It was well past 9 p.m., but the heat of the May evening still hung heavy around Jack “Watermelon Man” Varuso.
The septuagenarian hadn’t been seen much lately after suffering a stroke last year. But the Tchoupitoulas Bar-a-Thon is a special event for serious runners. It was the perfect time for a watermelon sacrifice.
So there were Varuso and hundreds of other road racers all standing in the middle of a dimly lit side street somewhere Uptown. The Watermelon Man was clad in a red tutu and leggings. Many members of the sweaty crowd also were in costumes — fake mustaches, plush alligator heads, capes.
The assortment of oddballs pressed closer for a glimpse of the part-time shaman, who had a long-bladed samurai sword in his hands. A member of the crowd stepped forward and laid down a ceremonial rag to catch the gourd's flesh and seeds. Its bright green rind practically glowed under the yellow vapor lamps.
The crowd began to chant; at first slowly, and then faster. They built to a crescendo:
“Water-melon, water-melon, red to da rind;
If you don’t buh-lieve me, pull down da blinds.
Sell ‘em to da rich, sell ‘em to da poor;
Sell ‘em to da lady stand-in in dat dooooooor......”
It’s a song an old fruit vendor used to sing from atop his mule-powered cart on these same streets decades ago. And the hundreds of runners, bellies filled with beer, knew the words. They held onto the last note for as long as they could until...
Varuso’s sword flashed and the blade sliced cleanly through the watermelon. Eager hands snatched chunks of melon from the ground before the crowd tottered in various directions looking for its next round of merriment.
Serious race, serious party
The Tchoupitoulas Bar-a-Thon is a serious race as well as a serious party. The first race was organized in 1983 by the Tchoupitoulas Social Aid and Athletic Club — a running group peopled with the city’s best long-distance athletes at the time. Members were running as many as 100 miles per week or more, and never could find time for social outings. So the club combined its need for speed with its thirst for suds, and the Bar-A-Thon was born.
The watermelon sacrifice was part of the 36th Tchoupitoulas Bar-a-Thon which was held on a particularly humid Friday evening in May. There is no fixed date, though Bar-a-Thon follows the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival by a few weeks. Bar-a-Thon participants are alerted to the race’s approach via word of mouth, and overall it’s a loosely knit affair.
But that didn’t keep approximately 800 people from descending upon the Uptown watering hole Le Ben Temps Roulé. Many arrived earlier to enjoy a cold beer or two before the six-mile race began at 6 p.m. By 5 p.m., a knot of costumed runners had spilled outside onto Bordeaux Street.
A band of pirates was among the group, as was a man dressed as President Trump. Another young man sported nothing but running shoes and red, white and blue underwear, and he carried an American flag. There were at least two Wonder Women, a crawfish and a heavy metal rocker, all with adult beverages in hand.
In most areas of the United States, it’s unusual to see participants drinking before a road race. But in New Orleans, it’s routine beforehand and nearly universal afterward. One of the things that makes the Tchoupitoulas Bar-a-Thon unique, however, is that competitors drink during the race. In fact, it’s required — if you want to win, anyway.
Six miles, six beers
The motto of the race and its rules are the same: “Six miles, six bars, six beers.” There’s little more direction to Bar-A-Thon, really, except that runners must stay off Magazine Street and the Audubon Golf Course as they race around Uptown to designated drinking spots. This year’s rotation included Le Bon Temps Roulé, Reginelli’s Pizzeria, T.J. Quills, Patois Restaurant, Dos Jefes Cigar Bar and Grit’s Bar. There is no set course, so knowing your way around Uptown is an advantage. The first person to cross the finish line with six pull tabs and a racing bib wins.
Being able to handle a six-pack of beer and running six miles concurrently is a challenge. The brew this year was a 12-ounce can of Miller High Life, and participants had to consume one at each location to be eligible to win the race.
The fastest runner in the 36th Tchoupitoulas Bar-a-Thon was 32-year-old former Loyola runner Richard Bouckaert, who somehow managed to drink six beers and run six miles in 35 minutes, 4 seconds. His nearest competitor was 27-year old Brother Martin alum Casey Keiser, who was more than two minutes behind. Megan Gohres, one of New Orleans' fastest female runners, led the women.
“Bar-a-Thon is like my second Christmas,” Bouckaert said. “I’ve only missed one since 2009 ... This race is like a triathlon. It’s fun just to finish…Everything about it is quintessential New Orleans.”
Kaiser said the intensity of the race is further fueled by the haze of booze. Though they sweat out a lot of the alcohol during the run, it makes a challenging run that much more difficult.
“I don’t think I understood how intense this was until about two or three years into it when I came in second place,” Kaiser said. “It’s not easy.”
All about fun
It is tremendous fun for the competitors, however, and perhaps none had as much fun as Tchoupitoulas Bar-a-Thon founder Ron Brinkman. The 66-year old has never missed the race since 1983, though he ceded directorship of the event a decade ago. This year, he drank non-alcoholic beer and walked the course with Varuso.
“Jack drank coffee and we made a few pit stops," Brinkman said. "It was good to tell old stories and to make up new ones with my buddies.”
It’s the camaraderie of the Bar-a-Thon that keeps Brinkman coming back.
“There were only 22 people in the first one and it always had been kind of unconventional and bawdy, even as it’s grown,” he said. “But it was always about having fun, and it was just what we were looking for in the running community. It brought us together. And the fact we could run as fast as we did and drink beer the whole time was a point of pride for us.
"It was a different spin, and that’s how we wanted it. We were from New Orleans and we were a little different than anyone else.”
Somewhere, watermelons cower knowing this to be true.