When James "The Beast" Nielsen went to bed in Novato, California, on Aug. 6, he was the undisputed leader in the arcane but strangely absorbing world of the beer mile.
Some 16 months earlier, he had downed a tepid Budweiser, sprinted a quarter mile around a deserted local track and, after repeating that gruesome combination three more times, crossed the line in 4:57.0 -- a world record captured on video by his wife, Mimi.
It was a clean run; there was no reversal of fortune, no loss of the 48 ounces Nielsen imbibed that would have resulted in a penalty lap.
And then, on Aug. 7, a 25-year-old Australian named Josh Harris, motivated by Nielsen's epic achievement, ran a scintillating 4:56.2 and posted the effort on YouTube. Later that same day, halfway across the world in Canada, 21-year-old Lewis Kent -- who describes himself as a "kind of average collegiate runner" -- dropped an early evening 4:55.78 in Mississauga, Ontario.
The two performances, stunning in their quality and proximity, set social media aflutter.
In a span of 24 hours, Nielsen's record was reduced to only the third-fastest official beer mile of all time. Naturally, Nielsen is friends with both men and learned of their records almost instantaneously on Facebook.
"I'm excited for them," he told ESPN.com last week, "and it's great for the beer mile community. That being said, I do want to get the record back on Saturday."
So, who's the world's best beer miler? Happily, in this age of instant gratification (and appallingly scant attention spans), we should have a definitive answer Saturday night around 9 p.m. ET.
Welcome to the Beer Mile World Classic, set on Treasure Island, tucked under the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
In a highly anticipated event conceived by Nielsen himself -- along with his good friend, Canadian John Markell, one of the sport's pioneers -- seven of the top nine male racers in history will line up, including that terrible trio of Nielsen, Kent and Harris.
In the women's race, Chris Kimbrough will try to reclaim her world record against another former record holder, Seanna Robinson. Kimbrough was beaten last December in the Flo Track Beer Mile World Championships in Austin, Texas, the first of what may prove to be a spirited series in this rapidly growing, uh, sport.
There also will be a three-way team event, featuring the top three male finishers for the United States, Australia and Canada. In accordance with the egalitarian nature of the sport, local amateurs (of legal drinking age) can sign up and run in heats leading up to the marquee races.
ESPN and ESPN.com will both be on hand to record the festivities.
"It's going to be the best beer mile of all time," Harris said. "There is such a range of different talents in there that on their day could be successful. If you slip up you're going to be beaten by a lot of guys."
One thing that made the Austin event so compelling was the in-race chaos of having a full field of elite runners quaffing and running elbow to elbow. Nielsen's and Harris' record runs were made in the vacuum of a race against the clock, sans competitors. Will these runners race faster with elite company, or will they make a mistake in the jostling sure to occur in the 10-yard drinking zones?
Corey Gallagher, a Manitoba letter carrier for Canada Post, won that inaugural Austin clash in 5:00.2. He famously called out Nielsen for not attending, charging him with cheating when, in the frenzy of the moment, one of his beers was not turned upside down to prove it was empty. Ironically -- or perhaps it's karma -- Gallagher is the one missing from the San Francisco race, despite pleas from race organizers and the promise of free airfare.
"I ended up aggravating a disc in my back at the end of March," explained Gallagher, who runs an average of 70 to 90 miles a week when he's healthy. "The nerve in my leg would go jangly and wanted to buckle every fifth stride or so. It was tough to get healthy because I have to walk so much for my job.
"Slowly, I'm coming back. But I won't be running in San Francisco."
Gallagher, never afraid to be a pot-stirrer, has a theory.
"With all those guys side by side, I can't see anyone holding back. If someone goes out really fast, I can see some of the guys puking. It could get ugly. Personally, I don't think the world record will be broken."
For the love of the sport
Even in the eccentric, eclectic world of the beer mile, Patrick Butler stands out.
"I think there's an element of danger that might be lacking in distance running," the sardonic Butler said when interviewed by ESPN earlier this year.
He's right. Part of the beauty and majesty of the beer mile -- it's human nature -- is watching the combatants attempt to manage all that carbonation in the tight confines of the human stomach. It's virtually impossible to breathe and burp at the same time. It's almost like watching a NASCAR race, waiting for the inevitable crash.
"You want to see people fail," Butler added, "and fail miserably."
Butler is the founder and proprietor of Beermile.com. Long before ESPN, CNN and the Wall Street Journal's front page caught the fever, Butler was a believer. And although he didn't ask for the job, he has grown every bit as powerful in his narrow domain as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is in the football world.
"Well," said Butler, pausing, "maybe it's more like Spider-Man. With great power comes great responsibility. I think the beer mile culture is more in the spirit of a superhero. I do it for the love of the sport."
