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Originally published July 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 4, 2007 at 1:17 PM

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Eating away at the competition

Seattle's Erik Denmark is a competitive eater — what he calls "10 minutes of hell, eating and eating and eating beyond where your body wants to go" — and he's among the nation's elite.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Don't try this at home


Erik Denmark is a professional competitive eater. Consuming large amounts of food in a short time could be dangerous. The International Federation of Competitive Eating Web site says "speed eating is only suitable for those 18 years of age or older and only in a controlled environment with appropriate rules and with an emergency medical technician present." Enjoy your hot dogs during this Fourth of July season, but only one or two at time.

Wednesday

Nathan's Famous hot-dog contest 9 a.m., ESPN

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Erik Denmark leans forward on a platform outside Shea Stadium, his right arm and white shirt stained red from dunking hot dogs into punch. His wristbands are flecked with wiener shrapnel.

His jaws churn slowly, methodically, cheeks deflating as the remnants of 26 ½ hot dogs swirl south.

In front, the legends of competitive eating, men nicknamed "Cookie" and "Crazy Legs" and "Badlands" and "Eater X."

In back, a man wearing a straw hat, holding a microphone, shouting that Denmark hails from Seattle, where he "trains down by the docks, eating only sushi and salmon for months at a time!"

And the crowd, at once repulsed and fixated, the skinny, the small, the fat and the tall, the woman wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt that reads, "My son can eat more than your son."

This is hot-dog heaven.

Denmark, 29, stands at the center of this spectacle on June 3, waiting for the results. The last 21 months led to this, a qualifier for the Nathan's Famous hot-dog contest on July 4, validation for all the travels and all the training and all the time.

The results are in: a tie. A one-minute eat-off will decide Denmark's Fourth of July fate.

"I've eaten 25 hot dogs and run the Boston Marathon the next day," says "Crazy Legs" Conti. "But I don't know anything in sport you can compare overtime to. That's where dreams are made and realities are broken."

Denmark has already thrown up in his mouth — twice. He readies himself above another plate of hot dogs, bent just so, like he's about to shoot a free throw.

3 ... 2 ... 1 ...

To fully grasp his paradox, Erik Denmark needs two lists.

He's normal: graduated from Tahoma High School of Maple Valley, an undergraduate degree in communications from Pacific Lutheran, a master's degree in digital communications media from Washington, a full-time job at Boeing, a 2-handicap in golf, plays in softball, basketball and bowling leagues, writes his own blog.

He's crazy: signed up for a triathlon the day before the race, sans training, and finished it; five surgeries, 11 broken bones, 150 stitches, eight espresso shots downed in a single sitting, 300 hot dogs in his fridge, attempted to eat 40 hot dogs in honor of the Seahawks' appearance in Super Bowl XL, looking into national air-guitar competitions.

Oh, and that whole competitive eating thing.

Denmark's gustatory seeds were planted back in 2001, back when a skinny Japanese man named Takeru Kobayashi downed 50 hot dogs at the Nathan's contest. Denmark reacted typically: How many could I eat?

Four years later, Denmark and friends gathered at the Wing Dome near Green Lake. The goal: to break the record of eating 7-alarm wings. "If they were any hotter," says Tim Nuse, his roommate, "they would stimulate cardiac arrest." The record stood at 30 in three hours. Denmark ordered 35 and ate them in 40 minutes.

A natural. Even as a kid, Denmark ate fast and loved sweets. Then doctors discovered diabetes, and Denmark's taste buds turned from sugar to scorch.

Spicy food led to 7-alarm wings, 7-alarm wings led to an online search for hot sauce-eating contests. And that's how he stumbled upon the Web site for the International Federation of Competitive Eating — and yes, such an organization does exist.

Next, a fifth-place finish at a chicken-wing contest in San Francisco in October 2005, then a national competition in Boston. He met Rich Shea, president of the IFOCE, and reigning world hot-dog champ Joey Chestnut. It was love at first bite.

