so that it stays sealed, just testing it. Sometimes the hand slips, but in tonight's humidity there's a stickiness I like. Opening them in the race won't be a problem. The question, for me, is what it tastes like. I've never tried this beer. Never had a Budweiser of any sort. A bunch of us are using it tonight, though. It's Gallagher approved.
A woman from Runners' World comes over and asks me a few questions. I tell her I'm not the guy to talk to. I'm not one of the favourites. I point to Colreavy. He has been training in New York and is here for one reason: he wants the world record. I mention Cunningham, who closed the final 400m of his debut beer mile in 54 seconds, a split I can't run right now fresh, with spikes, without beer. Couldn't ever run, actually, not even when I was a dozen years younger and at my peak. Those are the guys to chat to, I say. I'd mention Gallagher, but he's buried in that scrum of reporters. She'd have better luck chatting to him if she tried calling his cell. It'd be the only way to pierce to the centre. There's no way she'd get a pen and paper through to him now.
Someone from Nick Symmonds' camp threads over and hands us a trial packet of gum. Run Gum, and I flip it over and read the ingredients. 100mg of caffeine. Enters the system faster than caffeine from a tablet. Not bad, I think, and then I see him leave the pit garage and head trackside where he hands gum to children. Which, wow. I wouldn't want to be their parents.
The boys are starting to agitate. Tying up their trainers. Jesus, it's only 45 minutes until race start, that came up fast. We group together and head out to the pit lane for our warm up. Up on the jumbotrons we see that the sub-elite race is underway. Brittenbach is going for the masters' world record. The mark is 5:51 and, after chatting with his coach Doug Consiglio earlier in the day, it sounds like he's fit for it. He hits 1:13 for the first beer and lap. He's flying. The guy's not small, either. The beer bottle looks positively miniature in his hand. Gallagher, Tully, Colreavy, Cunningham, Lewis and I are jogging abreast, keeping our eyes on the screens. A prone photographer snaps a few pictures of us and rolls out of our way. Brittenbach splits lap two in 2:43. He's going to crush the record, and he's not the only one running fast in this heat. Tracking him is a heavily bearded engineer from Kingston, Canada.
One of the questions I was asked before this race was: What message do I think this race sends? Clarifying, What happens when binge drinking is not only televised, but celebrated? What happens in public mind when a race like the beer mile hits front page of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times? As the heroes or villains, what is our responsibility here? It behooves us to contemplate this, at the very least. We are the titans. We are the ones with the platform; the ability to reach others.
Violence in media is a risk factor for violence in real life, although the former doesn't preordain the latter. The same appears to be true about alcohol. A small, but statistically significant, positive correlation. I don't yet have solid opinion about my responsibility here. Most of me wants to just enjoy the experience. Can I be held accountable for other people's actions? These are questions I thought about before flying to Austin, and will think about again after the race.
Brittenbach is kicked down in the last lap by Mountjoy, the Canadian, but his 5:42 still eclipses the master's world record. In the next race, the women's elite, Elizabeth Herndon wins in 6:17, a new world record, cashing in on the $2500 winner's prize and another $2500 for a world record.
We're up next. One at a time the starter gets us to check our beers, making sure our selected ones are lined up and they're in the order we want. Most of us have bottles, and we're told to choose between placing them on the left side on the asphalt or the right side on the grass. Left is the inside track, but we'll have to drop the bottles to the right grass either way. I stay on the left. Gallagher and Symmonds stay left. The official calls Colreavy up to check his beers, and on his way past me he pats my back and says "Wind back the clock, man", referring to my 5:09 from 7 years ago. This is perhaps what I like most about this race. We're competitive, of course, but above all we want to put on a show. For that we need everyone to race well. We actually want our competitors to race well.
Of the 10 of us, I think only Colreavy has ever lost a beer mile, and only because he usually faces Josh Harris, the world number three. The rest of us, the other 9, are undefeated in our careers. We aren't used to having others ahead of us in a race. Aren't used to being pushed, having to hurry, having to force things, and with the setting and the crowd, with the cameras and the PA system blaring, and God there we are on those massive jumbotrons! I can see more pores on Anderson's screen face than his right-next-to-my-face face. With our nerves, I'm intensely curious to see what'll happen. There's no way the results will align with the media guide's formchart.
