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Suds on the Singletrack

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Beer is a huge part of trail running culture. But is it a healthy relationship?

Photo by Kate BorkowskiCreative Commons 2.0

Beer—it’s everywhere. Especially at trail races.

Is it because a stout day on the trails merits a wind-down only a good stout can provide? Is it because craft beer is taking off across the board, not just in the trail-running world? Or is it because trail running is really half-running, half-socializing?

Whatever the reason, trail runners seem to love beer. It’s a favorite staple at the post-race party, and pros regularly talk about their favorite brews (or swig one in a post-race interview). A few are even sponsored by breweries.

Beer can be fun, not to mention tasty. But it’s a complex story. Alcohol is a drug—a depressant—and overindulgence can hinder performance and recovery. Plus, not everyone can enjoy a drink worry-free: trail running’s ranks include plenty of people who choose to abstain, for a variety of reasons.

We talked to several high-profile members of the trail running community—athletes, media personalities and race directors—to get their take on beer: their favorite kind, why they drink it (or don’t) and whether trail running’s love of the brew is in a healthy place.

Why beer?

This one is easy.

“Um, because it tastes good!” says Sage Canaday, 29, of Boulder, Colorado, who in December won The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile in San Francisco. “It’s something that is relaxing and something I enjoy indulging in after a long day of training.”

Stephanie Howe and Rob Krar, the female and male winners of the 2014 Western States 100, echo Canaday’s love of the taste, and added a few more reasons they love beer.

Howe, 31, of Bend, Oregon, says beer also helps her enjoy those moments outside of training. “I definitely don’t need beer to feel relaxed and happy, but it sure does exaggerate those feelings,” she says. “Plus, I think having a drink is a very social thing … it’s a good way to connect with others.”

Krar, 38, of Flagstaff, Arizona, says his now-wife Christina introduced him to the craft-beer scene after they met in 2009. “More and more, [beer] is a reward after a productive and often long day … [which] lends itself to mountain sports culture,” he says. But “I wasn’t running a step when my wife introduced me to the world of craft beer after that fateful summer of 2009, so I think I’d be enjoying it regardless.”

A match made in Heaven (or Colorado, Oregon or California)

The “mountain sports culture” Krar identifies as especially conducive to imbibing encompasses a wide swath of outdoor athletes, both hard-core and recreational: runners, climbers, bikers, paddlers and so on.

Ian Sharman, 34, of Walnut Creek, California, says ultrarunners seem to partake more often than those other athletes. So what about trail and ultrarunning specifically seems to pair so well with beer?

“I think it just fits in with a chilled outlook on life and a good balance between the focus on running and being able to relax,” says Sharman, who won the 2013 Leadville 100 en route to setting a new time record in the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning.

If there is a face (or voice) of the intersection of beer and trail-running culture, it might be Eric Schranz, 40, of Sacramento, California. The host of Ultrarunner Podcast, Schranz asks every guest on his show to name their favorite beer.

Schranz says many trail runners drink beer because, like running, “it’s accessible, relatively inexpensive and a great social activity.” He stresses the financial aspect: “Good beer—even great beer—is something that blue-collar folks can afford, and much of this sport is still made up of people who work for a living and don’t fancy spending $100 on a bottle of mediocre wine,” he says.

Canaday says it helps that many of the epicenters of trail running in the United States happen to be hubs of the exploding craft-beer scene. “[Beer is] ingrained in the states that I’ve lived and trained in—Oregon, upstate New York and Colorado,” he says.

Both Canaday and Krar are sponsored by breweries in their hometown: Canaday by Avery Brewing and Krar by Wanderlust Brewing. The two athletes say their partnership is at least partially rooted in their respective breweries’ tendency to give back to the local running community. Wanderlust supports Team Run Flagstaff, while Avery donates beer to several races and running events in and around Boulder.