"Anyone who gets into competitive eating, you've got to be a little off-tilt to begin with," Denmark says. "Everyone's eclectic. Because you're either really determined, really interested in the psychology and how to get better at it. Or you're just a workaholic freak. Can't say 'stop' to anything."

Denmark had stumbled into an outlet where his makeup became his strength. Competitive, addictive, athletic. The kind of guy whose friends avoid him when he loses. Who won't buy bowling shoes, because winners of his league get them for free and buying them would be an admission of defeat.

These lessons were passed down by his grandfathers. One served as an Army colonel in the Vietnam and Korean wars. The other was a renowned conductor. Denmark took the best from both — he's strategic and mathematical, creative and spontaneous.

Don't try this at home


Erik Denmark is a professional competitive eater. Consuming large amounts of food in a short time could be dangerous. The International Federation of Competitive Eating Web site says "speed eating is only suitable for those 18 years of age or older and only in a controlled environment with appropriate rules and with an emergency medical technician present." Enjoy your hot dogs during this Fourth of July season, but only one or two at time.

"He's definitely one of our more competitive members," Rich Shea says. "A rising star."

Denmark describes the process as "10 minutes of hell, eating and eating and eating beyond where your body wants to go." Like running a marathon. Or jumping out of an airplane. He's stretching — limits, mind and, of course, stomach.

The house of a competitive eater: an American flag, an electronic dartboard, a laptop, golf clubs, DVDs, video games, artwork, flowers, a blonde girlfriend, the roommate and a fridge. Inside the fridge: filtered water, reduced-fat milk, unsweetened applesauce, eggs, beer, popsicles.

One block from Alki Beach in West Seattle, Denmark's residence seems, well, normal. Outside the house, not so much.

The life of a competitive eater: sleeping in rental cars or shared hotel rooms, traveling the country, eating in front of crowds as large as 35,000 and as small as a few shoppers at the local mall, signing a contract with the IFOCE, spending $10,000 last year while winning just more than $4,000.

The food: corned beef and cabbage, jalapenos, fried okra, bratwurst, hot dogs, pigs feet, hamburgers, fried asparagus, French fries, chili cheese fries, chicken wings, spot shrimp, Indian fry bread, huevos rancheros.

And tamales.

Inside the house, late April, pots steaming. Denmark is practicing for a weekend competition in Houston. His friend Adam Shantz, an emergency-medical technician, is on hand for safety reasons.

"Did you guys eat before you came?" he asks. "I've seen him eat nine pounds of cabbage before. I don't really watch him after that. If you like food, and you appreciate the taste of food, then maybe it's a good idea not to pay attention to the finer points of what he does."

Denmark pulls a table into the center of the living room, placing towels underneath. He pours the drink he uses in competitions, a mixture of club soda, water and Crystal Light.

He changes into uniform. Backward cap inscribed with his nickname, "Erik The Red." Red wristbands with the number 11 on them, an homage to his mother, who was born May 11 and died from cancer recently.

He's off. Dip, drink, force swallow. Repeat. Pause to burp. Tamales are flying everywhere, covering his hands and chin. He finishes 21 in 12 minutes, a disappointment. He looks miserable, exhausted, full.

"I don't know," he says, when asked to describe the feeling. "If you've ever taken a beer bong, try doing like five of them back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back."

Wednesday

Nathan's Famous hot-dog contest 9 a.m., ESPN

That's half of training, gorging on specific foods for specific competitions. During hot-dog season, the months leading up to Nathan's, Denmark does training runs two to three times a week.

He also trains his body by eating one large meal a day, using the same principle as a lion — wait, wait, wait, feast. He can leisurely eat a 12-egg omelet at Beth's Cafe or break the record at a local sushi joint with 58 plates (two rolls each) in 90 minutes.

The other half consists of chugging water mixed with salts and electrolytes by the gallon to increase stomach capacity. Denmark doesn't want to print any water details beyond that. Too dangerous, he says.

