Monday, January 11, 2016

A Bunch of Drunks on a Mountain (Part 2)

Chikara unable to hold his Root Beer

Chikara Omine lay on the ground puking after drinking one too many Not Your Father’s hard root beers. While this might sound like the aftermath of a high school party, Omine has just competed in a serious sporting event, contested by grown adults, that involves chugging cans of beer and sprinting a mile up a steep mountain. We’re talking of course about the second-annual, Big Johnny’s Vertical Beer Mile Inter-Galactic World Championship as featured last year in this Trail Runner Magazine article.

Chikara is one of our planet's top ultra-marathon runners. He has won dozens of races and has represented the United States in international competition, most recently at the 100K World Cup. Yet he also has a fetish for participating in strange and novel events that many people might reasonably characterize as “somewhat odd, if not completely bizarre”.

For example, there is the “Swedish Meatball 100 Yard Dash” which – while the rules are not completely clear – apparently requires stuffing a bunch of meatballs into your mouth and then trying to keep them all inside your mouth while sprinting down the track. Chikara has also competed in other eating-related contests, including speed-eating hot dogs, pancakes, spam, pot stickers, and even fried asparagus. He’s also a five-time winner of a race called the “Donut Dash” that involves sprinting two miles, engulfing four donuts, and then sprinting two additional miles.

I guess you could say that Chikara loves to eat and run. He doesn’t care how far or long he runs (he’s won everything from 5Ks to 24-hour timed events), on what surface (he fares equally well on tracks, roads, and mountainous trails), or even in which direction (he occasionally likes to participate in local 5K races while running backwards). Heck, he even once ran a race on crutches while recovering from a broken toe. And did I mention that he's even run while dressed as Cookie Monster?

Karl, "The Man to Beat"
Karl Schnaitter

While lesser men might be intimated by the prospect of racing one of the world’s most feared legends in the running and/or eating circles, Karl Schnaitter fears no one. And this isn’t mere false bravado; Karl returns this year as the defending vertical beer mile champion and pre-race favorite after having convincingly won the inaugural Big Johnny Vertical Beer Mile Championship last year in dominating fashion. 

Karl is no stranger to winning races. He has an impressive resume that includes wins at Nisene Marks Marathon, Ruth Anderson (50 Mile and 100K), Headlands (50 Mile and 100 Mile) and San Francisco New Year’s Eve 6 Hour. Perhaps more impressively, among his nearly one hundred Strava course records include two of the most prestigious and sought-after segments: the Western States 100 – Hwy 49 to Finish segment, and of course, the Big Johnny’s Uphill Beer Mile Challenge segment.

Big Johnny Burton

Speaking of "Big Johnny" Burton, no one can ever be quite sure what to expect of this highly-unpredictable, yet highly-entertaining athlete. “His race strategies and training methods are unorthodox, if not incomprehensible,” remarked one competitor. He is truly, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” mused another. “He has a penchant for doing the unexpected; so much so that he is – rather ironically – almost predictable in his unpredictability,” explained one other. [Ed: Who are these anonymously quoted sources, and why do they all talk like Winston Churchill?].

Left to right: "Big Johnny" Burton,
Chris "Big Wiener" Eide, Donnie Blameuser
No one knows for certain from whence the nickname “Big Johnny” originated. One report claims that the title was conferred upon him by a Native American Indian chief in acknowledgement of an amazing act of heroism and bravery far too lengthy and convoluted to be recounted here; another legend says the name was whispered to Big Johnny by a Tibetan monk on top of Mount Everest. Others think the moniker is perhaps a stage name from Big Johnny’s brief – albeit highly successful – career as an exotic male dancer.  Skeptics suggest that the name was most likely self-bestowed. 

The one thing pundits can agree on however, is that whenever “Big Johnny” shows up at the starting line of a race, two things are almost certain: 1) He will likely disrobe moments before the start of the race revealing a risqué and garish costume whose tightness is rivaled only by its skimpiness, and 2) It is highly probable that at some point (usually sooner than later) he will launch an explosive, excessively flamboyant attack that – in more cases than not – he will be unable to sustain.

