Jim Finlayson, one of Canada's elite distance runners, gathered with 75 racers on the track, feeling confident after his normal pre-race routine: a nice sleep, oatmeal for breakfast, plenty of water.
When the start gun blasted, however, he did something he never would have attempted in international competition: He chugged a bottle of Granville Island Winter Ale. Then he bolted.
They call it the Beer Mile. Four laps of the track. One beer per lap. No puking, on pain of a penalty lap. Hundreds of people around the world have posted their times, and beer of choice, on www.beermile.com.
Three years after that race on a chilly winter day in Victoria, Mr. Finlayson remains the world record holder with a time of 5 minutes, 9 seconds.
More impressive, perhaps, is that the 37-year-old has represented Canada three times at the World Cross Country Championships, where beer played no part in the festivities. Competitive distance runners, unlike hockey or rugby players, are better known as boy scouts than party boys, but Mr. Finlayson says that's just a stereotype.
He belongs to a generation of runners whose carefree attitudes have fuelled the popularity of running clubs that prove, according to Canadian Running magazine editor Michal Kapral, "we're not a bunch of prudes."
[Non-runners]usually assume that I live like a monk, shun alcohol, dine on tofu burgers and boiled yams and go to bed every night at 9 p.m. Elite runner Michal Kapral
They include beer milers, who claim a fair number of frat boys but also serious runners. There are groups of friends, such as the Longboat Roadrunners in Toronto, who meet weekly for a training run before knocking back a pint and wings.
But the granddaddy of them all is the Hash House Harriers, which calls itself a "drinking club with a running problem." The club originated with a group of expats living in Malaysia in 1938, and has since expanded all over the world, including to Canada.
Hashers usually meet once a week, and follow a mystery route laid out by a club member called the "hare." Everyone else follows like hounds. Routes vary between five and eight kilometres, but the final destination is always a pub.
The groups have spread across the country since the first run in Calgary, in 1983, and have become a magnet for people like Mike Babulic. He resisted at first, considering himself a serious runner, but when he was dragged out to a hash almost two decades ago, he was hooked by the group's carefree mantra.
He calls hashing the slo-pitch of running. "We have our silly little rituals, and rugby-type songs," he says.
Competition is banned, and hashers are serious about that. Mention the "r" word (race) or the "m" word (marathon), and you have to chug a beer. "It's non-competitive and we like to keep it that way," Mr. Babulic says.
Sometimes that's not easy. Over the years, a few newcomers have appeared at Calgary hashes only to quit once they learned what they were all about. There are those whose conversations are dominated by questions like "Did you PB? Did you BQ?" (Translation: "Did you run a personal best? Did you qualify for the Boston Marathon?")
Others turn up their noses at those who've never run a marathon, says Douglas Gray of Barrie, Ont.
"Many runners have an air of self-righteousness about them," he says.
Hence those old stereotypes, Mr. Kapral points out. When he mentions he's a competitive marathoner, the reaction from non-runners is almost always the same.
"They usually assume that I live like a monk, shun alcohol, dine on tofu burgers and boiled yams and go to bed every night at 9 p.m."
Mr. Kapral says runners who are the most rigid about their training tend to be the ones who are newest to the sport. Those folks are understandably nervous about doing things properly, he says. He was once pretty uptight himself.
"I followed a training program like a robot and calculated all of the paces and distances of my training runs like a scientific researcher," he says.
The more he learned about running, however, the more relaxed he became. While he used to tease his wife for having a drink the night before a big run, now he will have a couple himself and not worry about it.
Ironically, Mr. Kapral says, the relaxed attitude has translated into better race times. He won the Toronto Marathon in 2002. And he holds the world record for "joggling" - running while juggling at the same time - for both the 10-kilometre distance and in the marathon, with a time of 2:50:12.
Mr. Finlayson in Victoria agrees. Drinking can benefit your running, he says, but "it's not the alcohol content."
"You have to be able to enjoy it," he says. "If you let yourself get too wrapped up in the details, and tense up about all the particulars, then you're not going to get the most out of your body."
And while enduring a mile at top speed with all that fizzy, alcoholic liquid in his stomach wasn't exactly a thrill, the beer mile certainly was fun at the end, he says. "It's more of a giddy feeling."
Party hard, run harder
While it would be a stretch to say alcohol improves athletic performance, a recent study in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that people who drink regularly seem to exercise more often than abstainers.
Compared with people who never drink, those considered heavy drinkers - at least 46 drinks a month for women, and 76 or more for men - got 10 extra minutes of exercise each week. Meanwhile, moderate drinkers -women who had 15 to 45 drinks a month, and men who had 30 to 75 - got 20 more minutes a week than abstainers.
Both moderate and heavy drinkers were also more likely to report vigorous exercise, such as jogging, than either light drinkers or abstainers.
The Miami researchers said heavier drinkers may be the types who tend toward more adventurous outdoor activities, such as snowboarding or rock climbing. Others may play team sports, where you wind up at the bar after a game.
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