BLUE SPRINGS — The cool February air cleared the sausage-scented sweat on my forehead but failed to soothe my stomach.
"You did good," professional eater Randy "Atlas" Santel had said.
Santel was the reason I had gotten this far. He had agreed to partner with me. He told me how to train. Now the mentor was complimenting my work.
But my revenge-seeking gut kept me from truly appreciating the praise.
This was far beyond Thanksgiving dinner stuffed. The truth is, a stomach pumping sounded better than a nap.
How it started
I have some history with competitive eating.
I've chugged chocolate milk at school lunches and competed in pancake eat-offs after childhood sleepovers. My first jalapeno was the result of a grade-school dare.
As kids, we stuff our faces with gusto. Yet the pride turns into guilt as we turn into grown ups. Society teaches us manners and moderation. Eating for sport becomes wrong.
It's gluttony! It's also more popular than ever.
A five-year-old YouTube video of famous professional eater Takeru Kobayashi trying to out-eat a Kodiak bear has 2,888,255 views.
"Man v. Food," a show highlighting restaurant eating challenges, gave the Travel Channel its best ratings for a debut when it first aired in 2008.
Last Fourth of July, a record number of people (1,949,000) tuned into ESPN to watch a line of professional gorgers eat hardly-chewed hot dogs and water-soaked buns during the Nathan’s Famous International Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest.
Competitive eating has forced its way into the mainstream. We can't look away. Pay attention long enough and it's only natural to start wondering about your own skills.
That's what got me into this mess.
Teaming up with Randy Santel
When I decided to venture into competitive eating, my sports editor suggested I team up with a man known as "Atlas."
Santel has appeared in newspapers and on television to promote the message that competitive eating and fitness can go hand in hand. The 6-foot-5 concrete estimator used to play on the offensive line at Missouri State. Now he travels state to state taking on any competition he can find.
Since March 2010, Santel has won 88 challenges. His list of achievements include chugging 120 ounces of milkshake in less than five minutes, consuming 53 pieces of sushi in just more than two and eating an 87-ounce steak in 15.
On Dec. 13, at the Midway Truck Stop, Santel became the first person to complete the Big 70 Challenge, a concoction of seven buttered biscuits, hash browns and bacon strips drowned in 70 ounces of white gravy. The contest has a one-hour time limit. Santel did it in seven minutes, 25 seconds and then asked for a slice of peanut butter pie.
I sent the amazing eater an email. He called the next day.
In a deep, strong voice that made me pull my phone away from my ear, Santel agreed to offer his assistance.
"I'm definitely interested in doing a challenge with you," he said.
We agreed on the Minsky's monster pizza challenge in Blue Springs, a two-person event close to Santel’s Overland Park, Kan., home. In two weeks, we would try to eat one of the restaurant's 26-inch, 9-pound gourmet pizza in less than an hour. Santel and a friend had completed the challenge in 48 minutes. He and I would try to do it faster.
Five days before teaming with Santel, I took the short drive down I-70 to the Midway Truck Stop. The Big 70 Challenge would be good practice. Plus it would give Santel, and myself, an estimate of my skills.
The dimly lit diner had an open table under a mounted six-point buck. A Girl Scout troop came in behind me, filing into a back room and out of sight. A waitress brought over a double-sided waiver.
"Contestant acknowledges that there are risks of personal injury, illness and possible loss of life..."
The kitchen doors swung open and a different waitress emerged. Her tray held two brown ceramic troughs shaped to look like pigs, a pink pig-shaped egg timer and a thick, heavy spoon.
The bowls landed on the table with a thunk. The smiling pig timer started ticking like a bomb.
Within minutes, the gravy started thickening like wet concrete in the sun. It weighed heavier on the spoon with every bite. The spoon itself was a mouthful. Made from the same material as the pig bowls, it was as unpleasant as the tasteless white paste it shoveled. It pressed down like a doctor's tongue depressor. A troubling gag reflex emerged.
