What you learn (and don't learn) about yourself in an eating contest

There are a lot of ways to “learn about yourself,” sure, but most of ‘em are garbage. Seminars are okay if you love being talked at by overly chipper people and then being forced to share milquetoast embraces with strangers who just want to hug the New You with their New Hands. You can go on a road trip, searching for your soul while burning fossil fuels courtesy of the oil corporations whose unethical nature you are so, like, opposed to. There’s the world of psychoactive substances, and there’s the parallel world world where you face an existential crisis over the terrifying and seemingly profound realization that inside every person you love is a skeleton, the Nightmares on Wax album you’re listening to growing increasingly atonal in apparent synchronicity with your swelling fright.

Or you can try to eat a giant hamburger in under twenty minutes.

That’s exactly what my buddy Ryan and I attempted a few months ago at a local bar. The establishment — which offers $1 well shots every time a train comes down the railroad tracks, so you know it’s classy — had always intrigued us with its Heart Attack burger. The Heart Attack is one of those finish-it-and-it’s-free deals, something that could appear on the popular Travel Channel show Man vs. Self-Respect. It costs $25 if unfinished in the allotted time. The specs: four cheese-topped beef patties, four strips of oddly pliable bacon, a few onion rings, two jalapeño poppers, a revolting fried egg, multiple slices of moist ham, the normal assortment of mimetic “vegetables,” all set between two grilled cheese sandwiches instead of buns. There’s also a side of either tater tots or french fries — you pick! — because the caloric count clearly wouldn’t be astronomical enough without the inclusion of fried potatoes. To some this may sound like a repellent mountain of fat; to Ryan and I it sounded like a good way to kill both a weekday afternoon and maybe ourselves.

Now let’s forego modesty; I’m what’s known as, colloquially, “a big eater” (or, in the parlance of every class I took as an undergrad, “a gluttonous privileged slob whose wobbly chins embody everything wrong with unchecked consumption by white people in the first world”…but we’ll go with “big eater” — it’s less of a mouthful). My chowing prowess isn’t remarkable — I hold no world records — but but my spindly-stork frame belies my ability to gorge. I have roughly three more years before my metabolism drops below hummingbird levels and my gross eating habits catch up with me, but until then I will continue to inhale ghastly amounts of greasy food with no semblance of self-restraint. I wouldn’t go as far as to claim eating is a “hobby” of mine — I’m not depraved — but it’s definitely on my Top 75 Habits I Enjoy & You Probably Enjoy Too, As Lindsay Lohan Canyons GIFs list.

We decided to attempt the challenge slightly inebriated, because drinking before noon is always a smart life choice that bodes well for your future. After our a.m. malt liquor (in retrospect, something lighter and not, you know, malt liquor, would’ve been wise), we walked around town, psyching ourselves up for the upcoming challenge. We discussed tactics — should we go with the tri-dog style employed by Dale against Takeru Nozawa*? — as if we were preparing for a LARP tournament or a tank biathlon. Between the alcohol buzz and the strategizing, we felt ready. I should have been intimidated by the task, but I wasn’t even worried. My heart pumps hubris through my partially clogged arteries.

* (Ryan’s note: Dale didn’t tri-dog it against Takeru Nozawa; he did it in the qualifying around against Bill. Duh. How do you not know this?)

When we walked into the bar and ordered two Heat Attack burgers, eschewing menus with little hand waves because we meant business, the owner laughed. She informed us that the burger was an unconquered challenge, a Fermat’s Theorem of fat. She found our confidence cute and naive. The bar was empty except for three other patrons, two of them staring off into nothingness and one watching the George Zimmerman trial, making little mhmms off approval every time the defense provided a salient point. We instantly became the center of attention; us eating giant hamburgers was evidently more exciting than a) a murder trial and b) middle-distance, soft-focus nothingness. It was flattering. Kinda.

The wait for the burgers was unmercifully long. We kept speculating about their size, the poster depicting the burger having been mysteriously removed since our last foray to the bar. (This, I still contend, was a duplicitous move on the part of management. The poster clearly stated that challengers would be given twenty-nine minutes to complete the Heart Attack; the bar owner gave us twenty and seemingly pulled that number out of thin air. With no poster to contradict her, we were subjugated to her chosen time limit. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you. The Bilderberg Group is probably behind it at some level.) Waiting in anxious anticipation is the pits. You you know feeling of waiting in dread at the dentist’s office when you were a kid, when you’re scared about having a cavity and the too-sterile smell of the room is off-putting and then the dentist comes out and tells you he messed up on your mom’s root canal and mutilated half her face, that he’s been drinking recently because his wife is cheating on him with an optometrist, and of course you can’t really understand because you’re a kid and have never engaged in unenthusiastic marital coitus — hopefully — but can’t you see, sort of, why he’d maybe not be at his sharpest today, and could you forgive him for maiming your mother, perhaps, since he might hang himself with regret if you don’t accept his apology? Yeah, that’s the quotidian feeling we experienced during that agonizing wait.

And then the burgers came to our table.



Regrets between grilled cheeses.


