Confessions Of A Competitive Eater

Juan Rodriguez is among the contenders, including Joey Chestnut, at the World’s Ice Cream Eating Championship, held at the Indiana State Fair on August 5.

Gobbling bowl after bowl of ice cream sounds like a dream sugar buzz (or maybe the aftermath of a bad breakup). But for Juan Rodriguez, it’s all in a day’s work. The competitive eater, 35, takes the stage in the Indiana Farmers Coliseum on Sunday, August 5, to shovel down as many pints as possible in six minutes. This ain’t his first rodeo—er, fair—he almost won this contest last year by gobbling up 15 pints, but was bested in the end by a Las Vegas woman, Miki Sudo, who set a world record by consuming 16.5 pints (around 8,580 calories).

Rodriguez, who lives in Illinois, is also a regular contender at the Olympics of competitive eating: the Nathan’s Famous hot dog contest on Coney Island, held every Independence Day. When he’s not chomping and chewing for prizes, Rodriguez burns those calories back off in his job as a personal trainer.

How on earth does a person start doing this?
Ten years ago, at Easter brunch, my brother, cousin, and I decided to have a challenge of who could eat the most pancakes. We blew through the pancakes in 13 minutes, so we went to the casseroles, the eggs, and everything else. An hour later, everyone was vomiting, but I’m standing tall. That was when I realized, Maybe I’ve got something here.

I started looking into restaurant challenges and local contests, which I won easily. I always watched the Nathan’s hot dog contest. That’s [competitive eaters’] big thing. So I decided to take a shot. I was wait-listed a handful of times. It’s a serious thing. After about a year, I finally got in. But then I tried three qualifiers, and I lost all of them. You rebound. You get your act together. I wanted to be there, and I’ve been there now ever since 2012.

It’s just been a crazy roller coaster. I’ve met amazing friends. I met my girlfriend there. I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.

I dread getting a brain freeze when eating just one dish or cone, let alone 15 pints of ice cream. How do you deal with it?
Last year, it didn’t happen. But my jaw went numb about six or seven pints in. I was just telling my body to shut up, saying nope over and over again, with a lot of explicit words.

Do you get to choose your flavor of ice cream?
It’s chosen for us, but it would be cool if you could pick from one of three flavors. If they said we could have either vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry, I’d go strawberry all day because it’s refreshing.

How long until a bowl of ice cream actually sounds good again?
Probably a month or so. I love sweets. It’s different than a hot dog—I don’t want to touch a hot dog [after Nathan’s] until like March of the following year.

So what’s for dinner tonight?
On a regular day, I eat half a cup of oatmeal with two Greek yogurts for breakfast. Then I can have two pounds of vegetables with a pound of chicken and a sweet potato. Then I can have another serving of chicken with some sort of vegetable. I also eat tons of fruit throughout the day. The meals are heavy, but it’s not junk food.

If you usually stick to a pretty healthy diet, what happens when you suddenly wolf down tons of junk food at a competition? Do you feel sick afterwards?
It depends. Last year after the ice cream contest, whoa, I was not happy. Well, one, because I lost by one pint. But two, that was probably the worst I ever felt. But that’s a good thing! If I don’t feel that way, I didn’t push hard enough. My goal is to feel worse this year, absolutely worse, and win.

After placing second in last year’s ice cream–eating contest, how are you preparing for this year’s? Anything you’ll do differently?
I went back and watched the video of last year’s contest several times to analyze where it went wrong. So, I’m doing my homework, I’m learning where to correct, and I’m working on my capacity. Ever since Nathan’s, I’ve been really kicking it into gear.

You’ve chowed down on hot dogs, tacos, and pizza––all pretty common grub. Ever had to eat anything weird?
I think the weirdest is this thing called the slugburger. It’s got the texture of a McChicken, but it’s made from soybeans, oats, and grits. They’re really good if you eat, like, one. But I think I ate 24. Locals told me it was going to feel like a rock had hit my stomach, but I tend to be like, Well, you’re different than me—I’m gonna feel fine. But, sure as hell, it felt like a rock was in the bottom of my stomach. Beyond that, I generally stay away from the foods I don’t like because it’s not worth it to me.

See Juan Rodriguez face off against rivals at the Indiana State Fair at 2 p.m. Sunday, August 5. The World’s Ice Cream Eating Championship is held in the aptly named ENOUGH Plaza.