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.”
To Your Health!
Ironically, many recreational runners who religiously restrict and monitor every detail of their diet and lifestyle are often quite unhealthy. “These compulsive or obsessed weekend road runners or marathoners could use a beer to relax now and then,” says sport psychologist Dr. Costas Karageorghis. “Their identity is so wrapped up into their running that they tend to ignore injuries and push dangerously through pain. Also, any type of setback or drop in performance sends them into a perilous cycle of depression. And this is in addition to the extremes of pre-race anxiety they routinely experience. Drinking socially, therefore, could reduce stress for them and, I believe, act as a performance enhancement mechanism.”
Sport sociologist and the author of A Women’s Guide to Running, Dr. Annemaire Jutel, agrees that the intensity some runners bring to their running needs to be balanced, and in this way beer can become a compatible running partner. “Runners often practice their sport with austerity–as though self-discipline and denial would lead them to higher achievements. Their asceticism may take the form of obsessive mileage counting–it doesn’t matter how sick, tired, or busy I am, 50 miles is the goal for this week, so by golly, I’ll get there! Day counting–no way am I going to break my streak–calorie counting, skin pinching, weight measuring, pleasure depriving.
“…Where does it end, and does it even help? This is the context in which beer gets a bad rap as an accompaniement to running. But in France, athletes are likely to drink with their meals. John Walker, the 1976 Olympic 1500 meters champion from New Zealand, and the first man to run under 3:50 for a mile, certainly drank as hard as he ran. Enjoying a few quiet ones probably has no detrimental effect on anyone’s running. But drinking large amounts may lead to poor results: both on the track or road and in life.”
Likewise, sports nutritionist Dr. Liz Applegate, says, “Don’t assume that the carbohydrates loaded in beer will help with recovery or energy (glycogen) stores. On the contrary, beer gets most of its calories from alcohol. If beer is consumed after a run, the alcohol actually interferes with the recovery process by hampering glycogen re-synthesis in the muscle and liver. This can leave a runner less prepared for a subsequent workout. Also, alcohol acts as a diuretic, which means urine production goes up, and a loss of body water causes dehydration and a drop in performance.”
Applegate’s prognosis on beer and running isn’t all medical scare tactics. “There are ‘healthy’ beers for runners; darker beers, particularly, contain more of the phytochemicals that protect against age-related diseases.
“But this is not a license to drink a six-pack of beer,” Applegate continued, before reciting our current age’s moderation mantra. “It’s best to consume beer at meals, and for runners, after they’ve recovered from exercise and properly rehydrated with water and other energy replacement fluids and foods.”
In a time when runners were less aware of diet and nutrition, beer was a staple. “I ran 200 miles a week and drank three to four pints every night, and that was the same for every runner I knew.” So says Dave Bedford, Britain’s legendary distance runner from the 1970s and now race director of the London Marathon, one of the biggest races in the world. “Those beers helped me relax, and I believed that I was running so much that I must be burning it all off anyway. Today’s runner, though, is much more health conscious. We know, for instance, that most runners training for our marathon drink beer regularly, but reduce their beer intake in the final months before the race, then quickly resume their normal drinking habits afterwards, usually immediately at some post-race party.”
Jessica Cohen, in sales and marketing at the New York Road Runner’s Club, organizers of the New York City Marathon and more than 300 other road races for runners of all shapes and sizes, offers a similar view. “Running does definitely go together with beer. At this year’s marathon, we commissioned a commemorative New York City Marathon Pale Ale from Saranac Brewers, and it was a huge success, both at our pre-race pasta party and our post-race celebration. We consider finishing the marathon a true accomplishment, and beer accompanies that really well, we think.”
But weekend road runners aside, what’s the place of beer in more professional running settings? In Eugene, OR, known as Track City USA because of its moderate climate and abundance of off road serene running spaces, dozens of elite-minded runners congregate to train together and push each other towards world class standards while simultaneously consuming large quantities of beer. “Everyone I knew drank a lot of beer,” according to mid-1980′s Eugene resident and sub four-minute miler, Martin Hemsley. “You’re young and resilient and so you believe you can burn it all off. And from what I’ve heard, that attitude hasn’t changed today.” Interestingly, guys in Eugene aren’t making a huge impact on the world distance running scene anymore. In this era of dominance by African runners, most of whom are Muslims and so don’t drink, perhaps beer can get in the way.
However, running clubs in England that cater for all abilities and also provide opportunities where beer is still the focus, aren’t likely to sacrifice the pleasure of a refreshing beer in the name of high performance. “Wednesday nights after our pack runs, which include one hundred or more runners, we open the bar in our clubhouse and it’s all fun and merriment,” according to John Baldwin, secretary of Blackheath Harriers, founded in London in 1869. “Out on the run guys tend to break up into small groups depending on their ability and how fast and far they want to run, but back in the clubhouse everyone comes together over a draught, usually a natural hops English bitter, and any distinctions between serious and less serious runners soon fades away.”
Many road races in America today are as much a festive beer carnival as they are anything else. The Falmouth Road Race, for example, held every August on Cape Cod and as important to the local economy as the Fourth of July and Labor Day, is considered by many to be the best road race in America. Its organizers invented its odd 7.1-mile distance because that was how far it was between two bars, the Captain Kidd in Woods Hole and the Brothers Four in Falmouth.
And beer remains a significant right of passage for those high school runners who continue to contest the season-ending spring ritual, the Beer Mile. This entails four laps of racing around a track with a short pause every lap to guzzle a beer.
Obviously, a Beer Mile is not the experience that today’s mature runner is looking for. It does go to show that health, performance, and friendship take on new and important meanings when they’re part of the time-honored association between beer and running.