Monday, January 5, 2015

2015 "Dog-Meat Vertical Beer Mile" Race Recap

2015 Dog Meat Vertical Beer Mile

The inaugural 2015 Dog Meat Vertical Beer Mile was as much about who showed up to run, as it was about who stayed home and chickened out. Several contenders were noticeably absent including pre-race favorite Nike Trail Elite runner David Roche. Also missing were ultra runners Marc Laveson, Victor Ballesteros, Jason Reed, and Greg Lanctot as well as several others -- all who offered various elaborate explanations and excuses. Race officials are currently in the process of fact-checking to confirm their alibis.

However seventeen slightly-brave and/or slightly-stupid runners (as well as a handful of spectators, press and paparazzi) made it to the start line, a feat in itself. Unlike most races where you can drive to the start line and hop out of your car, this race required runners to hike 2.5 miles up a steep mountain trail just to get to the start. And then there's the race application process. In order to even enter the race, applicants had to locate and take a selfie in front of an old abandoned outhouse that requires going off trail through thorn bushes and poison oak.

Beer miles are becoming increasingly popular and commonplace. Everyone's doing them. So naturally, anyone who considers themselves a serious drinker-slash-runner wants to take it to the next level. And that next level is the vertical (or uphill) beer mile! Why run around a flat track when you can run up a gnarly mountain. Yet, surprisingly, a significant number of the entrants in the race were beer mile virgins who were attempting the feat for the very first time. That's one way to pop your cherry!

As the race director explained at the start, this course does not favor the bold. The course gains 700 feet over 1 mile, which might not seem that bad. But almost 500 of those feet are in the last ½ mile. That makes the second half about 20% grade. Locally the hill is referred to as "Dog Meat" because presumably that's how your legs feel when you reach the top. And that's how you feel after running it sober. Now imagine trying to get up it after hammering four beers.

Further adding to the excitement and drama was the last-minute announcement to the runners from the race director warning that because temperatures had fallen below freezing during the night, there was a chance that the beers (which had been left out on the course the night before) might be frozen solid or at least a bit slushy. Luckily, temperatures in the area apparently remained above 27.8 degrees which is the point at which beer freezes, as the beer was ice cold but unfrozen.

Race Morning

Road runner Larry Neumann showed up at the starting line wearing a hideous assortment of mix-matched neon-colored running gear. The other runners in attendance all knew each other already (as they belonged to either one of  two rival trail running gangs: the home-town heroes from the Quicksilver Running Club of San Jose, and the unsavory infidels from the Excelsior Running Club of San Francisco). But who was this other guy decked out in every color of the rainbow, everyone wondered?

Check out those day glow orange compression socks. Is he even a trail runner? He looks like he raided the bargain bin at REI's end-of-the-year sale on discontinued gear? Who invited him? Oh, he's a friend of Big Johnny's? Well, then must be fast! Oh, he's Canadian eh? I guess that explains his fashion sense.

However, Karl Schnaitter was paying less attention to the color of people's compression socks, and more attention to his beer. He stood there lovingly stroking a can, rubbing it gently against his cheek. After having experimented unsuccessfully with Budweiser, the semi-official adjunct-lager-piss-swill used in most beer miles, Karl decided to go the BYOB route and showed up with four cans of Big Sky Brewing Company, Moose Drool brown ale.

As he trotted up the mountain strategically placing his delicious craft beer in quarter mile increments, Karl could already taste victory -- and it tasted malty (with a hint of caramel and chocolate). Yum!

Meanwhile Bree Lambert stood at the start of the beer mile looking up at the finish line on top of the mountain. This was the same location where, back in 2003 she had suffered a horrific mountain bike accident and woke up strapped to a metal gurney inside a helicopter as she was being airlifted off the mountain. Now here she was, 12 years later, returning to the scene of the accident for the fist time, getting ready to run a vertical beer mile up the same hill.

Never mind that she had never run a traditional beer mile on a track before. Or that she had never even chugged a beer before -- not even in college. "If only this were a vodka mile" Bree thought to herself, "I would crush everyone. It wouldn't even be a fair fight."

In the Beginning...

The race got underway and race director Big Johnny Burton immediately opened up a huge lead on the rest of the field, slamming his first beer in mere seconds while the rest of the field struggled to gulp down their icy beers. Big Johnny was followed, eventually, by a chase pack of several runners that included dark-horse former-Marine Jeff Clowers, pre-race favorite Karl Schnaitter, and a guy named Donnie Blameuser wearing what appeared to be his wife's cutoff blue-jean shorts. But we didn't ask, and he didn't tell.