I don't know if it's just anxiousness, if it's the beer, or if I was simply distracted by the relative immensity of the stage, but the gun fires and after the first beer I'm second-to-last off the line. Easily my slowest opener, ever. Maybe this is how the nerves and distractions manifest for me. Second-to-last in 8.2 seconds, and Gallagher, out first, already has a 2 second gap on me. Nobody's moving fast on the run, though, except Tully who blazes his first 400m in 61.5. The rest of us spread wide across the track coming into the exchange, packed together and jostling for position.
Cunningham splits halfway in 2:29 and has a 5 second lead on the pack. He's dangerous, my pick to win this thing. One of two sub-4:00 straight milers in the field and, unlike Symmonds, the guy can drink. Seven of us, including Gallagher and Symmonds, are tight together splitting 2:34 to 2:37. Only Liwing, the Swede who raced a beer half marathon two days ago, is off the back. McPherson has already dropped out after folding to his second beer.
This is where the complexion of the race starts to express itself. Two beers in, two laps in. The third lap is the tough one. It's the one we need to survive in order to get to the last lap. That's all it is. Survival. Put the work in on the third lap, because adrenaline will lift you on the fourth. Cunningham's out quickly after his third beer, but it's Gallagher who impresses. He crushes his third beer. The exchange is a bit deceptive with the timer starting when you cross the first mat 9m from the finish and stopping at the finish, so the 'drinking' time includes 9m of travel. But timing from when the beer hits Gallagher's lips to when it leaves them, wow. 4.8 seconds. He's a couple of steps behind Cunningham and is clawing those back. In fact by the time they hit the end of the third lap, Cunningham and Gallagher are reaching for their beers at the same time. We've a 185 pound former hockey player from Winnipeg, a guy who swears he couldn't break 65 seconds in an all-out 400m sprint, vs a 3:59 miler from Maine who closed his first and only beer mile in 54 seconds. In distant third is Colreavy. I'm a couple of steps behind the Aussie, in fourth, and have a bit of a lead over 5th. One beer and one lap of the track to go.
And honestly, it appears to be over before the running starts. Gallagher slams his beer in 4.7 seconds, looks back as he rounds the first corner, and sees nothing but space. Cunningham is still drinking, and Colreavy and I are just coming into the exchange. The announcers are a bit wild at this point, their voices leaping an octave. Gallagher's pressing for a sub-5:00 but they know, too, that Cunningham can roll and if he's sharp like he was in his debut, he can make up 50 - 60 meters. Gallagher's maybe 20 down the track before Cunningham drops his bottle and attacks.
But to everyone's surprise Gallagher extends his lead. Cunningham's kick has been drawn out of him from the fast early pace, and Gallagher has the bit. Two life-sized bananas are pogoing on the infield like a Halloween rave, chasing Gallagher around the final bend. He takes a quick look behind as he hits the final straight, slips and torques his flats centripetally. Looks like he may have rolled an ankle, but he's a hockey player and a bull and if there was any pain he didn't feel it, and the crowd is leaning into the track now, spectators bent double yelling at him because a sub-5:00 is absolutely possible here with 120 meters to go. He's not looking back anymore, he knows he's going to win; the only question is the time. The crowd is a frenzy of arms and movement, and the announcers' voices are breaking and they're reading the clock as Gallagher sprints to the finish, 4:56, 4:57, 4:58 and it's so close but the clock stops at 5:00.23.
Cunningham crosses 7 seconds later in second, breaking his old best by 12 seconds, and I finish third in 5:21.
In the post-race interview Gallagher is fired up. He's holding the trophy aloft with one hand, and his other hand is balled in a fist and he's speaking fast but clearly, challenging current and disputed world record holder James Nielson. There's some question about the veracity of the world record, and though I wish the sub-5:00 had first been broken on a night like tonight, in a race like this, I have to believe beer milers don't have a lot to gain by cheating.
A night later and I'm arriving home in Victoria with the first ever documented beer mile injury, a blocked salivary duct on my lip where I banged myself with a beer bottle. It will need surgery. Colreavy messages from New York, having flown home earlier in the day. He's at a bar and was just approached by a group of girls who saw him in the race. "I love this sport," he writes.
People ask me what next? They want to know, only partly in jest, if it will become part of the Olympics. It absolutely won't. I think it will be a supernova event. It will flare brightly for a short period of time, then fade. But we're all enjoying its surprising thrust into the limelight.