‘Urges contrary to swallowing’: An amateur enters the strange world of competitive eating

David A. Arnott recently took approximately eight years off his life by doing this…

It came about as many exciting things do, on a whim. For some reason or other, in early April I found myself on the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs web site, staring at a blinking message soliciting applications to compete in the company’s annual hot dog eating contest that culminates with an orgy of consumption at Coney Island on July 4th, broadcast by ESPN. On a whim, I entered the competition’s qualifier in Charlotte, NC. My friends and family weren’t exactly thrilled by this decision.

“I suppose it’s better you than me,” my dad said.

“Make sure you use lots of ketchup,” said a friend. “If you don’t, the hot dogs will start to taste metallic after a while.”

“I wish you luck,” said another friend, “But I’m not going to watch because I don’t support what you’re doing.”

“You’re not going to dunk the buns in water, are you?” my girlfriend asked. “If you do, I don’t think I can watch. Mushy bread is disgusting.” I arrived at the Concord Mills Mall parking lot with no expectation of victory. The previous year’s winner, Hall “Hoover” Hunt, had downed 28.75 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes (HDB, in competitive eating shorthand). To put that in perspective, that’s roughly 14 feet of hot dogs and buns, end to end. Unfortunately for Hunt, it’s also not even close to the world record of 66 HDB in 12 minutes, set by Joey Chestnut at last year’s Coney Island contest.

My goal was to swallow 1.5 HDB per minute. This year, the contests were shortened to 10 minutes after Major League Eating, the contest’s sanctioning body, said it had discovered evidence that the shorter time was more traditional. Therefore, I was aiming to eat 15 HDB at once, with water to soften the bread and wash it all down.

I’ll cut to the chase: You don’t want to enter a hot dog eating contest. Sure, you might get introduced to Asia’s “Heat of the Moment”. You might get a boss t-shirt. You’re guaranteed a free lunch. However, the International Federation of Competitive Eating warns about “urges contrary to swallowing” for a reason.

For the first four or five minutes, I felt pretty good. The MC let me know that Hoover was well on his way to shattering the Charlotte qualifier record he’d set the year before, and he went on to win with 34 HDB. I fell behind my 1.5 HDB pace and had swallowed 5 when I hit a wall.

This wall is difficult to imagine, because eating that quickly in that little time is outside most folks’ experience. My jaw started aching and pain crackled on both sides, under my ears. My throat constricted, and I suddenly envisioned chunks of hot dogs turning into wooden blocks inside my mouth. I was simply unable to grind meat with my teeth and force it down my esophagus. To boot, when I dunked the buns in water, they turned slimy, and the sensation of slime slipping across my palate triggered my gag reflex.

Still, I slogged on, determined to out-eat at least one other person on the stage. After straining to swallow 5 HDB in the first five minutes, I only managed to get down 2 and a half more in the final five minutes.

Several times, I looked over the crowd and wondered if they were aware of my misery. I should have quit, but my cheeks were puffed full of “special selected trimmings” and cheap bread, and a reversal of fortune, in front of God, friends, and other competitive eaters, would have been more embarrassment than I could handle.

I didn’t finish last, but you can hardly call me a winner. Dazed, I ambled off the stage, feeling a little nauseous. There were dozens upon dozens of uneaten hot dogs on a table, and the MC was encouraging spectators to eat to their hearts’ content.

(Originally published June 16, 2008 on The Sporting Blog, SportingNews.com)