Runners chase their suds at inaugural Beer Mile Invitational in Sebastopol

Canned or bottled? Warm or chilled? Beer brand. Pour angle. Cap-removal technique. Post-race hurl.

There’s a lot more to running and drinking than the average person might suspect.

But these were no mere amateurs participating Saturday in the inaugural Beer Mile Invitational at The Barlow in Sebastopol.

These were elite racers, some of the world’s fastest.

They are fully conditioned, skilled in guzzling suds at a fast walk, schooled in the art of breath control and trained to burp just enough to ease pressure but not let loose completely. (There’s a penalty lap, if you do.)

“People actually practice this stuff,” said Garrett Cullen, 24, a mechanical engineer from Mountain View and second-place finisher in the men’s event Saturday. A decidedly sober 10-K race was held earlier in the day, with both events part of a two-day beer and musical festival at The Barlow.

Brandon Shirck, Saturday’s winner and U.S. record holder in the event, said, “We’ve thought about this way too much.”

The former Cal Poly runner’s blazing best time is far from a tipsy stagger: 4 minutes and 47 seconds.

The fast-growing sport - complete with rules, ranking and tons of press - comes with serious competition, with actual trophies and a shot at cash prizes.

The best finish in under 5 minutes.

The basics: Chug a beer and a run a quarter-mile, stopping three more times after each lap to throw back another brew, for a total of four by the end.

Beer, run. Beer, run. Beer, run. Beer, run. Like that.

Each beer must be ?12 ounces and contain at least 5 percent alcohol. No big-mouths, straws, aids or shotgunning allowed.

And you can’t leave the “chug zone” at the starting line or in the transition between laps until your bottle or can is empty. It will be checked.

So each race begins oddly, with runners starting off at a walk, their heads tipped as they knock one back as fast as possible before they begin to sprint.

The beauty for fans is it combines two beloved pastimes.

It may look easy, but think again, racers say.

“It’s hard,” said Cullen, whose day job involves designing satellites. “It’s objectively hard.”

The problem isn’t the alcohol, which generally hits hardest after the race - its intoxicating effects ascending as the pain recedes, Shirck said.

The challenge is drinking fast enough to be a contender, holding your breath in order to swallow while your muscles beg you to breathe.

Then there’s the bloating and sloshing, a major discomfort for many, which explains why some deliberately vomit somewhere past the finish line.

“Everyone talks about the runner’s high,” said third-place finisher John Markell, a pioneer of the sport who traces his participation back nearly a quarter of a century, years before the adoption of formal rules and international competitions. “This is more intense than anything. There’s not one single step where you’re comfortable.”

Racers bring their own beer. In America, anyway, they are partial to Bud in a bottle, its light carbonation compatible with the task at hand.

With beer from a can, said Shirck, 28, “you have to suck it out,” though some folks prefer it.

San Francisco runner Lyndsay Harper packs Budweiser bottles and cans, the bottle for round one, and cans for the remaining three because “I’m bad at drinking from a bottle.”

There are some who like their beer slightly warm, others slightly chilled, the latter being most preferred, said expert Nick McFalls, Beer Mile expert and co-founder of the Beer Mile World Classic, touted as the “World’s Premier Drinking Race.”

“What you don’t want is a foaming beer. You can’t control it,” McFalls said, recalling an Australian who brought his beer to the race on the plane.

“When he opened his beer, he was done.”

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