The last line was offered in self-deprecating, deadpan fashion, but Butler finds himself as the ultimate arbiter in a burgeoning sport that has heretofore resisted the icy fingers of authority.
Now, with challenges coming on an almost daily basis and sometimes filmed with poor equipment or under dubious circumstances, Butler and his website do their best to attempt a loose oversight. One of the biggest issues is how much leftover beer is acceptable in the vessel. Butler's rule of thumb, as it were, is a finger's width of foam.
Records are verified (or not) and the results are displayed prominently, along with the nearly 90,000 others from around the world. You can also find the rules, plus records for virtually every jurisdiction, including by country, state, age, gender, beer type, etc.
Butler was a cross country runner and computer major at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and has a real day job, as the founder of the start-up Talent Inc., a 30-person New York-based company that analyzes and writes professional resumes.
In the past, he's spent a lot of time looking at tape but recently changed to a "consensus" rating, in which readers can vote on records in question. Sixty percent gets you on the official list. Butler dreams of the day he can bring on interns to help with verification and those mounting media inquiries, often a dozen a day, including a recent email from a secondary school in China wondering what it needed to do to host an event.
There are some in the beer mile community who see the San Francisco race as a watershed event for the sport. They envision a day when the beer mile takes its place along television staples like poker, mixed martial arts and competitive eating.
"It's kind of already there," Butler said. "The winner in Austin was paid $2,500 and could have the same for a world record. Eventually, when people start to grasp it, overcoming the stigma of binge drinking won't be difficult. There's no reason to think it couldn't end up on ESPN every year.
"Like arena football, if the money's out there ..."
Into the mainstream
For John Markell, there is a retro feel to this Beer Mile World Classic.
More than 25 years ago, he was one of the sport's originators. Markell was part of the group of Canadian harriers who developed the Kingston Rules, first at Burlington Central High School in Ontario and later at Queen's University in Kingston. The Kingston Classic was code for a beer mile race that didn't throw up a red flag for authorities. When he moved to California, Markell brought the "classic" to the West Valley Track Club.
Now, it's no longer necessary to disguise.
"I'm the link from the past to the present of the beer mile," said Markell, a San Francisco investment banker who has worked with Nielsen and race producer Nick MacFalls to pull this off.
He's 42 years old and can still rip a 6-flat beer mile. He'll be running in the masters race.
"I can put my beers down," Markell said, not unproudly. "I'm from Canada."
The organizers have been aggressive, tracking down most of the big beer mile players. Technically, Kent, Harris and Nielsen have run the three fastest times ever, but there is an asterisk. There always is in this sport.
Back in April, 21-year-old Australian James "Jimbo" Hansen threw down four Coopers 62s and ran a 4:56.25 in his hometown of Launceston, Tasmania. But there appeared to be some significant spillage when he tossed the fourth bottle. Unofficially, it is history's third-fastest time, but it hasn't been verified.
Hansen, a candidate for the Australian Olympic team in 2016 in the 1,500 meters, originally committed to the San Francisco event, but it is believed his coaches discouraged his participation. In any case, he won't be running.
Neither will American Nick Symmonds, who placed fifth in the 800 meters at the London Olympics and has a personal best of 5:19 in the beer mile.
After Kent, Harris and Nielsen, the runner mentioned most often is 23-year-old Minnesotan Brian Anderson, who knocked off a searing 5:05 two days after the pair of world records. American Michael Cunningham (5:07.9) and Canadian Jim Finlayson are the only other men to have cracked 5:10.
Elizabeth Herndon, a 29-year-old professor and marathoner from Kent, Ohio, who set the world record of 6:17.8 in Austin, is currently working in Europe and won't be in the women's field.
Butler has added a feature this week to his Beermile.com website allowing visitors to vote for their favorites, and an Australian betting outfit, Sportsbet.co.au, has established actual odds. As of Monday, Nielsen was the marginal favorite, ahead of Kent, Harris and Cunningham. You can also wager whether or not you think one of the elite runners will toss his cookies midrace. Kimbrough is a strong favorite on the women's side.
Nielsen, for one, is excited the day is finally upon him. Eight months after he set the record, he watched from California as a loaded (but non-Aussie) field tried to eclipse his standard. Now, he'll finally discover how he measures up to the rabid young crowd he helped to inspire.
"To be honest," Nielsen wrote in an email Monday, "I'm surprised the record lasted as long as it did.
"I think Kent, Harris and I can all go a lot faster."
Said Kent: "I'd be shocked if somebody doesn't race faster than my [record] time," Kent said. "It is so tight, This race could end I could be fourth in the world again."