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A Dozen Competitors, A Lot of Sandwiches

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I know the proper title is the Grilled Cheese Sandwich Eating Contest, but eating is not the word I think of when remembering the contest. Eating has some kind of pace to it, some social interaction. Maybe a napkin. It doesn't have folding and soaking your sandwiches, stuffing your face to the roar of a crowd, jumping up and down just to make more room -- but I get ahead of myself.

The contest, which took place Monday in the Grandstand, featured a dozen or so contestants, including locals from Wendell, Raleigh, and Morrisville. "Circuit Eaters" came from all over the country including Chicago, Florida, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.

One of the local guys was Bill Laird from Wendell. He took place in the sweet potato eating contest last year and did fairly well, so he thought he'd try again. What was it like, after eating all those sweet potatoes last year? "It was different," he admits. "I couldn't eat a sweet potato for about three months. I'm okay with them now, but for a while there I didn't want to see them, didn't want to smell them, anything."

Bill figures he's a natural for eating contests -- he describes himself as the guy in the family pictures who's always holding up a fork. That didn't mean that everybody agreed with him: "My family thought I was nuts, but then they said, you know, if you want to, go for it." He doesn't have a training regimen, and doesn't have any pre-contest ritual. He's a little nervous before the contest, but "Once I get up there, I'm focused. I'm ready to go. I just got to chew and keep swallowing."

Bill did admit that he was a little intimidated by some of the other contestants, especially those who had been in grilled cheese contests before. Participant Brian Subich is actually ranked 20th in the world according to the IFOCE Web Site. (Jammin' Joe Larue, ranked 14th, did not appear at the contest.) He's an intimidating opponent; he can eat 1 1/2 16 inch pizzas in five minutes, and began his career by betting a co worker that he could eat more McDonald's cheeseburgers. He ate five in two minutes and the rest is history. Today's strategy involves washing down his sandwiches with Diet Coke, which he was opening and letting go flat before the contest. When Brian isn't eating mass quantities of food, he's a football coach at Greater Johnstown High School in Pennsylvania. Ranked 20th in the competitive eating world and still has a day job? You bet. All the circuit eaters I talked to had just gotten to the contest about an hour before it started and were planning to take off right after it ended. Not a slow paced glam life with lots of limo rides and cushy hotels; these contestants have work to do. (Can you imagine getting on an airplane with your stomach full of grilled cheese?)

One thing that really struck me about the competitors I talked to was how soft spoken they were. I guess I was expecting some kind of hyperactive Cookie Monsteresque activity, but in fact they were quiet, already thinking about the mountain of grilled cheese they'd have to tackle.

Frank Wach is so concerned with not losing his concentration that he wears headphones during the contest so that the commentary from the contest organizer doesn't distract him. A Web developer who flew in from Chicago for the contest, he placed 3rd in a grilled cheese sandwich eating contest last July. The lesson he learned? "Water gets so blah after a while." So he brought Arizona Iced Tea to assist him in his eating duties. Frank doesn't seem himself so much as a naturally big eater as a naturally fast eater, though he's still thinking about his favorite contest foods. He advises those thinking about becoming competitive eaters to "Enter a few contests. After one or two you'll know whether you want to keep doing this or not." Frank was confident about his chances. "I don't really know how to describe it, but I feel good today."

There was a huge crowd at the Grandstand waiting for these guys to start. Water was laid out. Piles of sandwiches were laid out. A few in the crowd started the chant, "Eat! Eat! Eat!" Finally the contestants were introduced and the eating began.

This is the part where I'm supposed to have a big epiphany and tell you how the eating contest was actually extremely graceful and poetry in motion and how inspiring it was.

Sorry, I can't do that. It was crazy. It was sloppy. There was water and soggy sandwich bits flying all over the place. Contestants ate with two hands, dipping and eating, chasing down the sandwiches with water, tea, Diet Coke, and other stuff. Brian Subich kept doing a little dance as he ate; I asked him about it afterwards. He started his explanation with, "You know how potato chip bags are full when they're first filled up?" Apparently the dance was to settle the food in his stomach and make sure he continually has room for more food. This isn't a two-minute contest. Contestants get ten minutes to eat. They start off, though, like the contest will last only three minutes. Frank Wach got off to an amazing pace, and Bill Laird did his darndest to keep up.

Everybody looked great for about three minutes. Then the strain started to show. Bill got a little off his pace and started slowing down. More water was consumed. Contestants would stop for a breath and get going again. A couple of contestants looked a little green around the gills but everybody managed to keep their sandwiches where they were supposed to be. (Losing your lunch results in immediate disqualification.)

Six minutes. Seven minutes. The eating started to drag. At the nine-minute mark, though, the eating picked up again and most of the contestants started sprint-chowing to the finish line. Bill Laird was game but he had about had it. Frank wasn't able to keep up with his astonishing pace (he consumed eight sandwiches in the first two minutes; if he had kept it up he would have crushed the world record of 31 sandwiches) and had slowed down a lot by the end of the contest.

Time! The contest was over. But do we get eating results immediately? Unfortunately no; there are sandwiches to be counted and swallowing to be done; unfortunately Brian was having a little trouble with that bit. Finally the sandwiches were tallied and the results announced.

The winner, with 20 sandwiches, was competitive eating newcomer Hall Hunt. 20 sandwiches wasn't nearly enough to threaten the world record but was plenty to win him $1,000. Second place went to Loren Yarbrough, who polished off 19 sandwiches. He won $500. Frank Wach grabbed third place and $250 with his 17 1/2 sandwiches. Despite slowing down considerably during the second half of the contest, his impressive start was enough to get him to place. And what happened to 20th ranked Brian? "The Diet Coke was a mistake," he sighed. Despite having left it open, the soda was still too carbonated and was interfering with his ability to swallow. "I'm not even full. Is there some place I can get some barbecue around here?"

Local eater Bill Laird consumed 6 1/2 sandwiches and made a declaration. "No more grilled cheese sandwich contests. Never again." Was he going to avoid them for three months like he did the sweet potatoes? "Oh yeah. I don't want to look at them. They're too thick and too dry."