Q&A With Beer Mile World Champion James Nielsen

James Nielsen can finish a beer in about five or six seconds.
James Nielsen can finish a beer in about five or six seconds. Courtesy of James Nielsen
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On an undisclosed track in Marin County last April, James Nielsen, a Bay Area native and two-time NCAA champion at the University of California San Diego, quietly broke a world record coveted in certain running circles: finishing a beer mile in less than five minutes.

In a beer mile, a competitor must finish a 12-ounce beer before each of the four laps on a 400-meter track, with penalties for throwing up. Nielsen did it in 4:57.1, putting him atop the standings at BeerMile.com, the recognized authority on the event, and launching the relatively obscure event into the mainstream.

After Nielsen posted the video of his feat (which his wife, Mimi, took), it went viral, racking up more than a million views just a few days. Stories in places like Runner’s World, ESPN, and TMZ soon followed, and the first-ever Beer Mile World Championships was held in Austin in December. Nielsen also is in the midst of organizing another championship event, which will be held in San Francisco in 2015.

All of which is to say, the beer mile has officially blown up—and Nielsen, whose nickname is "The Beast," is still its official world champion (despite a valiant effort by Canadian Corey Gallagher at the Austin event, with a time of five flat). Here, he speaks with RootsRated about the beer mile: the science behind it, training tips, and what makes it so damn fun.

Nielsen celebrates after finishing his beer mile in 4:57.
Nielsen celebrates after finishing his beer mile in 4:57. Courtesy of James Nielsen

You’ve been doing beer miles for a while. How did you first get into them?

I did my first in college. I don’t want to admit to underage drinking, so let’s just assume I did my first when I was 21. And I did very well. As a senior I ran a 5:17, but I didn’t warm up and I wasn’t wearing spikes. I knew if I put some training into it, I could break five minutes.

What made you want to go for the world record?

I’ve done a beer mile every year since then, which was I guess 14 years ago. I have just gotten back into pretty good mile shape, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to accomplish athletically. The beer mile was something that had been on my mind since then. And I also have had quite a few beers since then, so I figured, why don’t I legitimately train for this and see how fast I can do it? I never imagined it would blow up like it did.

What advice do you have for wannabe beer milers?

People talk a lot about running fast or drinking fast, but one of the biggest limitations is being able to handle that much volume in your stomach. I don’t think people appreciate the difficulty of that. It’s really about that third or fourth beer—what crushes people is when they take a long time to drink those. It’s amazing how many people I know who can slam a beer in five or six seconds, and then when they get to the fourth, it takes a full minute or more. Sometimes, people pre-party before they even start, and you don’t want to do that if you’re taking it seriously. Make sure you go in with an empty stomach. If you’re doing your first beer mile, you just need to crack a beer and practice.

Let’s talk numbers. Can you break down what you should consider when it comes to consumption?

If you’re drinking four beers, right off the bat you have 48 ounces of liquid in your stomach, so you have to be able to contain that. And generally there are between two-and-a-half and three liters of carbon dioxide in each can, so you multiply that by four, and you have approximately 10 liters of carbon dioxide to contend with. If you warm up the beer, the majority of the carbon dioxide will come up to the top, so when you crack it open you get as much of the carbon dioxide out as possible. And on that last lap, you’re trying to burp out as much of that carbon dioxide as you can while you’re running. You’re just so full.

Nielsen shows off some Budweisers, the choice for many beer milers.
Nielsen shows off some Budweisers, the choice for many beer milers. Courtesy of James Nielsen

Since it’s such an important factor, let’s talk a little about vomiting. How bad does it get?

The way the rules are written, if you vomit you have to run a penalty lap, so you just have to run a mile and a quarter. I think people would be shocked to know that the majority of people do end up vomiting in a beer mile, because there’s just too much volume in your stomach, and you’re running, and the fire hose just opens up. At a beer mile, when the first person vomits, often everyone else will start vomiting, too, and it can be pretty disgusting and hilarious for anyone who is spectating. It’s a sight to be seen, for sure.

So how many times have you thrown up in a beer mile?

I’ve actually never thrown up in a beer mile, and I’ve done a lot of them—knock on wood. I have a talent for belching and being able to hold a large volume of beer in my stomach.

Like many elite beer milers, Nielsen prefers Budweiser.
Like many elite beer milers, Nielsen prefers Budweiser. rob_rob2001

Any strategy behind Budweiser as your choice of brew?

I’ve gone with Budweiser plenty of times in the past, but it’s not always my go-to. There are some smaller microbrews that have slightly lower carbon dioxide, but I was confident I could break five [minutes] with Budweiser and I didn’t want anyone confused [with the world record] about, ‘Hey, what kind of beer is that?’ So I went with a brand that everyone would recognize. And it’s the most popular as far as the official beer mile [website] goes.

As with any great accomplishment, there are always the naysayers. What do you make of them?

The fact that I went out there and did it and people still can’t believe it, I take that as a compliment, to be honest. The next time I do it, I will have a lot more people out there watching me. And I look forward to running even faster.

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