...claudine ko

Competitive Eating
Jane, May 2006

She can eat 522 oysters in 10 minutes, 25 Tater Tots in five and 11 pounds of cheesecake in nine. Meet competitive eating world record holder Sonya "Black Widow" Thomas. Claudine Ko tries to keep up.

When 5-foot-5, 98-pound Sonya Thomas walked onto the stage of XFest, an outdoor alternative music festival, three years ago, the 21,000 Godsmack fans were probably wondering, "How is this little woman going to eat all those boiled eggs?" She stood alone behind a table topped with a line of plastic bowls that contained a total of 65 peeled boiled eggs. "No one knew what she was capable of," recalls "Crazy Legs" Conti, a high-ranking competitive eater.  

It would be just like that scene from Cool Hand Luke when Paul Newsman bets he can down 50 eggs in one hour, only six times faster. Sonya wanted to break the world record of 38 eggs in eight minutes and prove that she was a real contender in the competitive eating circuit, despite the fact that she was one of the few females in the sport. She looked at the crowd. "There were so many people watching," Sonya remembers. Suddenly, the timer started, and Sonya quickly put back five. But then her throat stopped working. "I just couldn't swallow," the Korean-born Sonya tells me in her accented English. "I was nervous."

A concerned official from the International Federation of Competitive Eating approached her, afraid she was choking. "He told me, 'Take your time, breathe,'" she says. Sonya tried to drink water, but it didn't help. She paused for about 30 seconds while all the faces looked on. Finally, she swallowed. Then she ate at full speed until she'd polished off more than five dozen eggs in six minutes and 45 seconds. The bowls were empty before the clock ran out.

"People were astounded," says Crazy Legs. "She said, 'I ran out of eggs.' She could've kept going." It was a new record.

Now, three years later, Sonya is the top American "athletic gurgitator" in what the IFOCE claims is the country's fastest-growing sport--its number of events has multiplied eight times since 2002. She owns 27 world eating records, including oysters (522 in 10 minutes), Tater Tots (250 in five minutes) and cheesecake (11 pounds in nine minutes), and she won $50,000 in 2005 alone. "Sonya weighs a quarter of [the guys'] weight and eats twice as much," Crazy Legs says. "She basically devours men." Which explains her nickname: the Black Widow.

The thing is, Sonya's actually the only woman competing on the 300-eater pro circuit right now. Not exactly surprising, considering our body-obsessed society. I mean, it's one thing to be a closeted binge-eater, another to be seen publicly porking out like there's no tomorrow. Fortunately, my own love of food outweighs my interest in being skinny. Yesterday alone, I consumed a pint of Haagen-Dazs coffee ice cream, two bowls of noodles (one with Gruyere and Parmesan, one with Shanghai hot sauce), a poached egg, steamed kale, an avocado-cheese-and-tomato sandwich, an everything bagel, two bowls of nutty granola cereal, three clementines, a few dark-chocolate-covered cookies and a buttered Portuguese roll. My point being, with Sonya as my mentor, I think I can help end this female player shortage. So I begin training for the Krystal Square Off World Hamburger Eating Championship four weeks away in Chattanooga, Tenn. The prize is $10,000. And as Sonya tells me, "If you have the desire, you can do anything."  

A week later, I'm in a dimly lit Boston bar, waiting for a chicken-wing contest to begin. My goal: to watch Sonya and learn. From the front row I survey the wings-limp morsels bathed in orange grease and separated into 3-pound piles. A photographer next to me murmurs, "I hope I don't vomit."

A decent-sized crowd has turned out to see 11 eaters suck as much meat off the bones as possible in a 10-minute feeding frenzy. Sonya looks astonishingly thin in her oversized tee. To her right, 6-foot-6, 420pound Ed "Cookie" Jarvis appears to be harboring an industrial-sized sack of jelly underneath his XXX-large shirt, while Eric "Badlands" Booker's stomach resembles an inflated pillow. Still, Sonya is expected to win today, as usual-and she hates to lose. "I like competition," says Sonya of why she started doing this in the first place. "I wanted to be a sportswoman, the kind where they say, 'Oh my gosh, this person is so good.'" In her first contest, in 2003, she made it through a then-record-setting 25 hot dogs in 12 minutes.