They add up, all the calories and grams of fat and the occasional vomiting — an occupational hazard eaters refer to as a "reversal of fortune" — that blur the line between recklessness and competitiveness. Denmark claims no effects so far, says his foray into competitive eating shows there are no limits for diabetics.

"I don't know of any diabetic eaters," Shea says. "These guys assume that risk on their own. Your doctor has to vouch for you. On the face of it, it wouldn't seem to make any sense."

Denmark's counter-argument: he's 6 feet 4, 210 pounds and in better shape than most who criticize him. He eats like a nutritionist outside of competitions. Especially right after, when it takes "eight, 10 hours, before you actually feel human again."

"A lot of people underestimate their bodies," he says. "I can do pretty much whatever I want with my body. Maybe in 20 years, maybe that will change. Maybe I'm just ignorant. I'm really not trying to be reckless with my body. I really do appreciate it."

The night before the qualifier: Denmark steps out of Penn Station, and directly across Seventh Avenue looms a Nathan's Famous hot-dog stand. It's closed, so he heads to a local deli for supplies and a last meal that consists of beans, pasta salad and cucumbers — food that will move through his system quickly.

Earlier in the day, Chestnut bested Kobayashi's world record at a different qualifier, eating 59 ½ hot dogs, becoming the first American record holder in the new millennium. This set up a potential July 4 showdown against Kobayashi, who has never been beaten in the United States. Reports last week indicate Kobayashi may not compete because of an injured jaw. He's listed as "day to day" on the IFOCE site.

Denmark sees this intrigue as another step toward legitimacy — Chestnut making "The Great Kobayashi" human — beyond arguments of whether competitive eating is sport or spectacle, beyond "The Glutton Bowl," all mayonnaise and sticks of butter aimed at a "Fear Factor" audience.

The growth leads to what Nuse calls a "relentless fascination" that follows Denmark like a giant neon sign blinking: I eat competitively! Ask me about it.

Women especially find the whole eating thing impressive, including Denmark's girlfriend. "At the time, I thought it was something interesting," she says. "Because that's something that nobody does."

Other reactions bend toward gluttony and starving children in Africa and the sad state of America. Denmark defends eating competitively, but only when pressed. He's more concerned that people are paying attention.

"It's the most competitive thing I've ever done," he says. "And if you have a sports mind-set, if you played sports in your life, it's very familiar. There's always going to be people who are going to disagree with the motives of it."

The day of: Denmark boards the 7 train at 10 a.m., lugging his punch and a small bottle of gentian root, which helps create the saliva that aids in swallowing.

The Road to Nathan's — the title of his blog and the theme of his career — led here.

Denmark runs into Crazy Legs and Tim "Eater X" Janus at Shea Stadium. These are the new breed of competitive eaters, far removed from mammoth eaters past. Eater X, he of the sculpted biceps, day trades stocks. Crazy Legs, the one with dreadlocks, manages a strip club and will soon release a documentary about the Zen of competitive eating.

Kobayashi once told Denmark he had a "great body for competitive eating." The Belt of Fat Theory explains why: The less fat between the stomach and the skin, the more room the stomach can stretch. That's why Denmark worries more about a skinny marathon runner with metabolism more than a man three times his size.

"Erik the Red is emblematic of the future of competitive eating," Shea says. "A shift has taken place. There's a more cerebral, competitive approach."

The past and present gather in front of the stage. There's Ed "Cookie" Jarvis and the massive cape he wears listing his accomplishments. There's Eric "Badlands" Booker, a conductor on the 7 train who released a rap CD titled "Hungry and Focused." There's also that indescribable feeling of being part of something — this circus, this fraternity, this high society of gluttony.

Denmark is proud of the space he carved in this strange scene. He holds world records in Indian fry bread and spot shrimp and a world ranking of 14. He's not a top-tier eater — yet. But he is a character, deserving a nickname, maybe some TV time.

"I'm kind of like Luol Deng," he says, comparing himself to the Chicago Bulls forward, "just waiting to break out. You see potential all over him."

