NOVATO, California -- A few years ago, when James Nielsen and his wife Mimi were house-hunting, just over the backyard fence they saw the acres of open space, lovely, green rolling hills, and they knew it was home.
On weekends, when he isn't in San Francisco wearing his corporate hat as a vice president of Wizeline, the 35-year-old father of two steps through a wooden gate, finds an opening in the wire and starts running. He scatters the grazing cows, almost unconsciously avoiding the prodigious piles of their by-products, and occasionally flushes the long-eared jackrabbits, which brings the wheeling red-tailed hawks quite suddenly to Earth.
More than half of his 60 weekly miles happen here, in what looks strangely like a "Star Wars" landscape; perhaps it's not a coincidence, because director George Lucas has offices nearby. It is the foundation of a fierce competitor, the mileage that sustains the world-record holder of -- wait for it -- the grand, exalted Beer Mile.
Last April, Nielsen, a two-time NCAA 5,000-meter champion at the University of California at San Diego, had a casual request for his wife, Mimi, herself a three-time track All-American at the school.
"He's like, 'Um, can you go to the store and pick me up some Budweiser?'" Mimi remembered. "I was like, 'Why? Why do you want me to get you Budweiser?' He's like, 'Oh, I'm going to do the Beer Mile tomorrow. And I'm going to break the world record.'"
Nielsen -- who goes by the nickname The Beast, but is more properly Dr. James Nielsen, PhD, electrical engineering, Stanford -- is a get-it-done guy. Over the years, he has run (and won) marathons, road races and various triathlons, but the allure of the Beer Mile was always hovering on the periphery of his eclectic mind.
"I love running and I love beer," Nielsen explained several months ago, sitting in his elegantly rustic hillside home. "So I ran a 5:17 my senior year, which I think was an American record, and I ran a beer mile every year from there beyond. I never took it too seriously.
"But then I started thinking about breaking the record, started to get into good running shape again a few years ago. I just kind of decided, 'You know what? I've always wanted to break five minutes in the Beer Mile. What if I actually legitimately trained, got a camera out there and filmed it? Can I actually do it?' "
Here's the drill: Drink a beer -- to be official, it must be 5 percent alcohol -- run a quarter mile, then repeat three more times. It's far more difficult than you might think. It's not the alcohol, which for elite runners doesn't really impact the race. It's the carbonation of 12, 24, 36 and then 48 ounces of sloshing, jostling beer, trapped in an enclosed place, trying to get out.
"Technique is everything," observed Patrick Butler, founder and proprietor of BeerMile.com. "It's a give and take between the running and the drinking, and the gas, and the burping. How you manage the opera of the cacophony of digestive functions is everything."
Butler was a cross country runner and computer science major at Wesleyan University when he stumbled on something called the "Kingston Beer Mile Homepage" in the mid-1990s. It was the creation of a group of Canadian runners, from Burlington Central High School in Burlington, Ontario, and, later, Queen's University.
Led by Al Pribaz, the runners set down some rules in their curious end-of-season ritual, their ever-evolving sport. Butler convinced his teammates to try it and, despite an undeniable lack of athletic gifts, beat them all with a 9:17.
"I was an above-mediocre runner and an above-mediocre drinker," Butler said. "But when you combine them together, suddenly I'm pretty good. The Venn diagram of people that can do both is small."
And what exactly is the attraction of the Beer Mile?
"There's an element of danger," Butler said, smiling, "that might be lacking in distance running. People want to see people fail, and fail miserably, even though they won't admit it."
This is where it should be mentioned that, according to the rules, any reversal of fortune (that is to say, vomiting) calls for a penalty lap, which is virtually always a deal-breaker when it comes to winning the race or setting any kind of record.
A sturdy 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Nielsen has the genetic gifts of an iron constitution and an astonishing capacity for, well, capacity that is required of this grueling challenge. When there are leftovers at dinner parties, they usually go, without comment, to Nielsen. Drinking a beer and running a quarter mile, times four, presents no great difficulty for him. But a world record? That would require some serious discipline.
Nielsen, who had increased his mileage since college, busted out his old training logs and started focusing more on speed. If he ran flat out, sans beer, he guesses he could run something approaching a 4:10. And then there was the combustible, drinking piece.
Nielsen studied the training habits of competitive eater Joey Chestnut, a fellow Californian who eight years ago consumed 66 hot dogs and rolls in 12 minutes at the Nathan's Coney Island hot dog-eating contest. Nielsen gradually began to expand his stomach's capacity by eating an entire watermelon, or massive amounts of pasta and rice in a single sitting.
With the approaching of the 60th anniversary of Roger Bannister's breaking the four-minute mile barrier, and aware of rumors that former world-record holder Josh Harris of Australia was going to make another run at the record, Nielsen decided it was time.
