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Benefield: In Sebastopol's Beer Mile, it's all about the chug

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“I know exactly how ridiculous this sounds.”

John Markell of San Francisco is talking me through pour angles, foam-to-liquid transformation, the mechanics of swallowing and preferred belch size (he likes “large, clean burps rather than a whole series of tiny, little foamy ones”). It’s the science behind the art of a successful beer mile.

And no, it’s not ridiculous. It’s awesome.

Markell, 45, said a reporter once dubbed him an “early pioneer” of the beer mile, a description he said fits better than godfather or inventor, which he has also been called. He didn’t invent the thing, he was just one of a gaggle of teammates at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada in the early ’90s who put on paper the rules and regulations (later to be dubbed “The Kingston Rules” by ardent disciples) for a race that followed the college cross country season for years.

It had been a season-ending tradition among his cross country teammates: four beers in four laps. It has since become something of a global phenomenon. There is a website with records and crucial information like most popular beer of choice. There is a world championship event every year.

And the spectacle comes to Sebastopol Saturday as part of the IPA10K and Beer Mile event at The Barlow. At 11:50 a.m., the top women race in the invitational beer mile and at 12:20 p.m. some of the best beer milers on the planet will drink four beers and race four laps around The Barlow.

This is no fun run. There are rules. And they are strictly enforced and roughly as follows: Four beers (must be at least 12 ounces and 5% alcohol) must be consumed without leaving more than the allotted amount behind. One beer at the gun, and one beer before each successive lap. The beers must be consumed in the “chug zone” roughly the size of the relay hand-off zone in track.

Officials analyze the empties to check for too much left over.

Athletes choose their own brand of beer and can go either bottle or can. But apparently using a can is a fool’s errand — according to Markell, who has become a bit of an beer mile sage to the next generation of racers.

“A can, unless you are sucking it, takes about nine seconds,” he said. “Especially the third beer, and certainly the fourth, you can’t really hold your breath for more than seven seconds.”

That means gasping for air while drinking, which can lead to a reversal of fortune, right? Vomiting, per Kingston rule No. 10, requires a competitor to run a penalty lap — so for the serious contenders, it’s a game changer.

Markell said that rarely happens in the chug zone — the area in which racers grab, open, down and drop their beers. What happens in the chug zone is pure grace if done correctly.

What beer milers do, the good ones, is not really chug, but — yes — become one with the beer.

“Imagine someone with their mouth wide open,” he begins. “They are just pouring the beer in their mouth. For that first sip while that is happening, while your gullet fills up, you take a breath in and you swallow.”

And then, and only then, do you chug. “The rhythm is important.”

I’m trusting Markell as an expert. He has never puked at one of these events. Ever.

Markell points to American Garrett Cullen, a scientist who looks like an artist at work in the chug zone. His grab, twist-off of the cap and pour is essentially one motion. It’s not unusual to see racers wearing gardening gloves to prevent slippage when opening bottles.

“If you slip and you miss and it doesn’t come off, you have to change your breathing,” he said. “If you start chugging on the inhale, it’s a disaster.”

I can only imagine.

Cullen is slated to race Saturday. So is Markell, and so, too, is the current world record holder, Canadian Corey Bellemore. Bellemore, 24, would be the 2018 world titleholder too, if he hadn’t left half an ounce of too much of beer — total, between all four bottles — on the table at the 2018 Beer Mile World Classic in Vancouver. Only four ounces can be left unconsumed for a racer’s time to be valid, according to Runner’s World magazine.

According to BeerMile.com, the “Official BeerMile Resource” (there is such a thing), Bellemore’s fastest officially clocked time is 4:33.

Bellemore makes more money in beer mile events than he does as an elite runner trying to make the Canadian national team heading to the Tokyo Olympics. He’s legit. He ran the 1,500 meters in 3:49.35 at the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford University on Thursday.

He’s got sponsors. Adidas, for one, and Flying Monkeys beer in Ontario, Canada for another. The brewery’s motto — one of them, at least — is “Normal is weird.”

Bellemore set his first two world records with a different beer. When Flying Monkeys picked him up, he had to sample a few to find just the right brew that goes down and stays down.

“Something that is smooth,” he said. “Not necessarily light, just not an extra after-taste that triggers you.”

He’s currently working with the amber ale.

He, too, like most of the elite racers on the circuit, is a bottle guy.

“It comes out a little quicker,” he said. “I feel I don’t really have a gag reflex.”

An ex-collegiate runner, Bellemore clearly has athletic gifts. But he wondered aloud if perhaps there is more to his success with the beer mile.

“I don’t know if it’s genetic,” he said. “I have never thrown up and never felt the urge.”

In fact, he compared the feeling of running with 48 ounces of beer in his belly like eating a medium sized meal and then training.

For Markell, whose performances listed under the moniker John “Sparkle” Markell litter the BeerMile.com age group leaderboard, it’s not what your pour — it’s how you pour it that makes four beers easier to carry around in your gut for that final lap. He calls his stomach a steel trap.

“Most of us know now to chug. We learn that in college,” he said.

The chug zone brings a different challenge. For Markell, it’s almost a synchronized dance. His grab for the beer, the twist of the top — it’s all synced up with his steps and his breathing. And he’s not alone in his study of what works and what doesn’t.

“I get called for advice all the time,” he said.

“Listen to me very clearly,” he said. “They all study this. They all practice this. They try different beers. They try different pours.”

But for an ex-college athlete like Markell, the beer mile sounds like a way to stay in the game. He’s still incredibly fast — he’ll represent Canada at the Beer Mile World Classic on Aug. 3 in Berlin — but adding the trick of four beers keeps him in the competition.

“I’m 45; I’m not 25. I don’t have that speed,” he said. “In college I was like a 4:10 miler, now I’m lucky if I’m a 4:40, 4:30 miler.”

So he gets his advantage in the chug zone.

“What is your angle of pour? All of these things matter. The more aggressive the tilt, the more foam there is going to be,” he said. “I know for me, it’s four big gulps. I know that. I have done it so many times, it’s ingrained.

“When you are my age, you have to have this s--- nailed down,” he said.

There is prize money in beer mile events. The total prize pool is $1,500 and men’s and women’s race winners will each get $400 at Saturday’s race, according to organizer Matt Dockstader. There’s enough in prize purses out there that it keeps a guy like Bellemore in beer mile races in between meets that advance his Olympic dreams.

Plus, it’s fun.

He’s raced the Barlow event before. It’s a blast, he said.

“It’s a really, really cool event,” he said. “It’s a highlight of the beer festival and party. We are the show, I guess; the entertainment.”

As such, it’s probably not uncommon for a yokel to sample a few too many beers and think they can pull off what Bellemore or Markell do. But it’s harder than it looks, Bellemore said.

“You think it’s going to be fun, but it’s uncomfortable,” he said.

But then, the muscles start to cool and the breathing slows, the endorphin high of a great run, and perhaps a great win, starts to kick in. And then, something else kicks in.

“It’s an extra sense of happiness,” Bellemore said. “Because you are a little tipsy.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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