The eaters gather at the stage. George Shea, Rich's older brother, starts with introductions:

"All the way from Seattle, Washington. West of here. He flew in yesterday for this purpose alone ... 6 feet, 4 inches tall. I believe the children are our future! And the future stands on the strong shoulders of this young man! The great! Erik! Denmark!"

And they're off.

Overtime: the shoveling starts , two eaters, a trip to Nathan's on the line. Denmark polishes off 3 ½ dogs in one minute, good for 30 total — and another tie! First eater to swallow wins. His jaws turn. His tongue emerges. Triumph.

This Nathan's experience will be different from last year, when Denmark qualified the day before and arrived at the competition with a full stomach to find his nameplate misspelled. Even then, he almost cried tears of joy, standing in front of thousands, a plate of hot dogs below, ready to be devoured.

"That was a point in my life where I never thought I'd be," he says. "You don't grow up dreaming of this. But then you're there. And you say, 'OK, this is how I've made it.' "

Denmark and the rest of the eaters gather in the stands at Shea for a baseball game. They talk about overtime and America and baseball, taking jabs at a sport where Crazy Legs says, "They make millions to play a game where, historically, most of the players are fat and out of shape. Now, Babe Ruth, he would have been a great competitive eater... "

Crazy Legs turns his attention back to Denmark. There are eaters who come for the prize money, the notoriety, the groupies, he says. And there are eaters who "appreciate the fact that there's a trophy and a title and integrity and pride at stake."

Denmark sips a beer, trophy resting under seat, surrounded by the spectacle. They flash his picture on the big screen. He looks like any other athlete — a champion, content. And full.

Only then does it all make sense. This is hot-dog heaven.

Later that night, he's driven inside a Manhattan bar by monsoon-like rain. After 21 months of gluttony and self-discovery, after eating 30 hot dogs in 13 minutes, what does Denmark do to celebrate? He orders chicken wings — and asks for them extra hot.

Greg Bishop: 206-579-2262 or gbishop@seattletimes.com

Denmark's bib sheet
A look at some of Erik Denmark's competitive-eating finishes:
Date Food Amount Min. Finish Event
6/23/2007 Pigs feet 1.875 lbs. 10 2nd World Pigs Feet Eating Championship
6/03/2007 Nathan's hot dogs and buns 30 hot dogs 13 1st Nathan's Famous Hot Dog qualifier
5/05/2007 Tamales 27 oz. 12 5th Berry Hill Baja Grill World Tamale Eating Contest
4/28/2007 Deep-fried asparagus 4.25 lbs. 10 2nd World Deep Fried Asparagus-Eating Championship
12/20/2006 Date-nut bread sandwiches 13 sandwiches 6 5th Chock Full O'Nuts World Date Nut Bread Eating Championship
11/18/2006 Posole 7 lbs., 5 oz 10 4th Sky City Casino World Posole Eating Championship
10/28/2006 Indian fry bread 9.75 pounds (WR) 8 1st Sky City Casino World Fry Bread Eating Championship
10/08/2006 Pickled jalapenos 108 jalapenos 8 4th Big Tex Jalapeno Eating Championship
9/22/2006 Spot shrimp 4 lbs., 15 oz (WR) 12 1st Exhibition for charity
9/16/2006 Fried okra 5 lbs. 10 3rd Golden Palace.Net World Fried Okra Eating Contest
9/10/2006 Krystal burgers 34 burgers 8 2nd Krystal Square Off qualifier
8/19/2007 Gyoza 95 gyoza 10 4th Golden Palace.Net World Gyoza Eating Contest
7/16/2006 Pork ribs 4.1 lbs. 12 3rd Smokin' at the Ocean BBQ Rib Championship
3/16/2006 Corned beef and cabbage 3.5 lbs. 10 6th Golden Palace.Net St. Patty's Day contest
10/15/2005 Buffalo wings 2.86 lbs. 10 5th Verizon VoiceWing Buffalo Wing qualifier
WR — Set world record.

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