I take the MUNI to Civic Center and march the long underground with my beer in a small cooler, hand-held like a briefcase so it doesn’t shake. Four Amsterdam Blondes, precious cargo, get a sticker. Long clacking strides through the corridor beneath the city like I’m on assignment. Up the stairs into the blazing San Francisco sun. I’m headed to meet the rest of the Canadian Beer Mile team at host Konrad’s; Lewis, Phil and Jeff, and from there we’ll take an Uber to Treasure Island and the race site. We sit in Konrad’s two-bedroom and pass an hour watching Friends reruns. Rachel just found out Ross loves her, but he's now in China and when he returns he has a new girlfriend, and I'm still sad watching it even though two decades have passed since it first aired.
I haven’t seen the race course, so Lewis describes one of the corners to me, then we practice walking around a corner in the apartment while chugging water from a beer bottle. Is it really a 90 degree turn? Lewis tells me it is. And there’s grass and sand and a curb we need to navigate each lap. When we arrive at the site we discover there are also 25mph winds, and they don’t die.
What kind of messing with the formcharts would have to happen for us to beat the USA? This is the question we consider once we’re out of the car, beer in hand, ice melting and soaking the back of the Uber’s trunk. They’re the favourites, the Americans. With three to count and only three Australians racing, and one of those injured and fighting a cold, we’re pretty sure we will be ahead of them. But the US team. Nielson, the first man under 5:00 and he’s looking hale and determined. At the party the previous night he told us yes, he’s fitter than when he ran 4:57. Cunningham, a 5:07 guy (and 3:59 straight miler), second at the Beer Mile World Championships in Austin last December. Anderson, who ran 5:05 two weeks ago and finished fourth in Austin. Michael Johnson just ran 5:11. AJ Acosta, a 3:53 open miler with unknown beer mile potential.
In Australia the betting odds are released. I’m 21.00 and seeded 7th. At first blush I'm actually happy about it, but then I look more closely and see I'm pretty much tied for last. I haven't raced a beer mile since December, and boys are running fast, so they can't really give me better odds. Still. My best time is 5:09 and my worst time is 5:21. I'm consistent and think I can move up a couple of spots on race day. There'll be a few who have bad days. There's no way I'll make an impression on the top three, though. Aussie Josh Harris is the favourite, followed by Neilson and Lewis Kent. But who would bet against Lewis or Josh? On August 7th Josh broke the world record, and later the same day Lewis claimed it with his still standing 4:55. The two of them have been the most consistent and quickest beer milers of all-time. Neilson, though. He ran 4:57 in 2014 and hasn’t run one since, nor does it appear he has even raced a non-beer event. He’s the Salinger of our guild. One blazing race of brilliance, and where’d he go? Until today. Bearded and ready for his first public beer mile.
I’d estimate this course is 10 - 12 seconds slower than a track. It was certified by one of the world’s top certifiers, so it’s accurate, I saw the signature. But really. Grass, grates, sand, a curb? Organizers John Markell and Nick MacFalls contacted over 40 venues and nobody would allow them to host the event. Then Treasure Island agreed. Like the Beer Mile World Championships last December, these guys created a show despite not securing their ideal location. Fantastic organization, fantastic work pulling off this event. Look over the water at the downtown San Francisco skyline, look at the way the setting sun flares the Bay Bridge. Palm trees and banners, and even five feet tall posters of six of the athletes, and this crowd. Let’s forget race times. There's a title on the line. Let’s just race.
They line us up halfway down the finishing straight and call us forward individually, starting with the Canadians. We’d requested Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World as our team song, but the sound system has been turned off and it’s just the announcer's voice we hear echoing down the parking lot and then out over the water, the echoes becoming faint. A bit of crowd cheering. Lewis the world record holder is introduced first. He’s a tall man, looking more like Craig Mottram every time I see him. Tall with an easy looking cadence. When they call his name his powerful stride torques and adducts on the pavement and it looks like the pavement is tearing away, not the carbon rubber sole of his shoes. The crowd is a leaning frenzy of arms wanting to touch the world record holder, and the “White Horse of Ontario” high-fives them on his way to the start line. I’m up next. “His age, I kid you not, is unknown!” the announcer’s voice is breaking into the mic. “Racing since the time you were born, the old gastric ghost!”. Phil “favourite bar is the Ceeps” Parrot-Migas, and Jeff “the beard many love to luxuriate over” Mountjoy round out the Canadian team. The Australians Josh “Harry” Harris and Kevin Craigie are introduced without fuss. They reach Blanchy from Australia, and the guys starts walking, no joke, and for a moment I think he’s just going to stroll the entire way, and it’s comical, but then he rips off his Aussie overcoat and is wearing bum huggers, green and far too tight for any man. With the crowd in hysterics he starts jogging.