Chris Eide

One runner who no one seems to ever talk about is Chris Eide. He’s always the forgotten man in the pre-race rankings.  Much like Seth Swanson, who finished 2nd in his first Western States race and was then overlooked the following year in the pre-race predictions by the experts (and went on to finish 2nd again that year), Eide – who finished second at last year’s Big Johnny Vertical Beer Mile – isn’t being talked about as one of the favorites to make the podium again this year.

One can only wonder if perhaps the reason people avoid talking about Eide is because no one is quite sure how to pronounce his last name.  Is it pronounced “I’d” like in the contraction of “I would”? Or is it pronounced more like “eddy” in fluid dynamics parlance. Or should we add a silent (and invisible) “s” to the end as in the “Ides of March”?  Who the heck knows!

Amy Burton (top-left), Jenny Lockwood (top-right)
Liz Louie (bottom-left), Tehani Nishiyama (bottom-right)
Women to be reckoned with

On the women’s side of the race, the pre-race favorite has to be Amy Burton who won the women’s two-beer Powder-Puff division last year. However, the word on the street [Ed: I guess more appropriately, the word on the trails] is that Amy hasn’t been doing much training (or racing) due to an Achilles tendinitis injury. That could potentially leave the door open for one of the new women’s entrants toeing the line this year: Jenny Lockwood, Liz Louie, or Tehani Nishiyama – all three of whom are flirting with the idea of eschewing the two-beer Powder-Puff division and mixing it up with the big boys in the full four-beer version of the race!

They’re off and… puking?

At approximately 10:00 am on the morning of January 2, 2016, seventeen brave-and-foolish souls gathered at a remote trail head in the 22,000-acre wilderness of the Diablo Mountain range south of San Jose, California. Towering above them, as they stood in the parking lot clutching their carbonated cans of malted beverages, was a mile-long 1,100 ft. climb with a steep 25% average gradient.

“Oh no. Oh $#*!,” more than one competitor could be heard muttering. And this was before Big Johnny disrobed, revealing the world’s skimpiest and tightest pair of Lycra faux-denim shorts, so snug and form fitting that they appeared to be painted on. At this point several competitors already began suppressing their gag reflex and fighting the urge to hurl, well before any actual beers had been opened or chugged.

And it begins....

A few seconds later the pop-tops were popped and the runners began chugging their beverages and sprinting/hiking/slowly ambling up the mountain. Karl Schnaitter took the early lead, followed immediately by Big Johnny. Slightly further back was a small chase group of a few other runners including Chikara and Chris Eide – who regardless of how you pronounce his name, was dressed in a giant hot dog costume and will henceforth be referred to simply as the “Big Wiener”.

Karl Schnaitter continued leading through the second and third beer “aid stations”, always shadowed closely by Big Johnny who was never more than a few seconds behind. Karl later confessed that his front-running strategy had less to do with race tactics, but more with wanting to avoid having to look at the back of Big Johnny’s ass-tight booty shorts.

The race heats up
Chikara and the Chris “Big Wiener” Eide slowly clawed their way up to the two race leaders, creating an exciting four-man race. Further back, a battle was also brewing in the women’s race. Amy Burton, who was running solo in the two-beer Powder-Puff division, seemed to be in a race of her own [Ed: Technically she was in a race of her own, literally as well as figuratively]. Meanwhile, the three women behind her were steadily chugging and slogging their way up the mountain in a too-close-to-call race for the women’s four-beer division.

Sprint for the finish

As the runners left the final beer station, Karl Schnaitter was still in first place followed closely by Chikara (who had moved up into 2nd place) and Big Johnny in third. Meanwhile Big Wiener seemed to struggle with his last beer (or perhaps he was just overheating a bit in his costume) and slipped slowly back out of contention for the podium. As Karl, Chikara and Big Johnny approached the steepest section of the course with only a few hundred meters left to go, it looked like the race had been sorted out and the finishing order had been determined.