Finally, the opening beats of Eminem's "Lose Yourself" fill the room and IFOCE emcee George Shea starts the contest. "The passion is raw," he declares as the eaters rip into the aluminum tins, "but the poultry is cooked!"

Sonya's technique is impeccable. She uses both hands, spinning and stripping one drumstick after another, chewing to an even rhythm. She spends no more than two seconds per piece. With a minute and 20 seconds left, the crowd goes nuts. Sonya's saffron-stained cheeks bulge and water runs down her chin. Someone screams, "Stuff it!" Time is called. The eaters attempt to stand, digesting what's in their mouths.

It's an upset. Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, a 21-year-old rookie who was barely in my peripheral vision, takes home the $3,500 prize for consuming 4.2 pounds, while Sonya's 3.2 pounds-approximately 112 wings-ties her for fourth place. She puts on a smile and does a few quick press interviews, but when the cameras are off, she is clearly shaken. "I couldn't swallow," she says. "Right now, I want to give up." Only two weeks before, she'd polished off 5.75 pounds of wings in a qualifying contest.

"She's distraught. Those wings were very dense, and she's never been faced with losing to lower-ranked competitors," Crazy Legs explains. "But she's going to come back with a vengeance."

Some eaters train by chowing at all-you-can-eat buffets or gulping down food that doesn't conform to the shape of their throat (think grape tomatoes). But Sonya is pretty lowkey. She tells me she might do a couple two-minute trial runs a few days before an event. Other than that, she's on a treadmill for about an hour and a half, five times a week for stamina. "After I started the eating contests, I changed my diet and began exercising," she says. And she eats only one meal a day-at her job in Maryland where she's the senior assistant manager at a Burger King-of three 42-ounce Diet Cokes, a grilled chicken sandwich, 10 chicken tenders and large fries. That's it. "I love Diet Coke," she gushes.

I take Sonya's advice and start jogging a few miles three times a week (I already bike to work). I also begin eating two large salads with every meal, which I've heard helps increase your stomach capacity. A bunch of the younger guys, whom Crazy Legs calls "The Brat Pack," tell me they "water train" to stretch their stomachs by downing a gallon of H20 in less than a minute.

The Tuesday before my Saturday burger-eating contest, I gather with some friends for one of Sonya's suggested trial runs with a sack of 10 White Castle burgers and a giant soda to dunk them in. The 3-inch-by-3-inch meat patties are sandwiched between fluffy buns, which makes it imperative to soak them in a liquid so they'll slide down my throat. I stand, leaning over the table, my feet shoulder-width apart, hands ready, the way I've seen Sonya do. And as someone times me, I dig in: I rip the burgers in half and sop up the pieces. The goopy bread is gross and it's hard to avoid my gag reflex, but at the end of two minutes, I manage to eat five. Immediately, I break into a cold sweat. It feels like I've got malaria.

By Thursday, I'm up to roughly a half-gallon of water in five minutes before feeling like I'm going to pass out, and I've started eating White Castle burgers after dinner in place of dessert. I top out at six, which means in the eight-minute sprint, I could theoretically do 24, but realistically, I'll be lucky if I can hit 20. My friends joke that I should use the nickname "Cannibal," so if I lose, I can say it's because I wasn't eating human flesh. I'm also into the man-eating sentiment.

I arrive in Chattanooga the day before the championship, feeling pretty amateurish. In the hotel lobby, I see an incredibly built Japanese man wearing a skullcap, shades and trainers. It's Takeru "Tsunami" Kobayashi, the greatest pro eater in the world (Sonya's No. 2). Takeru shot to fame in 2001 when the then-128pounder demolished the hot dog record at the Fourth of July Nathan's contest (i.e., the Super Bowl of competitive eating). He downed fifty-and-a-half wieners in 12 minutes, while Sonya came in second with the American record of 32. Since then, he's put on about 45 pounds through intense weight training. I make a mental note to hit the hotel's gym.

