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“You’ve gotta beat Walmsley.”
Kim glared at me as her car blasted us with heat and we warmed cold cans of Coors Banquets under our armpits. We supposed that warm beer would go down faster than cold beer.
Through fogged windows, I looked at rain dumping on the former mining town of Silverton, Colorado.
On the eve of the Hardrock 100, pacers, crew and spectators have a tradition – a beer mile. The tradition began in 2014 when a group of Hardrockers tested their drinking skills on a track a week before the main event. The following week, those not competing in Hardrock gathered to do the same. Though not part of the weekend’s official events, the Hardrock Beer Mile has been a yearly ritual ever since.
Competitors run four laps on a track, drinking a beer before each lap. Runners must show they’ve finished their beer by holding the can or bottle upside down before continuing on to the next lap.
In 2016, Jim Walmsley crashed onto the ultra scene, winning seven races, smashing five course records and demolishing the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim and Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim fastest known times (FKTs) in one run.
But at the 2016 Hardrock beer mile, a penalty lap (awarded to runners unable to keep the beer down before crossing the finish line) derailed him.
This July, Walmsley was back, spending the month training in the San Juan Mountains and pacing his friend, James Bonnett, at Hardrock.
My friend Kim had run her first beer mile earlier that month, and crossed the line with no penalty laps. But Walmsley, who had spectated, proclaimed her feat “nothing to brag about.”
Now nursing a knee injury, and having had her fill of intoxicated running for the month, she recruited me for redemption.
I got my running abilities from my Dad, but my drinking abilities from my Mom. When my father introduced her to peppermint-schnapps flavored beer, she not only kept up with his buddies, but ordered a second round while foam settled in their mugs. Like my mother, I discovered my aptitude for beer guzzling in college, when injuries sent me expunging competitive energies at a keg.
But that was 15 years ago, and I was now 35 years old. Not only had I stopped chugging beers—I had also stopped running in circles.
The rain stopped and a crowd collected near the track. With beers in hand, I sauntered over. I flung a foot to my butt, bobbed to my toes and yanked my left elbow over my head.
“There he is.” Kim elbowed me.
A towering, sinewy body floated across the parking lot. He had recently shed his long locks, and I wondered if this would give him even more of an edge. He tugged his socks up to mid-shin and slipped into a blue t-shirt.
“I better warm up.” I handed Kim my beers.
When I returned to the budding crowd, I skipped in place as if I were an over-cranked toy soldier. Tall, wiry athletes surrounded me. The field was stacked. Stacked with ultra runners.
We shuffled to the start. Veterans placed their cans along the inside of the track. Novices, like me, set beers on the exterior. Walmsley’s beers sat on the inside.
Before I could get one more look at him, cans were popping.
I’d hoped chugging would be like riding a bicycle. It wasn’t.
Chaos erupted as cans splattered and runners launched across the line. My can was still a quarter full when the first woman forged ahead. By the time I held my can heavenward, she was over 100 meters down the track. I didn’t know where Walmsley was, so I chased her. My esophagus bubbled with each step.
Unlike chugging, running in circles is akin to riding a bicycle. Muscle memory kicked in. I crested the second turn, and announced my arrival to the lead woman with a melody of belches.
I retrieved my second beer, and zoned in on the golden liquid. The woman was off before me again, but this time she had just over 50 meters on me.
I slid past her on the first turn. My burps and speed crescendoed in unison. I looked up to find Walmsley, and saw his blue shirt chugging a beer. I didn’t know if it was his second or third.
Kim hopped along. “You’re beating Walmsley!”
Question answered. Just maintain your lead, I told myself.
After two beers in less than five minutes, I was buzzed enough to consume the warm liquid as if it tasted good. I lifted the can in the air like a trophy and flung into another lap ahead of the second woman.
I fell into some semblance of a rhythm and passed two more runners.
Then came beer four.
I clenched my left hand on my swelled stomach. Not only were there 36 ounces of beer sloshing—there was also a salad I had consumed one hour before race start. I met each gulp with a roaring belch and infinite gratitude that what churned in my stomach stayed put.
Thank you, Mom, I thought as I emptied the last can.
I hurled into the final lap.
With half a lap to go, I slammed into a sea of warm molasses. Prickles danced from my feet up my legs through my midsection to my arms, while my abdomen gurgled and groaned.
My strides slackened as I stumbled over the washed-out white finish line with hands in the air, and then tumbled to the infield where I heaved my now-chopped and Coors-Banquet-dressed salad.
Kim ran to my side. “First woman and you crushed Walmsley!”
I turned to see him with one hand on a jutted hip, glaring at a beer as if it had just told him a distasteful joke. He would finish in 19:55, 10 minutes 9 seconds after I crossed the line.
As I wiped the remnants of lunch from my chin, I thought maybe it was time to come out of retirement and see what my legs had left in them.
Or maybe that was just the Colorado Kool-Aid talking.