– By Andy Barton
Those who are familiar with my work will notice an enduring theme in my race recaps: running and drinking. This pattern is not particularly noteworthy, because these are the two principal race-day activities in New Orleans, and they’re also my two favorite things in the world (with family coming in third). But it may surprise you to learn that I am deeply ambivalent about the annual Tchoupitoulas Barathon, an event that ruins these two activities by combining them. This is not a “hey, you got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” combination, but an unholy alliance of pain and bloat that strips away the recognizable features of humanity and replaces them with pure, animalistic debauchery. In fact, “animalistic” doesn’t do this justice, because animals have well-honed self-preservation instincts. We have free will, and in this case that isn’t really all that great a deal.
Before the chaos of 6 bars, 6 beers, and 6 miles, the competitors look less like athletes, and more like slightly fratty, severely underdressed cocktail party-goers. Bordeaux Street, just above Magazine, is that kegger from every bad college movie you’ve ever seen. At this point, I realize my sobriety is becoming a significant problem, and so I hawk a beer from a man perched on the tailgate of his truck wearing a massive dreadlock wig and a backpack that features Oscar the Grouch emerging from a trashcan.
I look out across the start line, checking off the elite competitors: Minihan, Gavin, Cater-Cyker, Bouckaert, Gohres, Street, Accardo. And it dawns on me that merely surviving this race will mean little to them. Despite the gimmicky nature of the race’s structure and rules, this is a prestigious event: a Wimbledon, a Kentucky Derby, or an Indy 500. To cast this race as a bar-crawl would undermine the intricate strategic planning that a successful barathon run requires. Though each competitor must run through the same bars, and must drink a beer at each drink station therein, the route between the bars is not pre-determined. Competitors routinely update their maps, and keep them closely guarded from their opponents, in order to preserve every possible advantage on race day. Magazine Street and Audubon Park Golf Course are off limits, which complicates matters further.
What I was about to witness, then, was a high-speed, drunken parade with no defined route; a Running of the Bulls, if each bull was fueled by nothing but booze and adrenaline. I tightened my grip on my camera and slowly backed out of the way.
One of my favorite moments in this race is the moment it starts. A field of several hundred runners goes almost deathly silent as they put beer in their faces as fast as possible. Their cups raised to the sky in unison, they seem to be taking part in an ancient ritual sponsored by Solo. And the crowd goes quiet too. A few cheers can be heard, but the vast majority of spectators simply stare dumbfounded at the Bulls, silently guessing the number of ounces left in the cups, waiting for the first runner to throw his empty cup to the asphalt and tear up Bordeaux as if running from a tidal wave. It takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 seconds for this to happen. It feels like 8 hours.
Richard Bouckaert starts running first, followed closely by several others. The entire crowd takes several minutes to pass the start line, as the back of the phalanx is composed of bar-crawlers who decided a $35 entry for 6 free beers was a pretty good deal, and who will be walking the entire route. This is a race that begs for costumes, and I note the patriotic theme embraced by many of the entrants. Wonder Woman and Superman pass me several times, as does a man whose shirt reads “America: Running the World Since 1776”. At this moment, I find myself desperately hoping that America invented the barathon.
While the runners—and most other onlookers—head further Uptown, I decide to make my way to a less-traveled spot: Grit’s Bar on Lyons and Annunciation. My rationale for this is simple and selfish. I want my photographs to capture the agony of the sixth and final beer station, and I’d also like to avoid the crowds that gather at other points along the route. At first, this seems slightly idiotic. I find myself far-removed from the action, alone, holding a warm beer and a temporarily useless camera, while passersby regard me with bemusement and confusion. I want to tell them to stay, to witness the horrible grandeur for which I wait, but then I’d like to avoid the crowds, so I don’t.
The runners soon begin streaming into the beer station, which has been conveniently set up alongside the bar, in a protected back patio area with a gate to the street. Grit’s is on their game, as is Bouckaert, who trots in well ahead of his opponents. When it’s clear he’s put more than a minute between himself and second place, I know the result of this race is no longer in question.
But the event was nowhere near complete.
Consider, for a moment, Don Quintana, who drank two full beers at each stop, winning an informal championship that he himself created, a title he has held for several years now.
Consider Zach Cater-Cyker, who ran the race along with his fiancée, to whom he was to be married the following day.
Or consider the watermelon that was sacrificed by machete in an arcane ritual an hour after the race’s end, as assembled revelers sang to the seeded fruit.
Consider a race of this nature, and you’ll find yourself gazing at your wall for long periods of time, attempting to come up with some cohesive narrative, or some defining statement that sums up a night that defies logic at every turn. The collection of mental images that remains with me after the event is nothing but faces, faces turning the corner into the patio, and seeing a table full of glistening, brimming cups of beer. They aren’t happy to see this thing that they love, because they’re exhausted and already slightly drunk, and their stomachs are performing painful emergency maneuvers in order to prevent their bodies from an impending total meltdown. But they see this beer, and they are compelled to love it, to embrace it, and to drink it in.
For more photos visit our facebook album here.
This is what we gather for: to love this race against our better judgment, to embrace it, and drink it in.