Competitive eaters can devour ten percent of their body weight in ten minutes. But will they ever get any real respect?
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published by: Scottsdale Times, August 2008
David “Conan” Cohn steps up to the counter at the Blue Burrito Grille and asks the woman behind the register, “What’s the biggest burrito you’ve got?” Conveniently, in the grand tradition of restaurants challenging their hungriest customers, the Phoenix-based chain lists its biggest specialty first on the menu, aptly called the “Big Blue.”
“Perfect,” Cohn smiles. “And a glass of water.”
Soon, the 6-foot-two, 202-pound Cohn is hunkered down at a table with the $8.75 monstrosity sitting before him. Grasping the anaconda-like burrito stuffed with charbroiled chicken, black beans, guacamole and cheese, he nods to his companion who’s looking at a stopwatch. “Ready?”
Within one minute and 24 seconds, the double-sized burrito, billed as a meal that “easily serves two,” is history, and Cohn raises his arms in triumph at having downed yet another super-sized concoction in record time.
Does he even have time to enjoy it? “I love it, man,” he says, wiping the guacamole off an ear-to-ear grin. “Every bite.”
Since he began his hobby-career as a “competitive eater” some 24 years ago, Cohn has been seeking such challenges in restaurants stretching from Chicago to Las Vegas, and now in Phoenix, where he settled with his wife and two kids four years ago.
“I just heard of a place on 36th Street and Indian School called Hazelwoods,” he says. “They’ve got a two-pound burger, and the manager told me he’s seen only one person put it down in the two months since he’s been running the place. They take your picture and give you a T-shirt if you finish the burger. I’m sure I could pound that thing. I mean, I’ve put down a five-pound burger before – no sweat.”
American restaurants have always offered such curious challenges to their heartiest customers – from the famous 15-pound “Belly Buster Burger” at Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, to the 72-ounce “Texas King” steak at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo. And locally who can forget the “Pig’s Trough” at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlors during the ‘70s, where patrons who successfully consumed the double banana-split boat were rewarded with sirens and a souvenir button that read, “I made a pig of myself at Farrell’s.”
Cohn got his start by downing six Wendy’s Triples on a dare from some frat buddies. That led to a stint challenging every all-you-can-eat shrimp bargain on the Vegas strip, where Cohn finally beat out the three-time “World’s Strongest Man” power lifting champion Bill Kazmaier in a burger-eating contest. “I put down a two-pound burger, and Kazmaier still had half of his left,” he says proudly. “And I finished his leftovers.”
Eventually, Cohn drifted into the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Championship, arguably the biggest annual event on the competitive-eating circuit. He finished fifth in the regional playoffs in 2007 and second this past May. Though a conservative Jew who favors Hebrew Nationals on his own barbeque grill, Cohn successfully devoured 13-and-a-half Nathan’s hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes at Tempe’s Arizona Mills Mall, in one of 18 contests the hot dog maker hosts around the country. Winners go on to the final round at Coney Island every Fourth of July.
But Cohn isn’t simply a beer-bellied Homer Simpson with a weakness for free eats. Trim and muscular at age 43, Cohn actually works as a corporate wellness trainer for Pure Fitness, where, ironically, he schools chubby executives in the science of proper diet and exercise. As such, Cohn is a model of the modern competitive eater, where thin, elastic stomachs are prized possessions and where consuming a dozen hot dogs in ten minutes is actually a preferred indulgence to steroids or other Hulk-inspired supplements.
“One thing that I want to get across to kids is that you don’t need performance-enhancing drugs to grow,” Cohn says. “You wanna eat right –proteins, carbohydrates and good fats. And once in a while, you can go crazy with contests like this.”
If Will Ferrell is on the lookout for yet one more offbeat sports hero with a divine mission complex to spin into movie box-office gold, he should definitely meet David “Conan” Cohn.
“One of my mottos is to enjoy life every day,” says the man who professes to never hurl following a competitive-eating event.
“If you’re not having a good day, flush,” he says. “If it doesn’t all go down, flush twice.”
Wallace “Gus” Beisel never thought much about becoming a professional competitive eater. But his girlfriend thought the 6-foot, 290-pound Mesa man would have no problem consuming a dozen hot dogs in as many minutes at the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating regionals hosted at Arizona Mills Mall.
