Erik "the Red" Denmark isn't one to back down from a challenge -- any challenge. A former golfer on Seattle's amateur circuit, Denmark turned his attention towards a less conventional sport in 2005 when he downed a boatload of chicken in a San Francisco wing-eating competition. "I really was just looking for something crazy to do," says Denmark. "I've never been into ordinary things, and I was feeling a little bit saucy so I started this. I've always been somebody who was willing to take any ridiculous challenge and complete it."
Six years later, he's ranked #7 in the world by the International Federation of Competitive Eating, aka Major League Eating (yes, there is such a thing). After winning the Phoenix qualifier of the annual Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest for the past two years running, Denmark is headed back to the Arizona Mills Mall in Tempe this Saturday, June 11, in hopes of keeping the "crown" away from another pro eater.
Denmark took some time out from his training schedule to chat with us this week, and had a lot to say about swallowing pig's feet and vomit, and other physical challenges of his unique sport:
Winging it: You could say I got my start in college with drinking contests and then moved up to hot sauce eating contests and then this.
My first contest I found online, and the contest was in 5 days. I went and placed 5th -- the top 5 made it to the finals in Boston. That was really the first time I ate for capacity and I was pretty happy that I was able to qualify for the finals. Once I had some success there and I liked it, I didn't ever question it after that.
What prompted the change from golfing to grub? I was looking for something a little bit more bizarre and less expensive. Not that competitive eating is cheap. It's actually probably more expensive than golf if you don't win money. There are probably 10-15 people in America who don't lose money in competitive eating.
Is eating your full-time job? It's my life job; it just doesn't pay me that well. I like to say that I have a part-time job and a full-time hobby.
Competitive eating isn't a sport that you retire on. You can't be number 20 and make any money at it. If you're the 20th ranked golfer in the world, you're making millions of dollars. But not with this. You need to have a backup plan.
Is there an eating challenge you wouldn't tackle? There's really nothing I wouldn't do. Maybe raw testicles, I guess...
Squealing with (anything but) delight: There was a contest in Jersey that was supposed to be a pickled pigs feet contest. For whatever reason, the pickled pigs feet supplier didn't come through for them last-minute. It was pretty shabby. The pigs' feet were just cut off the pigs and put on ice and sent over to us.
How gross was that? They didn't taste that bad; it was more of the mental image of an actual foot with knuckles on it and a little bit of hair. There were only four eaters who were willing to show up for that contest. It was pretty brutal.
On the dreaded "Reversal of Fortune": I've never actually thrown up at a contest or stopped a contest. I've thrown up in my mouth at almost every contest, but you swallow it because it's just par for the course.
The closest I ever came was a jalapeño eating contest in New Mexico. I got to about 100 jalapenos in nine minutes and decided to stand up. When I stood up, the jalapeno juices just shot like rocket through my esophagus and into my mouth. I had to cover my mouth with my hand. It ended up just streaming out of my nose.
Later on that night, when we were sitting in the hotel room, we were watching the news and the one bit they showed as a teaser for the contest was jalapeño juice streaming out of my nose.
Jedi mind tricks: At this point in my career, I don't train with food all that much. It's mostly mental stimulation... To be honest with you, the truth will never be told. Well, it's something I'm saving for my books.
Are you really putting out a book on this? I have tons of stories, but I need some good closing chapters. Competitive eating is alike a social experiment. A lot of people love it or hate it; but they're drawn to it like a train wreck.
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This can't be healthy. Can it?
I have a doctor that I check in with regularly. The short-term effects are basically nil. I'm as healthy as I was when I started; in fact, you have to pay attention to what you're eating a little bit more during the competitive season.
Thinning the herd: Having a slimmer build is actually an advantage in competitive eating. When I come to the table and see people I haven't seen before, if they're 300 pounds I'm not worried at all. If I see a guy who looks more like a bodybuilder or a marathon runner, I'm more concerned about them because I know they put themselves through pain to get results.
And finally, the question everyone is dying to ask -- why the hell do you do this?
It's not about food. It's about pushing your body to the limits; it's something that nobody can do or understand unless you destroy your body as much as I have. It's similar to what a marathon runner or a body builder goes through. You're spending so much time getting your body to a point that is sort of freakish, and then you're going out there and performing.
Catch Denmark in action this Saturday at 1 p.m. inside the Arizona Mills Mall. The top male and female qualifiers will go on to compete at the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest taking place at Coney Island on July 4.