Secrets of Endurance
Our columnist defends his undefeated competitive eating record.
Today is Day 23 of the world’s longest footrace: 3,100 miles, or nearly 5,000 kilometres. The Self-Transcendence 3100 is an annual testament to human endurance, and not only of the physical variety.
Indeed, the mental stamina required is, if anything, greater. Imagine breezing through scenic byroads, every sight fresh, every new discovery left behind in your implacable dust as you steadily approach the final punctuating vista of waves crashing into the edge of a continent.
This is not that race. As if designed to be almost entirely devoid of stimuli, the course of the Self-Transcendence 3100 is 5,649 laps of a single city block in Jamaica, Queens, New York. Each day runners must log over 60 miles, or 110 anti-clockwise laps, in order to complete the race in the allotted 52 days. Runners report dreaming anti-clockwise.
The race is the brainchild of the late spiritual cum fitness guru Sri Chinmoy, who viewed physical achievement as a means toward overcoming the shackles of the body. Participants push through shin splints and blisters, lose toenails and shed litres of fluid.
For all that, a repeated finisher of the race, a Bulgarian called Sopan—Chinmoy’s devotees receive “spiritual” names—calls the race “a mind breaker”. Not a knee pounder or a Nike shredder, but a mind breaker. What’s hard, he implies, is thinking oneself into the race. It extends endurance beyond the physically impossible, beyond the merely unbelievable and into the sublime. (A fantastic 2007 account in Harper’s investigates the phenomenon in depth.)
Fittingly, I learned about the Self-Transcendence 3100 while following another feat of endurance. Today is Day 192 of a project to walk every block of every street in New York City, a distance of approximately 8,000 miles. A former civil engineer named Matt Green is doing it over roughly two years and chronicling the experience on a blog, Imjustwalkin.com.
Last week, as both these epic endeavours churned onward, a third event took place in Mumbai. Though it was unquestionably an endurance test, it took me just over 12 minutes to complete. It was not a footrace; it was a marketing stunt. “Before I Die First” was a sundae-eating contest staged last Thursday by Ice Cream Works at Phoenix Mills.
If luck is, as they say, what happens when preparation meets opportunity, I was enormously lucky. Growing up, short and enraged by my physical disadvantage, I stuck to sports like running where I could inflict harm only on myself. My competitive spirit remained untapped, so that when, many years ago, I first found myself challenged to an eating competition, I knew I had something inside me, some essential juice.
The rules were simple. Eat the most; loser pays. I never paid.
In the years since, a multitude of challengers have come forward. One believed his pot munchies rendered him invincible; another was conducting research for a future novel. Most, however, felt they’d win because they enjoy eating. That’s like sticking around cricket until you bat 100 test centuries: far too much of a good thing.
Nearly ten years later, I stand undefeated.
I, too, enjoy food. I have appetites, which account for my staying skinny. “You burn lean,” said one recent observer, perhaps with Cassius in mind. But what became clear early on in my competitive eating career was that winning had nothing to do with literal hunger. As I tell each one of my would-be challengers, it’s not here [pointing to stomach], it’s here [pointing to frontal lobe]. Mind over matter. My teaching is not so different from Sri Chinmoy’s.
There’s a stereotype of middle-class Indians as too soft and pampered to be fierce competitors. As I saw my competition ranged in front of me on Thursday—semi-pudgy guys (a pilot, three colleagues from a midtown ad agency) with a South African interior designer thrown in for variety—I knew this stereotype to be by and large true. Before the first spoon was lifted I had it in the bag. Second place took nearly twice as long to finish. It felt like an eternity. Vipassana has helped me to suppress my gag reflex.
Ice Cream Works will run the “Before I Die First” contest on the 5th of every month, and I challenge each and every one of you to beat my time. Nothing will prevent you but lack of desire. I’m not alone among competitive eaters, or for that matter long-distance runners, to characterise success as five percent physical (don’t starve yourself beforehand), five percent technique (eat all the crunchy bits first), and ninety percent will to win.
You may find all this revolting, and there’s a part of me—I suspect it’s my pancreas—that would agree. It’s not only physically but morally grotesque to use food for sport in a country where so many lack basic sustenance. But it differs only in scale from the expense lavished on other sports. The bowl of ice cream is a wicket, the spoon a bat. As the real competition is in the mind, the sundae is best understood as a red herring, though, having said that, I’m now much closer to vomiting than I was post-sundae. Food is, let us say, the medium through which we exhibit the fortitude of the human spirit.Tags: Ice Cream Works, The Holdout