"Get up and walk around," one of the waitresses suggested when my progress stalled just 10 minutes in.
But the quick lap around the diner made it even harder to resume eating.
The few customers in the room turned their attention back to their eggs and coffee. They knew there was nothing left to see. The glass eyes of the stuffed deer seemed to hold a disapproving stare.
The final minutes were spent scraping the remnants of the first bowl onto the top of the second — a gutless move that gave the impression half of the food had been finished.
When the pig timer ticked off the 35th minute, I pushed away from the table.
"I'm done," I said.
Before the bowls could be carried away, 13 Girl Scouts emerged from the back room and walked past the table.
"Gross," one whispered to a friend.
My name became the 22nd on the diner's Wall of Shame. Another list, the Wall of Fame, was taped just inches to the right.
One name stood out: "Randy 'Atlas' Santel — 7 minutes, 25 seconds."
I left full of gravy. And embarrassment.
I stalled for three days before calling Santel. He seemed anxious to find out the results of my attempt. Two days before I had even attempted the challenge, he had emailed me.
"Have you tried the biscuits and gravy challenge yet? How did you do?"
I was afraid he might back out on our agreement when he heard the pitiful results.
"How did the biscuits go?" he asked when I finally called.
"Not so good," I answered.
Santel wasn't upset. He said he had expected me to fail, and he sympathized with my loss.
"It's frustrating because of all the effort you put into it, all the calories," Santel said.
He explained how my approach to the biscuits and gravy had been all wrong. My failure started long before my first bite. It was a sequence of events that began with a late-night chili dog the night before and included a lack of proper sleep, not enough exercise and no stomach-stretching or distraction techniques.
Santel suggested the following plan:
Go to an all-you-can eat salad bar the night before the challenge and consume as many plates of lettuce and watermelon that you can. The water-heavy food would stretch the stomach but digest quickly, leaving a bigger, emptier stomach that would hold more pizza later. The morning of the challenge, drink one protein shake after waking up and another at noon. Consistently drink water until 1 p.m. Then cut off all consumption. A light afternoon workout of jogging and push-ups would give the metabolism one final boost before it was time to drive to Blue Springs. At some point before the challenge, make a playlist of motivational songs to listen to while eating.
All other preparation would be mental.
"You can't go into this food challenge thinking you are going to lose," Santel said. "You have to think it’s going to happen."
Before the call ended, he offered his parting advice.
"Don't even try to think about keeping up with me because that will make you nervous," he said. "As long as we win, that's all that matters. But also don't think I'm going to carry you. Don't slack."
I couldn't decide whether I was more confident or more nervous than before.
People noticed when Santel arrived at Minsky's. Those who didn’t see his wide shoulders making their way toward my table surely heard the voice that sounded like it swallowed a microphone place our order.
"We'll go with the Papa Minsky's," he said.
In the kitchen, a chef prepared the bicycle-tire-sized pizza: 52 ounces of dough, 50 pepperonis, 30 ounces of Romano cheese, 10.5 ounces of Italian sausage, 10.5 ounces of salami, six ounces of sweet peppers and three scoops of a special sauce.
As the pizza baked, Santel started getting ready. He reached into his black gym bag and set the following things on the table: a steel nail the length of my forearm, a beaded necklace, a brown cloth towel, a digital timer and a purple Miley Cyrus MP3 player.
The pizza came from the kitchen on a silver pan that needed three stands to hold it up. Santel put his huge hand in the middle of the pie and pressed down to gauge the temperature. Grease bubbled up between his thick fingers. We would have to wait a while for it to cool to keep from burning our mouths, he declared.
The wait gave me a chance to ask questions. Santel's timer and the towel made sense. The other items needed explanation.
The long, thin nail would be tucked into Santel's sock. Originally an award from a Boy Scout event (he became an Eagle Scout in high school), the nail has turned into a lucky charm.
The purple MP3 player held Santel's eating playlist, a collection of songs from a surprising group of artists.