Finally the Americans are introduced and the music finds juice. Blur 2 thumps and now the atmosphere has ignited as they call up the home team. Chants of "U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.!" Brian “the Franchise” Anderson, AJ Acosta the Hayward Helium, and the last man to the line, the big American hope, James “the Beast” Neilson. He’s drinking Budweiser from a can which must be 20 degrees celsius by now, sitting outside all day, and I don’t know how he can drink something so warm. Before the race his wife Mimi saw me pulling my Amsterdam Blondes from a cooler. She raised her eyebrows surprised and said “James doesn’t do that.” and I wondered if she was trying to plant seeds of doubt, not that I’m the guy he needs to worry about because I think Josh and Lewis will give him all he can handle. But still. I feel like he’s handicapping himself, but maybe he’s just that good.
The three big men get out fast. Lewis is straight to the front, followed by Josh and Neilson. I get out in fifth and am fourth coming into the first exchange. By the end of beer two Lewis already has the jump on the field and Neilson tries once and Josh tries once to bring him back but neither close. Neilson is already struggling on lap two. His beer is actually foamy, too warm. I’d heard the same complaint from some of the others in the earlier heats, but Neilson’s really isn’t landing well and he isn’t running well either. It’s not his day.
After the third beer Lewis’ lead is unassailable and Neilson is lagging. "Beast, please, for the love of country run him down!" shouts the announcer but he only falls further behind. Josh is in second but his beer is clawing at him. He slows down to avoid vomiting. I move past him, and Brian moves from fourth past both of us, so that at the end of the third lap Lewis is going to win unless something bizarre happens, and I feel a certain exhilaration about this. The world record holder in hot form is destroying the strongest beer mile field ever assembled. Second will go to Brian or me. Which, ok, that’ll be Brian. The guy has wheels, it turns out. He hits the homestretch and starts sprinting and I try to respond but he powers away and beats me by a full two seconds. Josh "The Chunder From Down Under" Harris vomits and has to run a penalty lap, but here's a guy who has run four of the top nine times all-time and he'll atone. Plus he's a fast enough runner to have a legitimate shot at qualifying for the Australian Olympic team in the marathon and, it turns out, he's just a damn fine gentleman. Neilson crosses in 5:45 but is disqualified for having over double the allowable amount of beer left in his cans.
Some race stats: Lewis Kent: 5:09.7 Brian Anderson: 5:14.7 Jim Finlayson: 5:16.6 Michael Johnson: 5:26.0 Michael Cunningham: 5:38.3 Jeff Mountjoy: 5:48.3 Nate Beach: 5:55.1 Kevin Craigie: 6:34.0 Josh Harris: 7:00.0 (with a penalty lap) Phil Parrot-Migas: 7:16.0 (with a penalty lap) A.J. Accosta: 7:45.0 (with a penalty lap) James Neilson: 5:45 (DQ - over 4oz beer remaining) Charlie Blanche: 6:13 (DQ - over 4oz beer remaining)
Cumulative Beer remaining in bottles: Least: Brian Anderson Second least: Lewis Kent, Jim Finlayson Most: Blanchy and James Neilson, both with over 8oz.
Cumulative drinking time (in seconds, including travelling the 9 meter exchange zone): Lewis Kent: 30 Jim Finlayson: 31 Brian Anderson: 33 Josh Harris: 35 Michael Johnson: 36 Jeff Mountjoy: 36 James Neilson: 38 Michael Cunningham: 42 Phil Parrot-Migas: 51