EAU CLAIRE, Wis. – The forecast could not have been worse. When dawn broke Jan. 16, 2016, the day of the inaugural Snowshoe Beer Mile here, the temperature was expected to top off in the single digits. Indeed, it was a glacial 2 degrees, with a subzero windchill, when the event kicked off that afternoon. Yet 20 hardy souls toed the starting line.
Since that first, Arctic-like Snowshoe Beer Mile — which organizers claim was one of the world’s first — the race has been held on a balmy, 40-degree day, with runners squaring off against slush, and on a winter-perfect, 32-degree day with good packing snow underfoot. When the fourth Snowshoe Beer Mile runs Jan. 19, it’s anyone’s guess for conditions. And that’s half the fun.
The Beer Mile is a racing phenomenon with murky origins. But reliable documentation shows many of the earliest races were held in Canada in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The competition required racers to slam a beer, then race a lap around a track, four times in a row. The quirky event slowly gained traction throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Then, thanks to the ascension of the internet, it soon was ubiquitous.
Today, BeerMile.com is the event’s official website. Rules for staging an official race state competitors must drink beer that is at least 5 percent alcohol by volume and chug from 12-ounce, unaltered bottles or cans. Puking means you have to run a fifth penalty lap. And tracks are the preferred setting, although not required.
In 2004, when the unorthodox race was becoming entrenched in society, BeerMile.com contained 8,000 official race results. Today, it holds more than 114,000. Canadian Corey Bellemore set the current record of 4:33.6 in 2017.
Eau Claire gets creative
Eau Claire was never home to an official, publicized Beer Mile until 2014, when the Eau Claire Hash House Harriers, aka ECH3, held its inaugural event at Lowes Creek County Park. The course was an out-and-back on grassy parkland.
Tim McManus, president of ECH3 (and related to the author), said the decision on location was a simple choice. “Eau Claire is a beautiful city with many parks and trails. So why not give participants a chance to enjoy nature, too? It also makes our event unique.”
After two successful summertime Beer Miles, someone in the ECH3 group — exactly who is heavily disputed — tossed out the idea of holding a second event in the winter. What’s not disputed is that everyone thought it was a great idea. The Snowshoe Beer Mile was born.
“The whole goal of these events is to get people together to have a good time and engage in friendly competition,” McManus said. To encourage more participation, the first Snowshoe Beer Mile added an unofficial “Half Beer Mile” (drink half a beer before each lap) and an “Open Beer Mile” (drink anything, including nonalcoholic beverages).
The snowshoe event has averaged about 20 participants, while regular beer mile has seen as many as 57.
Today, both ECH3 Beer Miles are held on the grounds surrounding Fox Run Tavern, a small bar tucked into the woods just northeast of Eau Claire. Before each event, volunteers carefully measure a 400-yard loop course that roughly encircles the tavern’s softball diamond, which makes for easy spectating.
McManus said the group has one rule specific to its novel winter event: If a snowshoe falls off during the race, you must reattach it before you can continue. But the snowshoe version is always a more leisurely race. To wit: the ECH3 summertime record is 6:40, while its winter counterpart is 9:29.
“People underestimate how much more exhausting it is on your legs,” said McManus, the current Snowshoe Beer Mile record-holder. “It’s more like an endurance challenge, where the regular Beer Mile is more like a race.”
Pat Batz, 48, an agricultural representative for Xcel Energy, is the only person, outside of McManus, who has competed in all eight ECH3 Beer Miles. His words of wisdom to snowshoe newbies? “There’s a lot of clumsiness that affects everyone. The Snowshoe Beer Mile is more of an equalizer among runners.”
Several other past participants advise newcomers to keep their beers warm via hot packs or insulated containers. During ECH3’s frigid 2016 race, many participants’ beer froze the minute a can or bottle was opened, relegating them to choking down beer slushies.
This January, video editor Kevin Gesme, 30, will film the Snowshoe Beer Mile with plans for a short documentary. He already captured footage of the summer event, but believes the singular winter race will become the flick’s backbone.
“The visual aspect of people running a mile, while drinking, and in the middle of winter, will be something that sticks with people,” he said, adding his overall goal is to show what a running group, and a one-of-a-kind event like the Beer Mile, can do to foster camaraderie and general excitement in a community and beyond.
“Just get yourself there,” said Batz, “whether to spectate or participate. But if you spectate, you’ll want to participate.”
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer focusing on fitness and travel. She lives near Madison, Wis.