But Krar says his partnership with Wanderlust is driven primarily because its founders are his friends and neighbors. “Representing local business allows me to feel more connected to my town, my friends and my home,” he says. “I have so much respect for the risks and challenges the owners of two of my local sponsors—Wanderlust Brewing and Flag Buzz Coffeehouse—have taken to chase their dreams. They inspire me to do the same and, I hope, in turn, inspire those whose paths I may cross.”

Meanwhile, Max King, 34, says his hometown of Bend, Oregon, has too many options—over 20 breweries, according to both he and Howe—to choose just one. “I’ve thought about a beer sponsorship but I’ve avoided one so I can drink as many different kinds of beer as possible,” says the winner of the 2011 World Mountain Running Championships. “In the land of beer that is Bend, it’s too tough to choose just one brewery.”

How much—and how often?

Of the athletes we talked to, Canaday imbibes the most frequently, with one drink per night, usually accompanying dinner.

“There are maybe two times a year at a big party where I’ll overindulge, but … compared to my younger years I’m a bit more careful with when to cut things off,” he says. “As a pro [mountain/ultra/trail] runner I have an obligation to take care of my body and make sure that I also stay hydrated, as well as not do anything that will hurt my performances. I don’t believe that the amount that I drink now does hurt my performances.”

Howe says she drinks a couple of nights per week, and Krar says a beer or two each night might happen, but only on the weeks he is not working—he works a seven-days-on, seven-days-off graveyard shift at a pharmacy—effectively keeping him dry half the year.

Schranz and Sharman both drink regularly but say they often abstain for long periods prior to races or during heavy training. “[It will] clean out my body and really give me something to work for,” says Schranz.

But can it hurt your running?

Sharman is frank: “I’ve done plenty of hard training runs hungover and it’s still possible to do them at a very decent level, but not at 100%.”

He says the same addictive personality which allows him to dedicate himself to training for ultras means he tends to go all-in when he likes something—including beer. “I certainly enjoy more beers than are healthy for me sometimes,” he says. “I could probably be a better runner if I didn’t drink, but the same applies for other imperfect aspects of my diet, like eating some processed foods and drinking Coke Zero.”

“However, life’s too short not to enjoy it, and I think I generally have a good balance,” he adds.

While oft-cited research suggests a drink or two per night can have moderate health benefits for runners and non-runners alike, some studies indicate that alcohol, as a diuretic that can lessen blood flow and slow protein synthesis, is detrimental to athletes’ recovery. In other words, that notion that beer is the perfect “recovery” beverage might be delusional.

“Ultrapedestrian” Ras Jason Vaughan, 43, of Seattle, says he has no problem with fellow runners choosing to drink after races, but is troubled by the adoption of the “beer-as-recovery-drink” notion into the conventional wisdom of running, which could lead runners to unwittingly take actions that are detrimental to their own running and health.

“The effects of alcohol aren’t a matter of opinion, they’re a matter of biochemistry,” Vaughan says of studies and articles that seem to one week tout the benefits of alcohol and warn of its drawbacks the next. “The misconception that ‘one week it’s good, one week it’s bad’ is the exact falsehood I find so troubling.”

Others defend alcohol’s use by pointing out too much of anything—be it alcohol, food or even running—is a bad thing. Does that mean they need to be avoided entirely? Ask any runner what they think of articles suggesting we abstain from running because too much running can be harmful, and you’ll have your answer.

“It’s not so much that beer itself is the problem, but more so the amount consumed … if you were to overconsume ice cream after running, the results would be similar,” says Howe, a PhD candidate in nutrition and exercise physiology. Plus, she adds, “Alcohol can cause us to make poor food choices … beer and nachos anyone? Most bars don’t serve beer with a side of kale salad.”

“Having a beer with dinner or after a long run is not a problem as long as you also take the necessary steps to recover,” Howe continues. “Hydrate, eat nutrient-dense food and drink in moderation.”

Krar echoes Sharman’s appreciation for the finer things as well as Howe’s call for moderation. “I’m not under the illusion that beer is the healthiest beverage out there, but personally, I feel enjoying a beer or two each night lends itself to a well-balanced and gratifying lifestyle for myself,” he says. “Like most things in life, moderation is key. It’s important to find a balance and embrace life to the fullest.”