“I didn’t really know how to train for it,” Beisel admits. “Some of my friends told me that the professional competitive eaters will eat a whole watermelon to expand the stomach before the event. So the day before, I tried to eat a whole watermelon, but I was only able to eat about three-quarters of it.”
Nevertheless, the hefty first-timer managed to finish third in the contest – just half a dog behind Cohn – and was instantly bitten by the competitive-eating bug. A few weeks later, Beisel was pounding the dogs again at a smaller contest in northern Arizona.
“My friend has a getaway cabin north of Payson, and there was a brewery up there that had a hot dog-eating contest July 5 that I took first place in,” he says. “I got a pretty decent-sized trophy, a medal and $200!”
Now, Beisel is looking to, well, expand into other food types, signing up for the Native New Yorker’s “Battle of the Bone” chicken wing contests (the chain has been holding competitions every Wednesday night at a different location) and learning as much as he can from the pros.
“When I was in the Nathan’s contest, I noticed the professional eater from Chicago dunked his buns in Crystal Lite,” he says. “It’s mostly to make them taste better, because once those things are soaking wet from all the hot dogs, it’s not the greatest tasting thing in the world. So when I went up to Payson, I brought my own Crystal Lite – and everyone was looking at me like I was a pro!” he says laughing.
Beisel knows his new pursuit is still seen by most as a joke – or, worse yet, as the culmination of America’s worst vices: piggishness, waste and idiotic spectacle. “Yeah, a lot of people just see it as gluttony,” he admits.
But slowly, the “capacity trainers” involved in competitive speed eating are beginning to warrant coverage on ESPN and CNN as genuine athletes. When six-time Nathan’s hot dog-eating champion Takeru Kobayashi nearly had to bow out of this year’s competition due to a jaw injury, the story was covered in the New York Times with the attention normally reserved for a Tiger Woods wrist injury.
The International Federation of Competitive Eating now oversees nearly 100 major league eating events annually (topped by Nathan’s Coney Island square-off, still the World Series of overstuffing). And professional competitive eaters like 24-year-old San José State University student Joey Chestnut, winner of the Nathan’s competition for the past two years, have been elevated to superstar status.
“It’s kind of at the point the UFC was a few years ago,” says Beisel, referring to the Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial arts promotion, which has risen from brutal spectacle to respectable sport in a short time. “Once you reach a certain level in it now, it can become a kind of profession, with sponsorship and everything.”
Beisel’s not sure if he’ll go pro, but he admits he does enjoy the thrill of taking down 13 hot dogs in ten minutes.
“Immediately afterwards, you do feel really heavy in your stomach – but your adrenaline’s pumping, too,” he says. “After a few minutes of chilling out with your friends and kind of reliving the moment, you’re almost ready for another hot dog!”
Not Just for Boys
At 6 feet tall and 140 pounds, Lindsay Veylupek stands out in the crowd of competitive eaters, not only for her rail-thin physique but for her gender. Though a few women, notably young, petite Asians, have cracked the ranks of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, face-stuffing contests have remained largely a guy thing.
Veylupek, however, remembers plenty of pizza-packing moments with her sisters.
“That’s how I got into it,” says the 25-year-old receptionist for the Arizona Orthopedic Society, taking a break at work. “I’d compete against my sisters, seeing who could eat all the pizza or chicken wings the fastest.”
On a lark, Veylupek signed up with the IFOCE and got into a few wing- and pizza-eating contests at local restaurants. But it turned out her femininity hampered her in ways beyond the biological: Veylupek found she was a bit too compassionate for the sport.
“I’d get in contests, but then I’d start to feel sorry for some of the others who were trying so hard to win, and I’d kind of back off,” she says. “It just looked like they needed the prize money more than me.”
Veylupek finally signed on to the Nathan’s Tempe regionals but had to bow out at the last minute due to another girlie affliction: a crummy tummy.
“The day before the competition, I didn’t eat a whole lot because I wanted to have an empty stomach,” says Veylupek, who also prepared with lots of yoga and Pilates. “But then, because of the heat and not eating, it just made me kind of sickish.”
In the end, Veylupek discovered she didn’t have the right stuff to go up against guys with nicknames like Conan, Jaws and Gravy.
“I didn’t want to get up there and, you know, make a mess on the table,” she says, with a sheepish laugh. “That would not have been good.”