Lewis Kent is a genial 21-year-old from Mississauga, Ontario, which sits outside Toronto and is Canada's sixth-largest city. For weeks, Kent had planned to run a beer mile with friends on Aug. 7. His goal was to break 5 minutes, something that seemed eminently do-able based on his recent, increasingly spectacular results.
But when he woke that morning, three texts from friends informed him that earlier that same day an Australian named Josh Harris had set a new world record, a blistering 4:56.20. As Kent watched the YouTube video, disappointment washed over him.
"I was like, 'Dammit, that’s a legitimate world record, right there'" Kent told ESPN.com last week. "'Crap, that’s my shot at a world record.'"
Nevertheless, he watched it again, timing out the splendid splits of Harris -- the time, in seconds, Harris required to guzzle a 12-ounce beer and run a quarter mile, times four. And then with old-school paper and pen, Kent worked out the numbers he would need to set a brand-new record:
The Smithsonian Institution will be disappointed to know that the worn, wrinkled piece of white paper -- the beer mile’s Dead Sea Scrolls, if you will -- has been lost to history. Fortunately, one of Kent’s friends kept the image he sent out as a joke that afternoon, with the words "World record" in red and an arrow pointing to Harris’ time: 4:56.20.
And below it, in white, “How I’m going to beat it,” with another arrow pointing to his projected time: 4:54.80.
There was a time when news of world records in track and field took days to circulate around the world, but that's so yesterday. Growing interest in the curiously captivating beer mile, in particular, has been sparked by social media and the Internet. Californian James Nielsen, who held the world record for more than 15 months, learned of Harris’ epic accomplishment through Facebook.
The escalating arms race that has become the beer mile will come to a head, as it were, Saturday in San Francisco.
Nielsen and some friends have brought together some of the world’s elite athletes for the Beer Mile World Classic. Nielsen, who hasn’t run publicly since posting his world record effort, heads a loaded field that includes Harris, Kent and another handful of talented beer milers; seven of the top nine runners on record are expected to be on hand.
“Credit James for bringing [the beer mile] out,” Kent said from Canada. “When he went under five minutes it was almost like Roger Bannister going under four minutes in the mile.”
Unlike Nielsen, a two-time NCAA 5,000-meter champion at the University of California at San Diego, Kent was a relatively undecorated athlete. Last April, at the age of 19, in his first year as a legal drinker in Canada, Kent ran his first beer mile at the end of the indoor track season with some teammates at the University of Western Ontario.
He finished fourth, in 6:11.
Watching Nielsen’s video afterward, Kent couldn’t fathom how he ran more than a full minute faster.
“I said, 'Holy hell, that’s incredible,’ ” Kent said. “How was it physically possible to run that fast with all that beer? By the time I got to my third and fourth beer I didn’t puke, but I was incredibly uncomfortable.
“If I show up to an average road race I can finish among the top guys, but I didn’t expect to come anywhere near five minutes at any point.”
But, it turns out, the 6-foot-4, 175-pound (depending on the day) athlete has the frame and the hardy constitution necessary for beer mile success. Heading into his fourth and final year of university, he runs cross country and track but he is not the best on the school’s teams; his personal best for 1,500 meters is 3:58, roughly a 4:15 mile.
After a few more tries in the fall, Kent got it down to 5:19, an Ontario province record, prompting an invitation to the first beer mile championships in Austin, Texas, this past December. He ran a disappointing 5:30 and finished fifth as Corey Gallagher took gold with run of 5:00 flat. Kent blames the beer.
“I went with Budweiser Platinum, but I should have brought my own,” he explained. “This time, I’m traveling with Amsterdam Blonde, from my local Toronto brewery.”
Fast forward to August and Harris’ record effort. Upon reflection and a study of the bare numbers, Kent began to believe he could, in fact, achieve a world record. The video of his run that day has a charming bootleg quality that epitomizes the innocent nature of the amateur beer mile. It’s dusk, a gorgeous sunset, when Kent starts the race with a group of friends, his four beers arranged on a wooden stool.
Young men and women laugh and drink beer as Kent, a study in seriousness, wheels around the track. They are clearly unaware that they are about to witness history. Kent is so smooth, drinking and striding, in the waning light that his run looks almost leisurely.
His splits were nearly identical to the times he wrote down earlier in the day: 6.0/62.8, 8.6/67.5, 8.3/67.9, 9.3/64.9.
The total was .98 of a second slower than he had hoped for, but a world record nevertheless, at 4:55.78.
It likely will stand for at least another several days.
“Could be two world records within 24 hours,” says Kent, still gasping for air, as he approaches the camera. “See you at the World Classic, guys.”