When Sonya shows up, she seems to be over the wing contest humiliation, telling me, "Tiger Woods loses, too." She says her goal for tomorrow is 69 burgers-the number Kobayashi beat her 46 with last year.

Later that night, a bunch of the eaters roll into a Krystal fast-food joint-some want to informally test out their techniques on the real thing. We give our order to the cashier: 60 burgers. Sonya gets a fried chicken salad and, of course, a DC. As Britney Spears's "Toxic" plays overhead, she delicately nibbles at her food. Sonya tells me she doesn't like to eat quickly in everyday life.

The next afternoon, Krystal arranges to have two white stretch limos take us all to the competition. As we approach the giant outdoor arena, an 11-piece marching band leads us in. There are more than 1,000 spectators, and we're soon thronged by fans asking for autographs. Though I feel like an impostor scribbling away next to Sonya, Takeru and Badlands, I happily sign, trying out my new nickname, "Cannibal" Ko.

Finally, we corral into the VIP hut. All of a sudden I realize the emcee, George, is saying something about a newcomer. Crap. He's talking about me. I barely have time to race onto the stage before he yells, "Claudeeeeeeen 'Cannibaaaaal' Koooooo!" My spot is at the end of the table, near the TV crews and marching band. I set up my liquid (watered down Gatorade). The main attractions-Sonya and Takeru-enter later to a large roar from the crowd. And then we're off.

I break my first burger in half, dunk it in Gatorade, and pop it into my mouth. But there's a problem: I can't swallow. I push the mushy object around with my tongue. Two minutes go by, and the marching band spontaneously decides to cheer me on: "Claudine! Cannibal!" I self-consciously stuff the second half in before I finally remember how to swallow. But now I've overbooked my throat passage, so getting the pieces down is near impossible. I realize I may not even be able to put away five of these fat fuckers.

Meanwhile, I hear a huge commotion to my right. It sounds like Joey Jaws is beating Takeru, and the crowd is freaking. For seven minutes, Jaws leads Takeru by at least one burger, but in the final 37 seconds, the Japanese sensation puts down seven Crystals for a total of 67. Sonya places third with 56. I easily come in last with 11-which might just dispel the theory that Asians have a hold on this sport.

My comrades are genuinely happy for me. Badlands says I was great for a first-timer. And Tim "Eater X" Janus, a handsome 28-year-old who paints an X on his face for contests, is equally full of praise. "Eleven is a prime number! I ate a prime number! So did Kobayashi!" he says. I'm not surprised that, in a sport where the goal is to eat as much as possible, the love between the competitors is as warm as a bowl of freshly baked beans (again, a Sonya record: 8.4 pounds in two minutes and 47 seconds).

Back in the VIP hut, as my stomach starts cramping, I see my mentor, who seems okay with her loss. Mostly, she's distracted by a table piled with assorted packaged desserts. "I don't know what Moon Pie is," Sonya says, stuffing one of the chocolate-covered marshmallow-and-graham-cracker sandwiches into her bag. I've never had a Moon Pie either, so bellyache and all, I grab one, too. And a red velvet cake thingy.

Two months later, Sonya and I arrive in Atlantic City, N.J., for a meatball competition (this time, I'm back in the audience). Sonya really has to win today, because rumors are circulating that Jaws might bump Sonya to second in the nation if he beats her again.

The eating table is set up in the indoor mall at the Tropicana Hotel. An aroma of tangy marinara and stewed beef pervades the air. About 500 people crowd around, some with signs for their favorite eaters. Since Sonya is still the No. 1 seed, she is introduced last. When the timer starts, she fluidly scoops the balls with her left hand. Her right hand holds a plastic cup of iced tea. By her third plate, some of the guys are still on their first. When the 12 minutes are up, she has eaten more than 10 pounds, easily beating Jaws and the others. Sonya is back on top and will take home $2,500. Her beaming face looks beautiful to me-even covered in tomato sauce. She rubs her protruding tummy, "Oh, so full."