Ghent in Belgium is an Old World city, the cobbled plaza at its center flanked by 10th- and 12th-century cathedrals and towers. But, today, along the eastern border of the square, piled over seven feet high are stacks and stacks of Duval. The stockpiles are in place because an invasion is imminent–not by a hostile nation, but runners, myself included.It’s 1990 and I’m on a running tour of Europe, competing in a variety of races with a group of American buddies. The Ghent summer track and field carnival has just ended. Now the event organizers are throwing us a true Belgian beer bash.
The week before, it was the glorious northern Finnish city, Jyväskylä, where after a six-mile race through soft forest trails we sampled sahti and other exotic beers recreated from the Viking and Iron Ages. Three months on, and I’m in New York at the post-marathon party where, despite weary legs and unbalanced electrolytes, runners from every state in America and over 50 countries are dancing with some variety of beer in their hands. Next stop, Boston, for the oldest marathon in America. Traditionally, no Boston Marathon experience would be complete without a Sam Adams at the Eliot Lounge, the official unofficial marathon watering hole.
No doubt about it, beer and running are close companions. Some runners put in their dose of weekly miles to off-load calories and eat guilt free. But just as many, if not more, runners pound the pavement day in and day out to make room for additional ounces of their favorite golden fluid. This despite usually knowing better. Not once in a recently published article in Runner’s World Magazine, titled “Eat, Drink, and Be Faster,” did the author, Jamie Kempton, advocate beer as a suitable pre- or post-race beverage. Kempton instead favored Gatorade, Powerade, and other slick energy replacement cocktails. When he concluded his story with what he believes should be every runner’s beverage rallying cry, “Drink up!” he was referring to water.
But what fun would running be without our favorite frosty companion? Thirst quencher, social elixir, reward–beer is a natural accompaniment to running. It’s cold and wet when a runner is hot and dry. Who would ever take a martini or any variety of squeezed grape following a hard 10-mile slog? Certainly not long-time runner, Frank Little: “When I’m out on my Sunday run, especially in the summer, it’s about halfway through that I begin imagining a cold beer waiting for me at home. But I have to stretch and cool down first, then I crack open an Anchor Steam and just relax, knowing that my run is behind me.”
The Boston Marathon Tradition
The policy for years at the Eliot Lounge was to award every Boston Marathon finisher a complementary brew. This was the marketing ploy of Tommy Leonard, who became the Eliot’s bartender in 1972, and whose love of running made the Eliot the international welcoming center for the marathon for 25 years.
Leonard’s 1972 debut behind the bar at the Eliot happily coincided with the biggest moment in the history of American distance running. That was the year that a skinny mustached Floridian named Frank Shorter won the Olympic Marathon title in Munich, and ostensibly kicked off the running boom in the United States. Leonard saw an opportunity here, and quickly began to draw customers to the Eliot from Boston’s fast-growing running community. Runners migrated to the Eliot to glean training advice from Leonard, hear stories of past running greats, and admire his artful wall display of running photography.
Unfortunately, the Eliot served its last customer in 1996, but Leonard is still on the scene and pushing the running and beer connection. One recent venture has been with the Back Bay Brewing Co. in Boston which has opened a “Tommy Leonard Room.” With Ted Mott, Back Bay’s brewer, Leonard developed a special ale to award to the last-place finisher in the marathon.
“That’s what’s great about runners,” Leonard said. “Most are out to have a good time regardless of whether they’re running by themselves, with a group, or in a race. Half the time in races they don’t even know about the contest being waged up front. They don’t care about the elite guys. To them, entering a road race is a moving street party. And at the end of every race, they know that a cold beer is waiting for them.”
The International HHH
No one understands this better than a group of runners known as the Hash House Harriers, who proudly describe themselves as “Drinkers with a Running Problem.”
The Hash House Harriers is an international association of runners who place fun above performance and forbid competition. Founded in Malaysia in 1938 by a group of English businessmen, there are currently Hash Houses in over 30 countries and almost every state in America.
Most members know that being even slightly dehydrated going into a run reduces performance by up to three percent, but they could care less. This from Terence Kavanaugh an “elder statesman” from the Cambridge University Hash Club in England: “If I had to just run by myself…and I knew a beer and a chat with a mate weren’t involved, I don’t think I’d ever get out the door. You have to balance it up, the health benefits I get from my runs with the social benefits of drinking alongside. Does one cancel out the other? Not for me. It all outweighs being some dedicated running teetotaller who never cracks a smile and runs to cut his medical bill. Well, that’s my definition of health at least.”