TORONTO — Kirsty Smith is a lean triathlon machine, all perfectly sculpted muscle and athleticism packed into a 110-pound frame.
She can also chug beer with the best of them.
For the past few weeks, the 30-year-old from North Vancouver, B.C., has put been putting back pints like a German during Oktoberfest — all part of the training for her run at the women’s beer mile world record.
"I’ve been practising chugging beers, as ridiculous as it sounds," Smith says. "My guy friends like it, they think it’s hilarious. They’re like ‘We’ll race you chugging beer.’ Even my mom’s boyfriend wants to race me in drinking."
The beer mile was born, so the story goes, back in the late 1980s, when a group of Canadian distance runners were enjoying a post-workout beer.
"We thought it would be a great idea to combine running and beer drinking," says Ian Fallas, one of the runners present on that historic night.
Fallas could never have predicted the event’s explosion in popularity. Nearly 30 years later, it’s beer mile-mania.
Next month, Smith, along with U.S. Olympian Nick Symmonds, among others, will race for boozy bragging rights at the world beer mile championships in Austin, Texas.
Smith, a professional triathlete who also ran on Canada’s cross-country team, will take aim at the women’s world record of six minutes 28.6 seconds, set by Chris Kimbrough — a 44-year-old mother of six — earlier this month.
In the beer mile, competitors consume four cans of beer (no less than 355 millilitres and a minimum of five per cent alcohol) over the course of a mile. Run on a 400-metre track, competitors drink one can prior to each lap. Runners who vomit before finishing must run a penalty lap.
Smith ran her first beer mile while in her senior year at Villanova. She was home for Christmas, and some friends invited her to one at a North Vancouver high school. She was the one woman among about 40 men.
"It was totally just for fun. I wasn’t trying to break a record, I just thought ‘Oh cool. Drink beer, run,"’ she says. "But I actually won the race and beat all the guys, and they were like ‘You should probably try doing this seriously.’ I’m like ‘Are you kidding me? It’s a beer mile. It’s not real running."’
Smith changed her tune when she saw James Nielsen break the five-minute beer mile barrier, running a world-record 4:57.1 last April. The video of his feat has over 1.3 million views on YouTube. The world record for the regular mile is 3:43.13, held by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj.
Smith has only done one other beer mile since her first but her best time of 6:43 ranks as the third fastest all-time by a woman.
"I’m super competitive, there’s no way I would sign up for this without the intention of winning the race, at least," Smith said. "It might take a world record to win it. It probably will."
Kimbrough will also be in the race in Austin.
"I’ve watched her video a few times, and took her splits. I’ve sized up my competition, so I know what she’s doing and how quick she’s drinking her beers," Smith said. "She’s a good runner, she’s solid for a 44-year-old, I was quite impressed by her times."
Canadian Seanna Robinson, who ran track at Queen’s and held the women’s world record of 6:42 for 17 years before Kimbrough broke it, will also race in Austin.
Smith describes the first lap of her rookie run as "pretty easy." The second beer "was a little bit harder. Definitely wasn’t a straight chug-down. I had to take a few breather breaks."
The third beer was "pretty hard. My stomach was so full, I thought I was going to throw up, and I kept thinking ‘No, you can’t throw up, it’s a penalty lap.’ Fourth beer, I was in the lead so now everyone was cheering for me, you have that finishing kick, you can deal with it, you’re almost done.
"I actually ran pretty fast, I was in shock. My boyfriend at the time was watching and said, ‘You ran a 70 (seconds) for your last lap. Why don’t you do that in a real mile?"’ she said with a laugh.
"You’re pretty drunk really quickly. It doesn’t hit you until a few minutes after, but you just had four beers in like six minutes, and for me, that’s a lot of alcohol. I’m not a very big person. I’m five-foot-four-and-a-half, and 110 pounds. And I don’t drink that much, I’m a professional triathlete so it’s pretty detrimental to training to drink."
Dr. Julia Alleyne, who’s worked with Canadian athletes at five Olympic Games, cautions that women are among those that are at the greatest risk of suffering ill effects of beer miling.
"The concern we have in sport is the decreased muscle co-ordination, visual blurring and slow reaction time, because that leads to quick injuries," said Alleyne. "Females or people with low body weight will feel those effects of alcohol sooner. And if their running time is longer, then someone who runs a 10 or 12-minute time is also now starting to feel effects as they start to run that third and fourth lap.
"They have higher risk of injuries, we’re talking about falls, we’re talking about secondary injuries to ligaments and cartilage. And post-race you might have done well but the effects of alcohol are still occurring in your body, and can certainly be more so 30 minutes after taking fast rapid alcohol than 10 minutes after."
Smith plans to run a couple practice beer miles in advance. She’ll bring along a friend to record it on video, lest she breaks the world record in practice.
Post beer-mile, Smith’s goal is to qualify for next year’s Ironman 70.3 (Half Ironman) world championships in Austria.
It’s a chilly autumn night in Toronto and some 40 runners, bundled up in sweats and tuques, are arriving at a high school track. The only light is from the adjacent school and a nearby parking lot.
The runners carry four cans of beer apiece, of various brands. They line them up neatly alongside the starting line.
