BYRON, Minn. — Even a competitive eater with almost 40 successful food challenges literally under his belt can bite off more than he can chew sometimes.
Matt Ahlberg, a 38-year-old senior operations analyst at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, thought he was ready for the “Gutbuster” challenge at Schoenies Pizza in Byron, Minn., June 9. He hadn’t eaten a full meal in 24 hours and was well-hydrated. His daughters, Vera and Emmy, were on hand for support.
Ahlberg had good reason to expect a victory. For the past two years, he has faced off against the clock or other eaters to consume everything from burgers, chicken wings, cheese curds, burritos and pizza as fast as he can. His social media feeds are filled with with pictures and videos of the challenges and competitions.
His efforts have earned him many free meals, gift cards and T-shirts. Once he even took home $500 in cash.
Doubt began to cloud his positive outlook when Schoenies co-owner Troy Schoenrock and his staff happily loaded the table in front of Ahlberg with a half pound of boneless buffalo chicken wings, a pound of cheese bread and an extra-large “Trophy” pizza covered with a mound of nine toppings with a thick layer of cheese on top.
His goal was to finish within 15 minutes, 30 minutes or within an hour.
The still-steaming pizza added to the already humid atmosphere of the 90-degree day.
When the clock started, Ahlberg started scooping up the spicy wings and gobbling them down. He then broke up the cheese bread into smaller pieces and consumed it all. The first two courses disappeared in barely 6 minutes.
The now sweating eater turned to the giant pizza. After a couple pieces, he started chewing more slowly and he admitted that he had hit “the wall.” About a third of the way into the massive pie, Ahlberg pushed back from the table and threw in the napkin.
“This is no joke of a challenge … I should have known better,” he said with a groan. “The wings were a bit of an ass kicker. And that’s a lot of pizza.”
Before digging into Schoenies Gutbuster challenge, Ahlberg discussed his unusual hobby.
Competitive eating is a different kind of hobby. Not a lot of people do this kind of thing. So how did this come about?
“I did a little bit of amateur bodybuilding. And during that time, you starve yourself significantly. And to help with the hunger pain. I just started watching YouTube videos of people eating large amounts of food. ... I came to learn that these restaurant challenges and food competitions were all over the place.
"And I figured, well, when I'm done with my (bodybuilding) competitions, I'll get some free meals.”
Eating massive amounts of cheese curds or hot dogs seems like a rough way to get a free meal.
“I always joke that my mom was a bad cook growing up. So I was all about quantity over quality, by necessity. I've always been a big eater. In general, I’ve always loved going to buffets.
"Several years ago, while in Florida one time, I went to a place called Crabby Joe's in Daytona Beach. And they had a great looking T-shirt, if you ate a burger. I ate the burger and got the T-shirt. Well, then my wife made me go back the next day to get another one and it was a big deal. Then more people gathered around to watch. It was kind of fun.”
When people think of competitive eaters, they probably don't envision somebody who was a bodybuilder or as healthy as you. How does it work that you have this hobby and stay in shape?
“I do stay very physically active … But also, I don't do these every day. Typically they're pretty high in calories. Not exactly healthy.”
“My family is very food conscious. We're a meat-free household, which doesn't exactly line up with what I tend to challenge myself with.”
Do you have any particular tricks or methods that you use?
“I think that all of us in the hobby have an ability to swallow larger portions. Also you've got to have the stomach for it. When you start feeling discomfort, can you push through it?”
“Temperature is your biggest enemy, when time is of the essence. You don’t want the food to be too hot or too cold.”
"Your body will sometimes surprise you. After eating a 14-inch Philly cheese steak sandwich and other things like brat challenges, I can tell you that the 'meat sweats' are a real thing."
Is there any challenge that you are particularly proud of?
“For a while, I was on a hot streak of winning wing competitions. So wings were kind of my thing for a while. Overall, you know, I always feel I'm going to win before I go into a challenge. As far as the next contest, it depends on who shows up, just like anything else in life. I'm not the best, but I've eaten with the best.
"I actually went to an event down in Iowa and faced with Molly Schuyler. She's the top female in the world. It's a really famous challenge called the Adam Emmenecker Challenge at Jethro's BBQ. It's like on every eater's bucket list. We had 15 minutes to eat it. I didn't make the cut, but she ate it in like, 4 minutes. It was incredible.”