January 21, 2008

Like all professional eaters, Hall "Hoover" Hunt adheres to a strict diet and training regimen. He eats a bowl of Wheaties every morning, a pound of cottage cheese and vegetables for lunch and two chicken breasts with a few cans of vegetables for dinner. He washes all that down with protein shakes and a slew of multivitamins and mineral supplements. Several months before a big event, he works out like a demon in the gym, building cardiovascular strength and muscle. All the effort is clearly paying off: In the last year, Hunt has moved up from No. 17 to No. 9 in the Federation of Competitive Eaters rankings.

Yes, competitive eating is a sport and it consists of much more than the annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating contest (though Hunt finished No. 9 in the last one.) Started in 1997 by brothers Richard and George Shea, the Federation of Competitive Eaters boasts 400 contenders who travel world-wide consuming mass quantities of foods ranging from Krystal hamburgers to grits.

The 25-year-old Florida native first noticed his propensity for eating during his senior year at the University of Florida. As a manager for the UF soccer team, Hunt's superiors marveled at the six, or seven, mountainous plates of buffet-style meals Hunt would consume at team dinners.

"One day we might see Hall on ESPN eating against the great Japanese hot-dog eater Kobayashi," Hunt remembers head coach Becky Burleigh saying. "Since then I have competed at world championships against Kobayashi nearly a half-dozen times."

While some of the eaters on the circuit have an inherent ability for mass eating such as Hunt's long-time friend and world's top eater, Joey Chestnut, Hunt's technique sets him apart from the competition. As an engineer and member of MENSA, Hunt takes an academic approach to preparing for each event. IFOCE officials call his approach "cerebral."

To formulate a strategy, Hunt dissects and analyzes each food's physical and chemical makeup. What beverage aids in digestion? How much liquid should accompany each bite? How quickly will the food dissolve? What size bite will be efficient without provoking a gag reflex? And so on.

"Each food, location, and even weather condition is a factor in deciding what technique to use," Hunt said.

After months of preparation, Hunt is ravenous on event day, having consumed his last full meal 48 hours prior. He says the hunger pushes his mind and body to perform at its optimal level.

Hunt blesses the food and prays for victory. He repeats his mantra, "Whatever you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of god." His breathing is rhythmic as the announcer counts down. His throat and abdominal muscles relax, and he's ready to compete.

"[Competing is about] knowing how to push yourself to go beyond what the average typical human body can go to," says Hunt. "I have definitely not reached my limit. I know I still can go a lot further."

For the 2008 season, Hunt hopes to beat his 2007 bests by consuming 30-plus hot dogs in 12 minutes, 53-plus Krystal hamburgers in eight minutes and dispel the myths that it's impossible to drink a gallon of milk in an hour or eat six saltine crackers without water.

And what's one of Hall's primary motivations?

"I feel like the [Florida] Gators have to be top-ranked in the world in every sport and I have to do my part," Hunt said.

He also wouldn't mind an endorsement from Gatorade.

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