Beer Mile – Q&A with World Championship Medalist Michael Johnson

As a fledging event in the world of distance running, the beer mile is rapidly transforming from a bacchanal that happens to take place on a track into an internationally recognized competition. Recent developments include recorded and live-streamed World Championships as well as professional sponsorships for the event’s top athletes. That being said, there is still a long way to go before we’ll be seeing a beer miler waving his or her national flag at the opening ceremonies.

In an effort to further understand this event we sat down with American beer miler Michael Johnson, whose achievements include a 5:06.00 personal best, a 3rd place finish as the top American at the FloTrack Beer Mile World Championships in Austin in 2015, and a 4th place finish as the second American at the World Championships in London in 2016, to discuss two of the best things in life: running and beer.

Let’s start with some rapid fire questions. What is your favorite Beer for racing?
Bud Light Platinum (known in the industry as BLP).

Outside of racing?
Anything and everything. You know that kind of hunger you get when you’re doing high mileage and you just need to eat? It’s kind of like that … but with beer.

Racing flat of choice?
Anything on sale at Running Warehouse that can be overnighted to me the day before the race (wink wink).

Spike of choice?
For actual track racing, I’m a big Nike Matumbo fan. For the beer mile, nothing beats the first addition of the Nike Mambas that have the alligator print.

What’s with the single racing glove?
Really big MJ fan. In actuality, sweaty hands can’t open bottles very well and no one wants to sit in the transition zone looking stupid for five seconds before they finally resort to using their singlet.

What year is beer miling added to the Olympics?
Unfortunately never, regardless of the fact that two different race walking events, about half a million variations of swim strokes for the same race distances in the pool, rhythmic dancing, and dressage (which is actual horse dancing… I’m not even joking, look it up) “need” to be in the olympics, I don’t think the beer mile should ever be in the Olympics. The after party in the Olympic Village however…

How have the changes in beer miling over the past 3-5 years affected you as a competitor?
James Nelson kind of showed everyone what was possible when he broke 5 minutes. This made a few people realize how soft the record was. After that there was sort of a golden age of beer miling where you had guys who were either mediocre drinkers and great runners or mediocre runners and great drinkers, and all of these guys could contend for the world record. Then Corey Bellemore ruined it for everyone by being great at both drinking and running. Now everyone is kind of screwed unless they can break 4 in the mile and slam a beer as fast as humanly possible.

How did you get started with beer miling?
I went to college.

Other than the occasional beer, how do you practice for the drinking portion of the race?
Pretty much by changing the occasional beer to the occasional beers. And by “occasional”, I mean every day. Getting to a competent level of chugging is fairly straightforward. You put in your 1000 beers and you get to a mastery level. The real test is when you’re trying to get to, what I like to call, tier 0 technique. Prepare yourselves for a long explanation.

There are 3 tiers of chugging beer:

Tier 2 is positively the slowest. You see this technique with people who aren’t used to putting down beer as fast as you can. Basically, what they’re doing is sipping the beer as fast as they can. The technique is characterized by having the upper lip on the opening of the bottle and sucking the beer out of the bottle. This is the slowest because you’re covering roughly 50-70% of the opening.

Tier 1 is what mortals with a gag reflex use. Basically, you’re pouring the beer into your mouth and then gulping it down. You get a rhythm going of pour, gulp, pour, gulp. Much faster than Tier 2. Basically uninterrupted flow until you have to gulp.

Tier 0 is what the best in the business do. Long story short, you open up your throat and just pour the beer in. If you don’t have a gag reflex, this is very easy. If you do have one, it doesn’t make sense and you end up choking trying to do it. You can fake it however, with open mouth gulping, which is also very difficult for most people. If you’re asking yourself what that means, grab something to drink, and I’ll show you. First, take a normal drink. Now 99% of people will swallow with their mouth closed. This is how you’ve drank your entire lives. Now take a second drink, but this time, keep your mouth open and try to drink without closing your mouth. Weird right? Ya, it takes a lot of practice and you look like an idiot until you can pull it off.

In your mind, is one aspect of the sport more important than the other, or are the two equally weighted in importance?
See, back a couple of years ago, you could cover one weakness by being good at the other. If you were slow, you could get an edge by drinking fast and vice versa. However, now that Bellemore is great at both, everyone has to follow suit.

When it comes to racing, what are some of the tactics employed?
I’m a big fan of going out hard. My reasoning is, you’re gonna feel bad at the end of the race anyway, so you might as well run fast while you feel good. You can also employ the same sort of track tactics you’d see in the normal track race. There’s also a whole set of tactics behind the amount of beer left in your bottle at the end of every lap. The standard rules say that you are allowed 4 oz total of beer combined left in your four bottles. It doesn’t say anything about max volume left in any single beer though, so some guys will make their first 3 bottles clean to have some leeway going into the last beer. I personally don’t stoop to those levels, but integrity is in the eye of the beholder.

Changing gears, what do you think could be done to further legitimize or improve the sport?
Track only, standardize beers, and small race sizes. Also, there should be one more event: 4 x 40 oz x 400 m. Everyone loves a 4×4 at the end of a meet. Heck, you could add a whole beer olympics to the event and it’d make it that much more awesome.

To date, competitions have primarily featured individuals from Britain and previous British colonies. Are there any movements to try and draw in individuals from different countries?
At the Beer Mile World Classic, I believe 8 countries were represented last year. We’re trying to get more, but the biggest problem is that the beer mile is run with 12 oz bottles. Europe uses the metric system so it’s really hard to find standard bottles anywhere outside the U.S unless it’s a weird craft brew. Most non-American bottles are 250 ml, which is less.

As we wind down, despite the relatively slow times, the World Championship in Austin last December was the most competitive field assembled, did you learn anything that you’ll take with you for future competitions?
So, without getting too inside baseball, the reason the World Championship was slow this year was because the turn before the final stretch had some sort of oil spilled all over it, so we had to slow down a ton on every lap. Honestly, the only thing I learned from that race is that Austin can go from 75 degrees and humid to below freezing in a couple of hours.

Any kosher memories from the event that you’d care to share?
Nothing kosher. All I can say is, I don’t train for the beer mile, I train for the after party.

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring beer milers?
Always one-pull your beers, learn to burp, and tip your waitresses.

Many thanks, Michael!

If you shop for shoes like Michael, Running Warehouse has a large selection of footwear that can take your racing up a notch!

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Will has been running competitively since high school, and is currently running with the HOKA Aggies, a post-collegiate club here on the central coast of California. With a preference for the humorous and the verbose, he enjoys playing the wordsmith almost as much as his daily runs.

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