But then inexplicably (or perhaps all too predictably), Big Johnny launched an epic attack, rocketing up past Chikara and Karl into the lead – all the while showboating and celebrating ostentatiously and voraciously as he strode past race camera man, Sean McPherson, who was filming the action. The race was over!

"Big Johnny" launches a virulent attack

Or… was it? Not fazed by Big Johnny’s antics, Karl and Chikara kept their cool and pressed on, suspecting perhaps that Big Johnny may have kicked a bit too soon. Only mere seconds later, clearly gassed out, Big Johnny slowed dramatically and then stepped off to the side of the trail, letting Karl and Chikara pass. Conceding defeat, Big Johnny jogged it in, screaming unsolicited (and generally unhelpful) advice to the two remaining combatants: “Put him in a choke hold Chikara,” and “Use the Force Karl. Use the Force!”

It’s all over but the pukin’

As they approached the finish line at the top of the climb Karl could taste victory. Or maybe it was the Moose Drool brown ale coming back up that he was tasting? Trying to hold off a hard-charging Chikara only steps behind him Karl closed his eyes and sprinted… right past the finish line and championship belt hanging from the tree. Luckily Karl heard Big Johnny call out to turn around and he reversed course just in time to clinch the belt (and the victory) in 17 minutes and 10 seconds.

Chikara crossed the finish line 3 seconds later, seemingly no longer able to even run in a straight line, and immediately collapsed onto the ground… emptying the contents of his root beer-filled belly into the drought-stricken earth. Chikara would later explain that it wasn’t the 5.9% ABV content of his Not Your Father’s Root Beer that caused him to puke, but rather the quick glimpse of Big Johnny’s tight Lycra shorts in his peripheral vision.

Big Johnny sauntered casually up the hill for third place in 17:28, seemingly more concerned with re-adjusting his teeny-tiny shorts (which had steadily ridden up higher than any levels of comfort or public decency would permit) than with his actual finish time. In addition to winning the “Tightest and Most Inappropriate Shorts Award” Big Johnny also laid claim to the Master’s Title (i.e., first old dude). Additionally he also was awarded (Ed: technically I think he awarded himself) the “My Beer is Stronger than Your Beer Award” for his impressive choice of 7% ABV Sculpin IPA.

The aftermath!
Chris “Big Wiener” Eide stumbled across the finish line a minute later in 4th place, after spending some time on the trail pondering to himself the time-old existential-drunk question: “What am I doing with my life?” He later came to terms with himself after realizing that this race was actually perfectly in line with his recent New Year’s Resolution to focus on “quality miles” over quantity. 

Matt Ward, who finished 5th was the first completely sober runner to reach the top, having won the Club Soda category as well as the award for “Best Mullet on a Bald Guy”. Matt too was wondering how his life had come to this. He thought he’d hit bottom years ago, ironically due to chugging too much beer; yet here he was – of sound and sober mind – binge-drinking seltzer water for bragging rights. It really came full circle for him as he watched Chikara vomit while Larry remarked, “look he’s filling a gopher hole.”

Winning the Super Master’s Division (i.e., “First Really Old Dude” Award) was 50 year old, sub 3-hour road-marathoner Larry Neumann. For a roadie accustomed to gentle asphalt bike paths, Larry acquitted himself remarkably well on the steep and rugged dirt trails. Feeling understandably proud of his achievement, he posted a photo – an action shot where he could be seen in the distance behind the leaders battling up the final hill – to the road-runner’s club that he belongs to. Their response was, “So you’re saying you got smoked by a guy in a hot dog suit and a lady walking her dog?” Man, tough crowd!

Amy Burton ran/hiked/walked away with the women’s two-beer Powder-Puff division title with no other woman in sight. This was partially due to her amazing performance and perhaps also partially due to the fact that she was the only woman in the two-beer division. She regrets ever listening to her husband [Ed: Don’t most women regret ever listening to their husbands] Big Johnny who talked her out of attempting the four-beer race. However, she bows to the drinking prowess of Liz Louie, Jenny Lockwood and Tehani Nishiyama, and looks forward to challenging them next year!

