When I volunteered to cover the sixth annual St. Elmo Shrimp Cocktail eating contest, I didn’t expect to be offered a spot in the contest’s media bracket. Knowing better than to turn down St. Elmo’s shrimp, I accepted and dove into the world of competitive eating.
Leading up to the event, everyone from competitive eaters to close family members warned me about the St. Elmo’s sauce. They conjured images of liquid lava served generously on a shellfish. The legends of blazingly spicy hot sauce frankly exaggerated. Not that the sauce was not good. It contains an amazing flavor that makes all grocery store cocktail sauce taste like ketchup in comparison. The heat, while certainly present, is just simply not a Herculean task to overcome.
My immunity to the heat didn’t help my eventual performance. In my competitive eating debut, I failed to be the first media representative to eat eight St. Elmo’s shrimp. My poor form was to blame. I mindlessly shoveled shrimp cocktail into my face and somehow forgot to swallow in between handfuls. By the time I realized that I should pace myself, it was too late. The announcer called the winner and two uneaten shrimp remained in my bowl.
Even though victory eluded my grasp, I very much enjoyed my time as an amateur eater. While I was competing, I forgot I was surrounded by other competitors and a loud rambunctious audience. It was just me and the shrimp. The process of eating quickly did not even feel too weird. It felt like I was able to indulge my inner child who loves food.
More than anything else, I enjoyed meeting the major-league eaters. What separated these professionals from amateurs like me was the crazy amount of skill that can only come from training.
“Competitive eating is like a lot of other sports,” Mary Bowers, a competitor in St. Elmo’s major-league eater bracket, said. “… A marathon runner wouldn’t run a marathon every day, so you do strength training. You do endurance training. You break it down into parts and pieces.”
Much like other athletes, competitive eaters need to stay in shape to compete well.
Joey Chestnut, No.1-ranked major league eater and last year’s St. Elmo’s shrimp champion, explained heavier contestants usually don’t do as well in competitive eating. According to Chestnut, they last 60-90 seconds before running out of breath, allowing more fit competitors to outpace them.
“When I start gaining weight, I don’t win as much,” Chestnut said.
After my attempt, I made sure to see which major-league eater could eat the most shrimp cocktail in eight minutes. The announcer skillfully built up the audience’s energy, individually introducing each major league eater with a level of hype that would make most professional wrestling announcers blush.
Competitors took the stage, and a flurry of hands, chewing and cocktail sauce-caked shirts followed. All major league eaters put on a good show, but first place was only really a competition between two people: Chestnut and Geoffrey Esper, the No. 3-ranked eater in the world.
Even before the competition, Chestnut identified Esper as the event’s biggest challenger.
“He’s just really, really focused,” Chestnut said. “He’s a power lifter, really healthy. He’s not your typical competitive eater.”
Both ate ferociously, gulping down in single handfuls what I failed to in my entire competition. In eight minutes, the two men consumed a river of St. Elmo’s cocktail sauce and a small sea’s worth of shrimp. Both competitors beat the previous world record for most amount of shrimp eaten, and first place won by a margin of only two shrimp. After consuming a massive 18 pounds and 9.6 ounces of St. Elmo’s shrimp cocktail, Chestnut remained the champion.
Chestnut, holding a shrimp-emblazoned belt, descended the stage to a hero’s welcome. The hype-filled audience crowded around Chestnut wanting to get a picture.
“I knew it was going to be a very close contest,” Chestnut said after he won. “Geoffrey has been eating very well. He’s fast … I need to not get lazy and keep pushing.”
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar