How the beer mile has evolved into one of the most viral, underground sports in the world.
On August 11, 2018 at 2:00 PM, the top beer milers from around the world were assembling at an undisclosed high school track just outside of Vancouver, B.C. for the 4th annual Beer Mile World Classic. Nine of the top ten beer milers of all time were in attendance to compete for the world title and attempt to shave a few seconds off their respective national records. A team title was also on the line, with the USA, Canada, U.K., Sweden, and Australia all sending their top beer mile representatives.
The track was eerily calm just an hour before the race. There were few spectators and no beer visible in what appeared to be nothing more than a local running team gathering for a track workout. This was unlike previous beer mile world championships where the event was accompanied by hundreds of imbibing aficionados and ample pre-race hype from media outlets to advertise the race’s live stream for millions to watch.
Because of issues securing a venue for this year’s race, it had to be conducted in secrecy. No live audience. No live stream. Even the competitors were not privy to race location details until the day before. Beer was pulled from coolers just minutes before the gun went off, and the track was quickly vacated after the conclusion. The only evidence the beer mile took place was the video footage captured by the sole media outlet present.
Although the race itself was conducted in a silo, big names like Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Time, and TMZ quickly picked up the story after the race video was released. It became clear that although the event was an underground, hush-hush showdown, it’s appeal to the masses made it a viral, internet sensation just like the videos from previous years’ world championships. Why has such a peculiar, off-the-wall event become more watched online than any professional track and field meet?
A brief history of the beer mile
Running four laps and intermittently drinking four beers is not a new concept. It has a been a common, end-of-season competition for bragging rights among collegiate teams and running clubs for decades. The earliest documented races (whose records still exist today) occurred in the late 1980's and early 1990's. With the emergence of the internet, information was shared and rules became more consistent in the early 1990's.
The first known set of rules to be posted in a public place was by a group in Kingston, Ontario where beer miles had taken place regularly for a few years. Since many beer milers elsewhere were competitive, they took it upon themselves to indoctrinate the Kingston rules into their own festivities. And so, the set known as the "Kingston Rules" was born. In the late 1990s, Beermile.com chose to adopt some of the basic Kingston Rules and add a few more in an attempt to standardize the sport. An official beer mile rules list was born.
The rise to mainstream
Ask nearly any member of the running community today, and they have likely heard of and/or participated in a beer mile at some point. It is also not uncommon for other sports teams to dabble in a beer mile at the end of a season, especially on college campuses. Although the beer mile has been common around the world for decades, its jump from a local festivity to a global standardized sport has only recently come to fruition.
The breakthrough for its emergence into the mainstream came when Flotrack, a running-focused media company, hosted the inaugural Beer Mile World Championships in 2014 in Austin, TX. This was closely followed by the inaugural Beer Mile World Classic in 2015. Both of these events captured internet audiences in the millions and made for the perfect clickbait videos on Facebook and other social media platforms, especially with Corey Bellemore’s astounding 4:34 at the 2016 Beer Mile World Classic that shattered the world record.
Flotrack hosted 2nd and 3rd annual Beer Mile World Championships in Austin, TX in subsequent years, but cancelled the event in 2017, citing internal budget concerns. The Beer Mile World Classic, however, continues to live on and moves the race location each year to inspire additional participants from new countries. The Classic has moved from San Francisco to London to Vancouver during its tenure, all the while gaining more exposure and fiercer competition each year.
Growth in competition
The first viral video that grew the sport’s popularity was the first sub-5 beer mile by American James Nielsen in 2014, which quickly amassed over one million views on YouTube. This, along with the formation of organized beer mile world championship races, evoked more runners to attempt the event to see if they had what it took to top the charts. In fact, the top 10 beer mile times ever run have occurred in the past three years after James Nielsen’s 4:57.
The 5-minute barrier that once seemed impossible is now shattered on a regular basis by the top athletes. The American Record has been lowered to 4:46, and the world record now stands at 4:33 by Canadian Corey Bellemore. Similar to Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile barrier, once an athlete proves a new realm of possibility, the invisible barrier is lifted for all.
The future of the beer mile
The beer mile appears to be at an inflection point. Its growth trajectory further into the mainstream could ramp up, especially with additional coverage by the major sports media channels. On the other hand, it may have peaked as a viral fad and simply remain a niche, underground sport like it always has been. To predict the outcome, let’s return to the question originally posed in this blog: Why has such a peculiar, off-the-wall event become more watched online than any professional track and field meet?
The reason: it is a sport understood by the masses. The average person does not know the difference between a 4-minute mile and a 5-minute mile. To most, they are both simply ‘fast.’ Professional track and field is only truly understood by those who have participated themselves and can grasp how remarkable it is to go from a 4:15 mile to a sub-4 mile. However, introduce the fact that the beer mile world record involves chugging 4 full beers AND running a 4-minute mile simultaneously, and the majority of people recognize how preposterous a feat that is.
Beyond the suds
The beer mile has expanded from a local, bragging rights contest done for a laugh into an international, deliberate competition with team titles, national records, and money up for grabs. Its relatability to the general public makes it a compelling sport with potential to become much more than it is today. Business opportunities for sports media outlets, brewers, and clothing/shoe brands to utilize the event as a marketing channel are yet to be discovered and executed. In an era where companies pay massive marketing and advertising teams to come up with the next viral video, the beer mile seems like an already-proven avenue worth exploring.
By the way, Team USA took the crown at the 2018 Beer Mile World Classic, defending its 2017 title. The Canadians won the event the first two years (2015 and 2016). The race in 2019 will be a showdown for the top of the world podium.
Extra suds: To read more about the beer mile and what it is like to compete on the world stage, this vivid recount of last year’s Beer Mile World Classic is an excellent read.