I almost voided my bowels in fear. Thinking back, that probably would have helped carve out more space in my gut. LOOK AT THOSE BURGERS. They’re big enough for Bill Veeck to send up to bat. We didn’t waste any time letting the burgers cool. We asked one of the other patrons to set up the clock the second those plates touched our table. There was a ceremonial countdown, a quick toast to good health (ironic, guyz!), and then we began to eat.

The first five minutes were a blur of rabid mastication. We both were shoveling food down at alarming, likely dangerous rates. Ryan ate his first grilled cheese in under a minute, while I polished off a majority of my tots and one full burger patty, using my bacon as a chaser. Every manner lesson I’d ever learned went out the window; it was liberating yet wholly and irrefutably disgusting. I watched Ryan almost literally suck a fried egg down in a single motion, like with an audible slurp, which was unfortunately no less repulsive than the war crime I was committing against my irregularly cooked slices of ham.

It wasn’t until the ten minute mark that my jaw started to ache. I hadn’t anticipated actually experiencing any physical discomfort besides fullness, and I reacted to the pain with all the macho toughness of a kicker curling into the fetal position so he doesn’t get hit on a kick return. All of a sudden there was this unforeseen psychological/physical component to the challenge, and I was in no way prepared to handle anything more complicated than ramming food into my gaping maw. This was an entirely different feeling than what I’d experienced participating in cross country. At least as a runner your just-quit-now-and-be-a-WUSS,-you-WUSS inner monologue comes in conjunction with a wonderfully healthy activity, not with an eating stunt that may or may not give you Type Instant diabetes. I soon found myself focusing too much on my discomfort — waaahhhh, my jaw hurts, the roof of my mouth is burned, my heart is beating slower, waahhhhh —  and not enough on my meal. I started to decelerate.

Finally looking up, I noticed that Ryan was substantially further along that I was. We were both racing against the clock, yes, but racing against each other was sort of the big underlying draw to the whole challenge in the first place. While I wouldn’t necessarily qualify us as both “competitive people,” mainly because people whom self-identify as competitive are often vile jackasses, we do both enjoy the concept of bragging rights. I had my celebratory dance all planned out and everything (there would have been lots of spin moves and middle-finger gesticulations, don’t ask why). I thought I had a slim chance of catching up when, at the fifteen minute mark, this happened:


Our onlookers were shocked. Not only had Ryan completed the Heart Attack, becoming the first person ever to do so, but he only needed fifteen minutes to clear his plate. Considering that we were expecting to receive twenty-nine minutes, fifteen is a mind-boggling achievement. It was the type of unforeseeable record shattering akin to Bob Beamon in Mexico City, only with wolfing down meat instead of athletic talent. He even mopped up the damn ketchup to highlight his dominance, the smug bastard. What had started as a battle between the two of us had morphed into a one-sided slaughter. It’s one thing to stuff your face with obscene amounts of junk food, but it’s another thing to stuff your face with obscene amounts of junk food and not even be good at it.

Alas, I tried to persevere, but it was hopeless. At the eighteen minute mark I knew there was no safe way for me to continue without risking dying in a lonely bar at 1:00 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, which is not the circumstance under which I’d prefer my death to occur (I’ve always hoped I’d sell the farm being shot over a corrupt orchard negotiation gone wrong). The fellow bar patrons were pumping Ryan’s hand, snapping pictures and congratulating him like he’d just saved a small child from a well. I was an afterthought at the point; the guy who had been watching the Zimmerman trial gave me some halfhearted words of encouragement with about a minute remaining, but I knew it was all lip service. I was doomed. Ryan was the hero of the day; I was adequate but ultimately lackluster, just like Tony Romo. Face coated in ketchup and mayonnaise, I choked down my last bite as the buzzer went off.

Pictured: failure

As Ryan had his picture taken by the impressed owner and collected his free celebratory shirt, I slumped down in my seat. I wasn’t sure if I was about to vomit due to extreme fullness or due to shame. Looking at my plate, I realized I had maybe only two or three bites left. I had flashbacks to my bumbling attempts to lose my virginity many years back, coming so close and yet so far. Ryan told me I did an admirable job, and the owner said I performed better than the previous failures, but I was in no emotional state to be consoled and comforted. I tossed my $25 to the owner and waddled out of the bar, amazed at how full and yet how empty I felt inside, happy that at least my brain wasn’t too grease-logged to craft 101-level empty poetic juxtapositions.

Truthfully, I didn’t exactly achieve enlightenment via my Heart Attack attempt. Sorry if you read this whole account and expected a ground-breaking revelation into the human psyche, about the State of Us and How We Are, in the conclusion. Go grab a Dave Eggers book for that (it’ll be filed under “masturbatory navel-gazing” at your local book store). I learned the value of small bites over large ones, sure, but that’s not really the type of insight that’s going to be of any benefit to you unless you’re a cannibal. The next time I want to plumb the murky depths of my soul in an attempt at self-discovery, I’ll just pony up the money for a seminar. Sure, they’ll be ghoulish, lonely, and socially maladroit men looking to lock me in wet-eyed hugs, but at least nobody will be encouraging me to cram fistfuls of complimentary coffee cake into my mouth. It’s the mature and safe route. I’m sure my cholesterol levels, my waistline, and my neighbor’s toilet will thank me (sorry, Ivan. I’ll pay for the damages soon).

Tags: Food

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