When Jeff Pace signed up for the Vertical Beer Mile he suspected he might be chasing the cut-offs, but this wasn't what he had in mind. Race director John Burton had warned runners that there would only be 18 beers at each aid station. If you were one of the last runners to arrive at any of the three aid stations and found yourself looking down at an empty box of beer, you "missed the cutoff" and were out of the race. Train harder and better luck next year.

But as Jeff looked up ahead at the next runner in front of him wearing bedazzled Daisy Duke's, all he could think about was: a) trying not to puke up his beer which would result in disqualification, and b) passing this guy as soon as possible so that he wouldn't have to "chase the cut-offs" any longer.

Meanwhile, at the very-back of the pack, the women's pre-race favorites Amy Burton and Bree Lambert were engaged a tactical chess match. Neither woman wanting to finish their beer first and be forced into taking the early lead, the two engaged in what can only be described a super slow-motion beer sipping contest. Eventually Amy ran out of beer first and was forced into taking the lead and doing the pacemaking.

And in the men's Designated Driver division, sole entrant Zack Steinkamp, who had brought two cans of Safeway club soda, was learning something that most experienced beer milers already know. The real challenge of the beer mile is not actually handling the alcohol content of the beer, but rather managing the carbon dioxide. The key to doing well is to burp out as much carbon dioxide as possible while running in between beers. Often the race is won not by the swiftest runner or the fastest beer chugger, but by the best belcher.

"After only 20 steps I let loose the biggest belch of my life," said Steinkamp. "It was a belch of victory... Victory over the doubters of the Bernoulli Principal. Victory over those spinsters in the Miss Manners club. An echoing belch of supreme victory over more uptight and longer-running events."                

Then it Gets Ugly

At the front of the race, Big Johnny Burton was already in trouble. He still had a small lead, but he was struggling to burp effectively. Every time he tried to belch out carbon dioxide, he instead burped out a mouthful of foamy beer. And if you've never tried it, re-swallowing your own beer-vomit (foamy or otherwise) falls under the category of "things that are surprisingly unpleasant".

Karl Schnaitter on the other hand was having no problems keeping his beer down. Still tucked in behind Big Johnny in second place, Karl was getting increasingly optimistic. As they approached the the next beer station, Karl boasted to Big Johnny, "I'm really looking forward to drinking my beer; it tastes so good." Big Johnny, who was dreading even the thought of choking down another wretched Budweiser gave up mentally; and then he spewed.

With his chief rival disqualified for puking, Karl jogged on to victory while the rest of the race unfolded behind him. Chris Eide was running strong in second place. Chris is a self-described "sympathy puker", meaning that if he sees someone else puke he suddenly feels like puking himself. And now here he was, trying to avoid the sights (and smells) of Big Johnny trotting alongside him, half running and half puking.

"I've got to get away from this guy before he pukes on my shoes," Chris thought to himself. That thought was immediately followed by, "What the hell am I doing with my life... Saturday morning pounding beers in the mountains? Whatever it is, it felt right."

Just behind the leaders an epic battle was brewing (yes, that's a beer-mile pun) between a four-pack of runners including Chikara Omine and Larry Neumann. A sober Chikara would normally dominate in a race on this kind of terrain. Chikara won Quad Dipsea, finishing ahead of Dave Mackey on a grueling course with over 9,000 feet of elevation gain over just 28 miles. But Chikara, who purportedly hasn't had a beer in 3 years, couldn't match the drinking prowess of Neumann's Canadian heritage. "You can see my superior technique on display, as well as Chikara's rookie form," quipped Neumann.

Tim Thompson, a former pro mountain biker turned trail runner, was looking forward to making his beer mile debut. He hung toward the front of the pack all day, but ultimately wasn't able to handle the fourth and final beer. "I burped a lot going to the last beer station up the super steep part of the trail. I felt like I had enough room to put away the 4th one but 20 yards later it came back up" confessed Thompson. "I finished out the climb feeling good but that was only cause I lost half the beer I'd consumed."

The Home Stretch

Karl Schnaitter went on to claim victory, while his Excelsior teammate Chris Eide finished second. The relatively unknown Larry Neumann would later round out the men's podium.

Amy Burton, who took the lead early in the women's race, had been running (un)comfortably out in front all day with a slight lead over Bree Lambert, who was hanging back in striking distance -- perhaps waiting to make her move. Neither woman had ever run a beer mile before, so they had both elected to run the two-beer option of the race which involved chugging (or in their case, politely sipping) one beer at the start and then another at the 1/2 mile. They had also discussed possibly substituting Chardonnay for beer, but luckily race officials got wind of the plan and interceded.