King and Queen of the Mountain

In the women’s four-beer division, Liz Louie was the first to cross the finish line, narrowly edging out fellow competitor Jenny Lockwood. There was a moment of confusion and controversy after the race among the “official judges”, all of whom were quite drunk, and none of whom were actual judges in any sort of capacity – official or otherwise. The point of contention was whether the hard strawberry-apple cider consumed by Liz was actually “beer” or not. 

After conferring, the judges ruled, quite decidedly, that strawberry-apple cider is indeed beer – or at least some distant second-cousin-in-law-of-beer-from-another-marriage. And so Liz was awarded the women’s Championship Belt. However, the judges also decreed that – if feasible and time-permitting – an additional women’s championship belt shall be constructed out of empty Budweiser beer cans and presented to Jenny at some nebulously vague future date.

The second annual Big Johnny’s Vertical Beer Mile Inter-Galactic World Championship was a resounding success.  Nobody died (which is always good). And much more importantly, no one had to run a penalty lap for puking during the race [Ed: puking after the race is considered a faux pas but is not penalized].

On top of the world!


“The vertical beer mile was simultaneously the most glorious and the worst idea of my life.” – Liz Louie

“The quote that will stick in my head is Liz Louie saying ‘is this poop or not?’ while batting around a lump of something on the ground with her hand that was most definitely poop (I think).”
– Chikara Omine

“I'd really like to know how exactly Big Johnny found this trail.  With the millions of acres of parkland in the area, he managed to find a segment that was a) crazy steep, b) exactly a mile, c) right off the road.  Does he have a job?” – Zack Steinkamp

"I like the remoteness and difficulty of the course. You could smell the last belch of the competitor in front of you much longer than on a flatter course." – Loren Lewis

“Never had more fun running up a steep trail while getting my ass kicked.  What’s worse than consuming pamplemousse flavored French sparkling water?  Oh yes, getting beaten by a wiener...”
– Thomas Anderson

“I’ve been training for this all year… I embraced the belch and improved my total beer drinking time by almost a minute.  Improving at this rate means I’ll be ready to vie for the podium in about 4 years, if I’m not a raging alcoholic by then.” – Jeff Pace

“I decided to take on this challenging with the joke of going sub 26 minutes.  Well the joke is on me with sub 30 minute mile and DFL.  That was one crazy hill.  I ran maybe 10%, hiked 80% and burped 10%.” – Sam Louie

Click below to watch the race video courtesy Sean McPherson

Vertical Beer Mile Official(ish) Results
Place / Award
 Karl Schnaitter  17:10  Overall Champion
 Chikara Omine  17:13  (Hard) Root Beer Champion
 John Burton  17:28  Master's Champion / IPA Champion
 Chris Eide  18:20  "Biggest Wiener" Award
 Matt Ward  19:16  Club Soda Champion / "Best Mullet" Award
 Zack Steinkamp  20:09  "Loudest Belch" Award
 Larry Neumann  20:17  Super-Master's Champion
 Amy Burton  20:43  Power-Puff (2 Beer) Champion
 Thomas Anderson  22:26 "Most Cutting the Switchbacks" Award
 Jeff Pace  23:43  "Most Improved" Award
 Loren Lewis  24:25  German-Non-Alcoholic-Beer Champion
 Liz Louie  24:44  Women's-Hard-Strawberry-Cider Champion
 Jenny Lockwood  25:12  Women's Actual-Beer Mile Champion
 Dan Nishiyama  25:56  "First Nishiyama Finisher" Award
 Tehani Nishiyama  28:17  "Most Colorful Tights" Award
 Donnie Blameuser  29:xx  "Least Improved" Award
 Sam Louie  29:xx  "Most Room to Improve" Award

Big thanks to official race photographer /
videographer, Sean McPherson