Drink to the Finish Line: The Ups and Downs of Beer and Marathons

November 01, 2018

By Giulia Pines, November 01, 2018

All it takes is one look at the Darwin Awards to see that human beings love doing stupid things with their bodies. From jumping off a cliff to swimming with sharks, we’re constantly testing the limits of what we can accomplish without dying, or at least keeling over unconscious. At first glance, beer wouldn’t seem to fit into this world of excess. But combine it with marathon running, and you get a whole new genre of extreme exercise—and extreme drinking.

Most of the time, the intersection of the two happens at the finish line, when a victory beer is handed out to everyone who completes the run—be it marathon, half marathon, or 5k. Google “marathons with beer” and a number of races—brewery-sponsored runs and running groups, sports equipment companies that hold beer races, and runs in which the entire point seems to be the drink at the end—will pop up, imploring you to join in the fun.

This year, Goose Island sponsored the Chicago Marathon, handing out sleek, black cans of its signature 312 Dry-Hopped Wheat Ale at the finish line, complete with a stenciled map of the route and a space for runners to record their finishing times. “We’re all about celebrating our hometown of Chicago,” explained Goose Island President Todd Ahsmann, “so we thought it would be cool to design a can specifically for the Chicago Marathon.”

Last year, the Berlin marathon purportedly offered runners non-alcoholic beer, though it’s hard to say whether that makes them even more German (sensible, obsessed with health),  a traitor to their own kind, or simply up on the science. (A recent NPR article explained the health benefits of drinking non-alcoholic recovery beer, while an article in the lead-up to the Boston marathon detailed the deleterious health effects of drinking alcohol after a workout.)

Then there’s Liege, Belgium, where the annual Beer Lovers’ Marathon promises a taste of 15 different beers every five kilometers. Their website’s training plans use beer emojis to designate the number of beers to down with each workout; a reminder that training for a beer marathon is very different from training for a normal marathon. Essentially, you’re teaching your body to process alcohol differently than it would at rest.

The world record is a five-minute mile, and that in itself is impressive. But doing it while drinking four cans of beer? It’s about bragging rights.”

The special connection between beer drinking and running may be born of a desire to test yourself, but there’s also a certain camaraderie these activities promote particularly well. “Right now both craft beer and running—marathon running—are having unique moments when they’re more popular than ever in the mainstream,” said Benjamin Pratt, a partner at As Is beer bar in Hell’s Kitchen.

“Craft beer is obviously blowing up, and I think running is the fastest growing sport, at least in this country,” Pratt speculated. “I’ve run with a lot of different clubs in NYC and hung out with a lot of runners, and you get to know people pretty well, but you only get to know one aspect of them.” Once you introduce alcohol into the mix, he explained, other personality traits open up. Suddenly, you’re not just talking to a fellow runner about your marathon goals; you’re two buddies musing about life over a refreshing brew.

Pratt is also the head of the Manhattan chapter of the Mikkeller Running Club, which has its headquarters at As Is. Part of a worldwide network of runners who meet regularly, sponsored by the famed Copenhagen brewery (which just opened its first New York City branch at CitiField in Queens), MRC is a testament to the enduring appeal of running and drinking.

“We used to run out of the [CitiField] brewery into Flushing Meadows and then back to the brewery to celebrate,” explained Carlos J. Morales, who heads up the Queens branch of MRC. “For shorter runs, it would be $5 for the draft of your choosing. On the longer runs, they’d give us the first round free.”

Of course, it’s easy enough to reach for a hoppy IPA or a citrusy wheat ale when you’re sweating, out of breath, and looking for anything to guzzle. But what does beer really do to our bodies after we’ve finished a workout? How does it impact recovery, a crucial aspect of training during marathon season?

Goose Island at the Chicago Marathon. Photos courtesy of Goose Island/Facebook.

Runners are split on whether beer hurts or helps the recovery process, though nutritionists seem to come out mostly on the negative side. According to New Orleans-based nutrition and personal fitness consultant David Ambrogio, “Drinking alcohol after working out slows down the repair process of exercise-induced muscle damage. People who drink also tend to eat unhealthy foods, which slows down the rebuilding of energy after intense exercise. Alcohol dehydrates you, and all of these factors combined means drinking beer after exercising significantly impairs recovery.”

But that’s just drinking after running. Those who elect to drink while running face a whole new set of challenges. “I’ve done a full beer mile relay and it was very painful,” said Dan Lamonaca, owner of the Williamsburg bottle shop Beer Karma, which has its own running group and created its own set of workouts. “I was involuntarily throwing up when I did one and my diaphragm was more sore than it has ever been the next day.”

He pointed me to the online list of official beer mile rules, which detail the what, when, and how much of such an endeavor. Number 10 on the list? “Competitors who vomit before they finish the race must complete one penalty lap at the end of the race (immediately after the completion of their 4th lap).”

So why would serious runners subject themselves to such absurdity, and why would serious beer drinkers want to deal with the exertion? For Lamonaca, drinking and running holds a fundamental, enduring appeal, born of man’s desire to boast of his accomplishments. “Why do a beer mile?” he mused. “The world record is a five-minute mile, and that in itself is impressive. But doing it while drinking four cans of beer? It’s about bragging rights.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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