The runners have come to run the fall edition of the Toronto Beermile, organized by Brennan Harvey and Andrew Thuss. What began as a fun thing to do between few friends three years ago has grown to see more than 120 runners turn out to some races.
Harvey runs through the rules for first-timers. If you feel the urge to throw up, he tells them, aim for the grass infield.
"Sometimes you never get (runners throwing up). Sometimes it’s rampant," Harvey says.
Thuss holds the stop watch and signals the start. Then the hiss as 40 cans are popped open.
"We tell people, ‘This is going to be the worst/best thing you’ll ever do,"’ Harvey says, laughing.
The runners are off on their first lap, to the cheers of their friends/designated drivers. Brendan Neely, who ran cross-country at George Brown College, leads after the first lap, and is the first to chug down his second can.
One by one they arrive at their beer stashes. One large man wears a bright pink shirt that says "Not Running Sucks." They pace and belch as they drink, then one by one toss their cans and take off for Lap 2.
"Come on Jen, you’re slacking!" a woman yells. "Concentrate. Get it down," someone cheers. "Chug-a-lug!" another yells.
Neely is the winner on this night, running 7:01, well off his best time of 6:30.
"It’s usually the third lap you start getting bloated with all the CO2 from the beer, but you’ve just got to keep belching it out," Neely says. "You sound kind of funny running the whole way just burping as loud as you can. But that’s all part of it."
His friend Meagan Bertin has a rough night.
"Barfed on my fourth lap," she says. "It sucked. They’re fun though. I get to hang out with my friends. I get to exercise and I get to drink beer, both of which I love."
The winners are presented with the "Golden Shoe Block" winner’s trophy — a running shoe in a cement block — which they sign and hand back, to be presented again at the next race.
The secret, says Harvey, is "don’t push yourself past what you can do. Know your limit and play within it."
"It’s a bit of a euphoric experience," he adds. "You have that heat of the moment, race you want to win, but then you have the alcohol that is surging through you. By the time you finish, you are a little bit buzzed, and you can see the group has kind of changed, everyone is a little bit more buddy-buddy."
The wobbly runners dutifully toss their cans in a nearby recycling bin. They linger long at the track, talking and laughing.
"People’s kids come. My dad comes once in a while. I met my girlfriend at a beer mile," Harvey says. "I guess it’s love in racing."
It was a muggy summer night in 1989, and Fallas and a half dozen other distance runners — including Graham Hood, who went on to represent Canada at the 1992 and ’96 Olympics — were unwinding over a post-workout beer. Someone — no one remembers exactly who — suggested combining drinking and running.
The perfect marriage of two of their favourite pastimes.
"None of those guys are going to take credit for being the founder of the beer mile," said John Markell, one of the writers of the Kingston Rules. "There just isn’t one."
The group headed to a Burlington high school track, for what they thought would be fun times.
"It’s very traumatic," said Fallas, who’s done some 40 beer miles since. "The task of running a mile as fast as you can, then you’re throwing beer into your stomach at a high rate. There’s just so much gas buildup.
"And with all the hard breathing from the exertion, it’s just really difficult to manage. Air going in one way, gas coming out the other. You’re desperate to belch as much as you can.
"It feels fantastic when you finish without throwing up."
Fallas returned to Queen’s in the fall, where the tradition continued, as he and a couple of the other original milers organized a second race.
It was held at dusk — to avoid campus security — at Richardson Stadium. The race became an annual event, held after the end of track season. It was a way to cut loose, to celebrate the season. They called it the Kingston Classic.
"We didn’t want to have ‘beer mile’ anywhere in the name," Markell said.
Other schools were invited to participate.
T-shirts were printed. One had the famous photo of Roger Bannister crossing the finish line in the first sub-four minute mile. They put a beer can in his hand.
The Kingston Rules were written in the early ’90s, according to Markell, jotted down over beers one night at the home of several runners. Here are the current rules posted on beermile.com, which have been adapted from the Kingston Rules:
1. Each competitor drinks four cans of beer and runs four laps on a track (Start, beer/lap, beer/lap, beer/lap, beer/lap, finish).
2. Beer must be consumed before the lap is begun, within the transition area which is the 10-metre zone before the start/finish line on a 400-metre track.
3. The race begins with the drinking of the first beer in the last metre of the transition zone to ensure the competitors run a complete mile.
4. Women also drink four beers in four laps.
5. Cans should not be less than 355ml (the standard can volume) or 12oz (the imperial equivalent). Bottles may be substituted for cans as long as they are at least 12 oz (355 ml) in volume.
6. No specialized cans or bottles may be used that give an advantage by allowing the beer to pour at a faster rate. ie "super mega mouth cans" or "wide mouth bottles" are prohibited.
7. Beer cans must not be tampered with in any manner, ie. no shotgunning or puncturing of the can except for opening the can by the tab at the top. The same applies with bottles — no straws or other aids are allowed in order to aid in the speed of pouring.
8. Beer must be a minimum of five per cent alcohol by volume. Hard ciders and lemonades will not suffice. The beer must be a fermented alcoholic beverage brewed from malted cereal grains and flavoured with hops.
9. Each beer can must not be opened until the competitor enters the transition zone on each lap.
10. Competitors who vomit before they finish the race must complete one penalty lap at the end of the race. Vomiting more than once during the race still requires only one penalty lap at the end.