Mimi secured the beer, and on a crisp spring morning they made the short drive to the College of Marin in Kentfield, Calif. Nielsen set up a table on the track with four Budweisers and a 10-meter transition area, marked by a trash can. There is a bootleg quality to the now-legendary video, shot by Mimi with a flip camera and timed with her iPhone; there is actually another runner on the track when Nielsen made his attempt.
"I basically calculated it out to running exactly a five-minute mile, assuming I could run the last lap a second or two faster with the adrenaline kicking in," Nielsen said, explaining his strategy. "Mapping it out, it's about 65 seconds per lap and about 10 seconds with the beer, plus the 10-meter exchange zone."
And that's just about how it went. Nielsen ran a scintillating 4:57.1.
"I think we were both in shock," Mimi said. "I said, 'I can't believe you just did that. How did that happen?' "
Nielsen edited the footage and posted it on YouTube and Facebook. He received more than 1 million views in three days.
"I literally thought 10 people from our previous team were going to watch it," Nielsen said. "It was a virtual phenomenon that I never imagined would have happened."
But in this age of ubiquitous instant gratification, there was also swift scrutiny and, ultimately, skepticism.
Some viewers noted that Nielsen did not turn the first beer can upside down, demonstrating that he drank the entire contents.
"Back when we were in San Diego, it used to be a rule that there were so many people on the track you couldn't tell who was finishing them or not," Nielsen said. "So we used to say, 'After you pound the beer, put it upside-down on your head.' So that's kind of been a San Diego rule, but it's not one of the rules on the Beer Mile website.
"The first beer, I crack it open and slam it. I ran off and threw it in the trash can. I forgot to put it on the top of my head."
Did he really, truly drink the entire beer?
"Yes," Nielsen said. "You can see it. I clearly finished the whole thing.
"Ninety-nine percent of the comments and feedback were fantastic, but there's always going to be some people out there saying, 'Did he doctor the video? Did he actually drink the beers? Were the cans tampered with? How do we know he wasn't on EPO?' I mean, there were people literally asking me to be drug tested for performance-enhancing drugs. I thought it was hilarious."
Nielsen's run was nevertheless sanctioned by Butler as the official world record. One year later, it still stands. Stories in the Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated and USA Today celebrated Nielsen's achievement.
"I have to credit him with a lot of the [recent] popularity," Butler said. "He's the one that put it in the forefront."
Eight months later, in December 2014, Flotrack, a sports media and events company attempting to capitalize on the Beer Mile's suddenly prominent profile, staged the first world championships in Austin, Texas.
Nielsen, who could not come to terms with race organizers, declined to race, as did Harris, the Australian who had set the record of 5:02.5 in April 2012. Canadian Corey Gallagher, a 27-year-old mailman from Winnipeg, Manitoba, ran away from the field -- including American Nick Symmonds, who placed fifth in the 800 meters at the London Olympics -- finishing in just over five minutes, a personal best, but three seconds off Nielsen's record.
"I'd like to say that this is the world record," declared Gallagher, wrapped in a Canadian flag and clutching the silver winner's trophy. "James Nielsen is a cheat and a fake. If he's legit, he'd be here. He isn't. This should be the world record."
It smacked of professional wrestling, and it signaled a controversy that lingers today. Symmonds joined Gallagher in contending that Nielsen's record is bogus.
"I believe James claimed to have done a second beer in 3.9 seconds," Symmonds said. "That's physically impossible."
Not so, insisted Nielsen. In his best Mr. Science voice, he gave an ESPN camera crew a tutorial on his technique.
"As most people are aware, you can pour a beer out of the can in six or eight seconds," Nielsen explained. "So ask any high school physics teacher if it's possible for a human being to drink faster, the answer is absolutely yes. How do you do that? You have to suck the beer out of the can."
Late last month, an Australian named James Hansen released a video, claiming to have run a 4:56.25 Beer Mile. The consensus of the online forums? Hansen didn't get all of his last beer down cleanly. Butler has not yet weighed in on the authenticity of the record.
There is a good chance the record will fall again on August 22 when Nielsen hosts his own Beer Mile World Classic in San Francisco. Nielsen, leads a stellar field that will assemble at Pier 70, and he'll be joined by Harris, whose 5:02.5 remains the third-fastest time on record. Former world-record holder Jim Finlayson (5:09) will also be on hand. It seems logical that with actual competition on the track, Nielsen will be compelled to run even faster.
And what about Gallagher? He is in discussions with Nielsen but has yet to commit. Nielsen suspects he'll eventually appear to avoid looking like a hypocrite.
"Outside the running community, I don't think a whole lot of people knew about the Beer Mile," said Nielsen, laughing. "Now, everyone knows about the Beer Mile.
"It just has to happen. We need to get all the best Beer Milers in the world together at the same place, at the same time, and settle this once and for all."