"I've got a mix of Ke$ha, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, 'N Sync, Avril Lavigne and the Dixie Chicks," Santel said. "For me, it's just fun to dance in my head and get my mind off the food I'm eating. When you're focused on other stuff, you're able to eat more."
The wooden beads on the necklace gave it a tribal feel. Santel got it during a trip to New Zealand, a prize he won by losing 25 pounds in two months as a participant in a Men's Health Magazine body transformation challenge. Part of Santel's trip included an appearance on the STARZ gladiator-themed TV series, "Spartacus." The necklace was a prop for the show, but it is also Santel's reminder that competitive eating and a good physique can coexist.
"It's two opposite ends of the spectrum," Santel said. "Thousands of calories combined with health and fitness. It intrigues people. I'm able to maintain 235 pounds while doing these food challenges. I used to be 345 pounds."
Santel pressed his hand back into the pizza. It was ready now.
"I'll be right back," he said.
Santel returned from the restroom and pulled his white T-shirt off over his head.
Underneath was the tight, sleeveless red shirt that he wears for every challenge. A large, wheeled weapon was plastered onto the chest, and a reference to Santel's 19-inch biceps wrapped around the artillery: "These aren't guns, they're cannons!"
His Titan-themed eating name — Atlas — was printed on the back.
Santel put his headphones on. With his eyes closed and his head bowed, he drew an invisible cross over his chest and turned his Missouri State hat backward.
I took a sip of pink lemonade (one of the drinks Santel had suggested) and punched play on my iPod to start a bass-laden Kanye West track.
We toasted our first slices together and took our first bites.
Santel had told me to chew as little as possible while hunger was on my side. I felt unstoppable when the first three slices, hardly chewed, slipped down quick and easy.
My pride lasted until I looked across the table. Santel, bobbing his head to whatever pop song played in his ears, was tearing through pizza like a wood chipper. A slice was constantly being pushed into his mouth while his jaws chomped and churned. He bent his elbows and flapped his arms while he ate. The movement forced the food down and cleared any extra air from his stomach. One slice disappeared and another one (or two) instantly took its spot. I forced myself to look away.
Pizza slices were shifting and compacting like Tetris blocks inside of me.
Santel and I had attacked the pizza from the middle, going after the cheesiest sections before they cooled and hardened.
By the time I made it to the edges, I started getting picky about the songs that were playing. I became aware of the grease on my face and hands. I realized my sweat smelled like meat.
Two full slices, one abnormally large piece of sausage and a pile of crust remained on my plate. Santel had claimed everything else.
My momentum stalled.
Santel reached over to take one of the slices off my hands. I rejected his offer.
"I've got it," I said.
I finished the second-to-last slice and it hit me hard and fast — that same miserable feeling I knew from the truck stop diner. My stomach, tired of the abuse, started to fight back. An attempted swallow turned into an audible retch.
Santel reached over again. He picked up my final full slice. Embarrassed, I asked him to take the chunk of sausage, too.
Only my crust remained.
I wished I would have eaten them sooner.
"We can finish under 30," Santel said.
With baby bites and big gulps of lemonade, I forced the dried bread into my mouth. To swallow, I pretended I was taking a pill.
Santel, who had already polished off my leftovers, saved his last bite to coincide with mine.
"Done!" someone said.
The black block numbers on Santel’s timer showed 25 minutes.
The restaurant manager, watching from behind the counter, shook his head.
Santel stood and congratulated me. I had finished 12 slices to his 23, three pounds to his six. Together, we had defeated the challenge faster than any other duo.
We posed for a picture together, the empty pan held between us like a trophy. Santel looked fresh and happy. I looked bloated and miserable. I forced a smile then fled to the parking lot.
Santel strolled outside as I paced.
"If you ever want to try a challenge by yourself," he started.
I cut him off.
"I'm retired," I said.
Santel laughed and walked away.
Under his arm, he carried a barbecue chicken pizza in a box.
He said it was to take home to his girlfriend.