As they ascended the final climb, Amy was cheered on by her husband Big Johnny who was catching up to her from behind while Bree's man Joe Sanders, who was spectating shouted encouragement down to her from on top of the hill. In the end Amy managed to hold off Bree as well as a hard-charging Big Johnny, claiming not only the women's title, but also bragging rights in the Burton home. Bree finished shortly afterwards and was happy to get some closure and reclaim the trail that she had avoided for so long after her bike crash.

Zack Steinkamp, who created (and I guess won?) his own new division by only bringing only two cans of club soda (rather the 4 cans required for the official Designated Driver division) charged up the last hill like a rocket, momentarily passing Big Johnny at one point. "Maybe it was the emboldening effect of the CO2, or perhaps it was the single filtered Modesto water that Safeway uses in its canned soda, but that last climb was no match for this guy," boasted Steinkamp.

Jeff Clowers, a former Marine, who ironically no longer drinks, dusted off his beer chugging skills and put on a clinic. He finished the first beer faster than everyone except Big Johnny, and took off in second place. Although he lost ground during the running sections of the race, Jeff continued to keep himself in the hunt by out-drinking his competitors at the aid stations. The 10th person across the line, Jeff was happy to learn that he was actually 5th among the men who didn't puke (with both Big Johnny and Tim Thompson having had "reversals of fortune" out on the course).

Greg Hales came into this race on a hot streak, having won one of his previous two beer miles and finished first-masters in the other. In each race, he came from behind with a strong move late in the race. But both of those races were on a track. And neither of those tracks, I am guessing, had a 20% incline on the last lap. There would be no come-from-behind victory today. But Greg did manage to hold his beer down and finish without puking. "I kept burping up foam in my mouth!" said Greg. "But I kept saying to myself, just don’t let any get past your lips!”.

Jeff Eisenman's official finisher status is currently under investigation following a too-close-to-call finish line puke. The official rules state the runner must have their finisher medal in hand before puking. But Eisenmann is arguing the race director, who may or may not have been stumbling around drunk, failed to provide his medal in a timely manner. The International Panel for Sports Arbitration is expected to rule by March.

Loren Lewis executed his pre-race strategy perfectly. He didn't puke and he finished all his beers. Part of his strategy was to avoid getting overwhelmed by thinking about how hard the event really was. "So the beer mile became four short sprints with a mini-tailgate type atmosphere in between" explained Loren. "But the key would be not to get too relaxed at the beer breaks." Reportedly, next year Loren plans to bring a Hibachi grill to enhance his tailgate atmosphere.

Other runners to cross the finish line and claim glory include Jeff Pace, Stephen Strauss, Donnie Blameuser and Marc Bauman. Donnie, who had gone out hard with the early leaders -- presumably to encourage other runners like Jeff and Stephen to try and get ahead of the cutoffs -- faded hard after his second beer. When pressed for details, Donnie chimed, "The second beer took longer to go down than my first high school girlfriend and I quickly lost position." Marc Bauman, who finished DFL and took home a bottle of Pliny the Elder for his efforts joked that, "this was certainly my A race for the year, at least so far".

Aftermath and Afterwords

As if on cue, moments after the last finisher arrived on top of the mountain, park rangers showed up to congratulate everyone! Well, I suppose they came to check on us and to make sure everything was OK. They reminded us that events with 20 people or more require a permit (thankfully we were fewer than 20). But they also asked that we inform them of future events, even if we have less than 20 people and no permit, just so that they can be close by if needed. Seems reasonable enough.

Special thanks to the official race photographers Nina Giraudo, Keith Lubliner, and Sean McPherson.

And thanks again to Jeff Clowers for helping hike some of the beer up the mountain and for generously providing the bottles of Pliny and box of wine for the winners.

Finisher's List in Order of Finish
  1. Karl Schnaitter, 13:17 
  2. Chris Eide, 
  3. Amy Burton ** women's two-beer division
  4. John Burton *  puke division
  5. Zack Steinkamp ** two-soda division
  6. Larry Neumann 
  7. Chikara Omine 
  8. Bree Lambert ** women's two-beer division
  9. Tim Thompson * puke division
  10. Jeff Clowers
  11. Greg Hales 
  12. Jeff Eisenman * puke division
  13. Loren Lewis 
  14. Jeff Pace 
  15. Stephen Strauss 
  16. Donnie Blameuser 
  17. Marc Bauman
** Update: Several people have asked whether Big Johnny really got chick'd at his own beer mile? Yes, it is true. Here is the pic of the Missus, Amy Burton, outsprinting Big Johnny at the finish line.