|Moderation is for wimps!|
By Patrick Hruby
Special to Page 2
We love the Fridge. Really. We even sent away for his limited edition G.I. Joe action figure. Complete with football-style battle mace.
But there's no way in heck we're betting on him.
"For those 12 minutes with the hot dogs, it's all business," says Steve Addicks, a former Nathan's participant from Finksburg, Maryland. "You just focus on what you're doing. So you don't choke."
Simply put, there's more to the sport of competitive eating -- and yes, it's at least as much of a sport as, say, strongman contests -- than all-you-can-eat buffets and the ol' "insert dog, chew, repeat" mantra.
Herein, the five things Perry -- and every aspiring professional gurgitator -- should know:
1. You could lose your lunch
"I've almost thrown up a couple of times in competition," says DeGrosa, a former Nathan's contestant from Las Vegas. "I've seen it happen a couple of times, absolutely. This sport is not for amateurs.
"Just like people go to a boxing match to see a guy get knocked out, some people do come out to see the hurling."
Though the human stomach can safely swell to nearly 10 times its normal size, eaters will usually upchuck before reaching the belt-busting point of maximum expansion.
The reason? Dr. Brian Lacy, Director of the Marvin M. Schuster Center for Motility and Digestive Disorders at Johns Hopkins University, says that the brain activates a gag n' hurl reflex long before the stomach is in any danger of lasting damage.
"I've never heard of anyone rupturing their stomach," the Good Doctor says. "One possibility is that you can get so full and so sick that when you throw up, you tear or injure your esophagus. That's pretty uncommon."
Which isn't to say that eating 152 jalapeno peppers in 15 minutes, for example, won't take a toll on a body.
Eric "Badlands" Booker, a Long Island subway conductor and Nathan's contest regular, nearly quit the sport after his first hot dog competition in 1997.
"I got home, and I was stuffed," he recalls. "I was rolling on the living room floor. I was belching. I was in bad shape."
DeGrosa can relate. After the Nathan's contest, he beats a hasty retreat to his hotel. Room service is the last thing on his mind.
"When I'm done, it's like every ounce of me has gone to my stomach," he says. "And I'm dead. I feel like I'm on Prozac. I'm in a haze.
"Here it is, the Fourth of July in New York, everybody's partying. And I go back to the room and sleep.
"It takes a few days to get your system back in order. I get a little blocked up."
Other foods trigger the opposite effect. Lacy says high fat edibles like mayonnaise and ice cream can cause painful cramps and severe diarrhea.
Not to mention Enron-qualilty, er, natural emissions.
"I was in an ice-cream-eating contest once, and I'm glad I drove myself home," Booker says with a laugh. "I didn't need any gas that day."
2. Amateurs need not apply
"Stomach capacity, an eating strategy, and endurance," he says. "You get the capacity by eating. I eat a lot of cabbage. It expands your stomach, and it's healthier than going to a buffet."
Like boxers hitting the speed bag, the best gurgitators engage in gut-swelling training exercises. Booker practices judo and drinks water by the gallon. He learned the cabbage trick from hot dog record-holder Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi, the Tiger Woods of competitive eating.
For his part, DeGrosa favors an old-fashioned approach. He hangs out at -- where else? -- Vegas buffets.
"They used to have 29-cent breakfasts here," he says. "I'd order six of them. And just go to town."
Pre-contest preparation is key. DeGrosa fasts for 24 hours before every competition. Others swear by a regular meal the previous evening. Booker slurps as much water as he can manage.
"It helps you relax, fooling the stomach into thinking it's full," he says. "When the contest comes, the water is out of you but you still have the size. So it's not a shock. Of course, I'm 'going' like a racehorse."
Once the eating gets under way, quick starts are crucial -- mostly because you've got six to eight minutes before the sensation of being stuffed kicks in.
"If you eat very, very fast, it takes a while for the brain to catch up," Lacy says, referring to a phenomenon that competitive eaters ominously dub "The Wall."
"You want to eat as much food as you can before you hit 'The Wall'," Booker adds. "Once you do, that's where your mental powers come in."
Almost everyone dips their buns in water before eating them, a trick that shaves precious seconds off the chew time.
"You also need stamina," Booker says. "You don't need to be a Jack La Lanne fitness instructor, but you're doing a lot of work up there. You're dipping the rolls, raising the food to your mouth. You have to exercise your jaw, because you're constantly chewing."
According to New York publicist George Shea, who runs the Nathan's Contest, different foods require different approaches.
"A hot dog and bun, you have to have a style and strategy that's different from a chicken wing, which is different from a matzo ball," he says. "Athletics are not really about superior fitness. They're about superior refinement of skill. That's what Babe Ruth did. That's what this is."
3. Hot Dogs just the beginning
"Pickles," Booker says. "You've got to have enormous jaw strength. You just chew and chew. You get lockjaw.
"Mentally-challenging foods are hard, too, like the cow brains and Rocky Mountain oysters."
For buffet-busting pros, hot dogs are just the beginning. The Shea-founded International Federation of Competitive Eating -- motto: "nothing in moderation" -- oversees a 12-month scarfing circuit covering the culinary spectrum.
There's Chicken Wings in January. Pickled Quail Eggs in April. French Fries in December.
Roughly 1,000 active eaters, 66 of them ranked, compete in more than a dozen states as well as England, Germany, Scotland and Thailand. Among the IFOCE's world records:
Booker, who has speed-noshed on everything from sushi to mayonnaise, holds records for the consumption of burritos (15 1/2 in eight minutes) and hard-boiled eggs (38 in eight minutes).
"The weirdest thing I ever ate was cow brains," he says. "It didn't taste that bad. But the mental part of looking at it was tough.
"They put like 10 pounds of brain on a platter, then made us step up to it. They took the top off, and I'm like 'Oh my God, how am I gonna get this down?'
"But if you have a strong will, you can eat almost anything."
4. Fat guys finish last
"You would think that bigger people would have an advantage," Shea says. "That's not the case. There's actually a theory about this. We call it the 'Belt of Fat.'
"Basically, it says that smaller guys are better situated to be pro eaters because they don't have fat preventing the expansion of their stomach."
Hooey? Perhaps. But consider this: Booker, a 6-foot-5, 300-plus-pounder, managed just 26 dogs at last year's Nathan's eat-off.
"It's sort of a counterintuitive theory," Shea admits. "We tried to get that in the New England Journal of Medicine. Sadly, they snubbed us."
Surprisingly, Lacy doesn't dismiss the 'Belt of Fat' idea outright.
"Theoretically, that (layer of fat) could prevent the stomach from relaxing," he says. "But it hasn't been studied."
5. Buffet bye-bye
"It was US Weekly's photo of the week, me holding a hot dog while Kobayashi was doing his thing," he recalls.
Undaunted, Booker strolled over to the buffet -- only to find the restaurant's agitated owner waiting for him.
"He looks at the picture, looks at me, and says, 'OK, mister, you have a 30-minute limit,'" Booker says with a laugh. "I couldn't believe it."
Patrick Hruby is a sportswriter for the Washington Times. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.