The elephant at the post-race party

A lot of people can’t drink, of course. Or won’t, for a lot of reasons.

Any group big enough will have in its ranks some people who struggle with addiction and alcoholism, and who are sober and in recovery. Trail running has a lot of recovering addicts—maybe a higher proportion than the population at large, but the anonymity that often accompanies recovery means we can only speculate—who have found in the sport a new outlet for their energy or a new support system with the other runners they’ve met.

Multiple high-profile athletes and race directors have well-documented pasts with addiction and recovery. Nike Trail Elite team member and 2014 USA Track & Field 50 Mile Trail Champion Chris Vargo, 33, of Flagstaff, Arizona, struggled with alcoholism previously and has been sober for several years. Timothy Olson, 31, of Boulder, Colorado, was addicted to alcohol, cocaine and ecstasy before he started running and won the 2012 and 2013 Western States 100; he says he is still able to enjoy the occasional gluten-free beer or glass of wine.

As runners in recovery are likely to be present at any trail race, is it a problem when beer becomes a ubiquitous part of finish-line culture?

“As an alcoholic and drug addict with 20 years clean and sober, I have to remind myself that this is my reality, not everyone else’s,” says John Storkamp, 35, of Hastings, Minnesota, an ultrarunner and race director of the Zumbro, Afton and Superior Trail Races in Minnesota. “I personally don’t miss drinking alcohol and don’t feel like I am missing out when I see others that are. It’s a part of life, it’s everywhere and I better be okay with that.”

Olson also says he is not offended when others partake at races. “I feel we all have freedom of choice; however, it’s kind to show respect to everyone, including yourself,” he says. “So moderation at events shows respect to all the people giving their time, and the different forest [lands], parks and private lands others are gracious enough to let us use. We should all just show appropriate respect and be aware of how our actions affect others.”

Of the beer-drinking athletes we talked to, most said they had no qualms about partaking in public after a race, but that moderation and respect are key. “We have a great community made up of individuals with all sorts of strengths and challenges,” says Krar. “I support those in my life who are in recovery and I don’t think my beer sponsorship or an appreciation of beer enjoyed in moderation is at odds with that in any way.”

Schranz, meanwhile, says he does not feel uneasy touting the role of beer in trail-running culture, despite the presence of recovering alcoholics. “I’ll always ask, ‘What’s your favorite beer?’ at the end of the podcast, because it’s still an interesting question,” he says. “Some [recovering alcoholics] answer as if they still pine for a beer, while others say they want nothing to do with it. I’ve got a history of alcoholism in my family and am certainly sensitive to the disease, but asking about or talking about beer doesn’t seem too harmful.”

The pros’ favorite beers

Taking a cue from Schranz, we asked all of the beer-drinkers we talked to for this article to name their favorite beer, or type of beer. Here’s what they said:

Sage Canaday: “Right now it’s the Avery Brewing Maharajah. I’m a sucker for double IPAs.” (Written while enjoying an imperial stout, according to Canaday.)

Stephanie Howe: “I prefer a stout or Belgian-style brew, although I do like the RPM by Boneyard Brewery in Bend, a really popular IPA. It’s hoppy, but smooth. My favorite brewery in Bend is Crux. They have so many different beers and all of them are delicious. Oh, and I do enjoy PBR after a long run sometimes. No judging!”

Max King: “I like a good dark stout best.”

Ian Sharman: “I particularly like Belgian beers and my favorite is Double Cross from Crux Fermentation Project in Bend, Oregon.”

Rob Krar: “Wheat beers have long been high on my list with one of my favorites being the seasonal Dunkelweizen from Wanderlust Brewery here in Flagstaff. More recently, stouts and porters have found their way into my glass and, surprisingly, I’m beginning to develop a palette for the IPAs as well!”

Eric Schranz: “Sours! I don’t like sour candy or sour food, but I love sour beer. Whether it’s the fruit or mineral variety, they taste alive to me and make me step back, look at the glass, and smile. Problem is they’re so dang expensive!”

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