February 14, 2012

Spectator’s Report: Hot Dog Challenge

Friday went almost exactly according to plan. By 10am, I had lifted weights, run 4 miles, and done an hour of Zumba – score! When it came to my Friday night date, though, I was in need of some downtime (especially with all I had on tap for the rest of the weekend)… so I ended up cancelling. And I wonder why I’m single! Instead, I went out with coworkers and friends to one of my favorite beer bars, and headed to bed by midnight. Now that’s my idea of a perfect Friday night!

When I woke up on Saturday, it was time for a crazy intense morning of workouts. But first, I started panicking at the sight of snow coming down. What would snow do to our hotdog challenge later in the day? Would the vendors all still be out? A quick Tweet to the New York Rogue Runners confirmed that the race was on, so I tried to push the anxiety out of my mind and just focus on what I had going in the meantime. And I had a lot going in the meantime!

First, a 2.5 mile run to Athleta – carrying my yoga mat. My yoga mat tucks very nicely under my arm (so it’s kind of pinned against my body and completely immobile when I run), but despite the lack of movement, it still seems to slow me down quite a bit – I guess just because of the weight of it. While I had done my 4 miles on Friday at about an 8:20 pace and felt like it was really easy, today my first 2.5 felt slow and sluggish – at a 9:30/mile average. Darn you, yoga mat!

I arrived at Athleta UES just in time for the free 9am Zumba class, which was awesome as always. Ellie is a fabulous instructor, and I realized how much I had missed her class – it’s been a few weeks since I’ve had a chance to take it. Her choice of music – from Enrique Iglesias’ “Maybe I like that” to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” – always pumps me up, and as a bonus, we did a brand new song that was a lot of fun. Looking forward to doing that one again!

But as soon as class was over, I had to run. Literally. Zumba ended at 10:00am, and I planned to head back across the park to JackRabbit UWS for their free yoga for runners class – at 10:15am. Yikes! I maintained a 9:14 pace (with my yoga mat in tow), which I was pretty pleased with – and I rolled into class just as it was beginning. Hooray!

Unfortunately, the class wasn’t all I hoped it would be. Right off the bat, the instructor announced that this would not be an athletic-style yoga class… but more focused on just stretching and relaxing. I don’t like gentle yoga at all – I like intense classes that really stretch and work my muscles out and either actively relieve soreness or make me newly sore for certain muscles (hi, Jillian Michaels’ Yoga Meltdown!). This class was neither – it was very gentle, didn’t have much “flow” to it, and wasn’t even that relaxing due to the obnoxious people in the locker room who ignored the “quiet, please – yoga class in progress” sign and were loudly gossiping and discussing their runs. Annoying!
Also annoying – the class ended up going 80 minutes instead of the scheduled 60, which meant I was running late for the Saturday event I was most excited about. It was Hot Dog Challenge time!

I arrived at the park a few minutes late (I even saw Celia running in a cute sparkly headband on the way there, but I didn’t even have time to stop and say hi!) and soon found the group on the terrace. The competitors all had their game faces on, while the refs were poring over the newly-released maps of the course. When I got my copy, I cracked up – it was pretty fantastic.

Seriously, you guys. “Rich Man’s Alley” (Park Ave)? “Dead Man’s Corner” (two stands with no break in between)? And “The Gauntlet” (four stands in a two block stretch)??? INSANELY funny. Well, at least for me, who didn’t have to eat all those hot dogs!

Before we started the race, Baker read the rules of the game – basically, follow the course, eat a hot dog at every cart that you pass (which is conveniently marked on your map), and don’t vomit. At this point, Claire asked a follow up question: what about diarrhea? Baker’s response was classic, and had me cracking up for several minutes afterward, “Diarrhea is allowed. Anywhere on the course, not just at the finish. Actually, all along the course is fine.” Well, I suppose that’s one way to avoid having to follow a map!

If you count up the symbols on the map, you’ll see that there were 11 hot dog stands planned for the run (we were instructed to stay on specific sides of the street to make sure we passed all the appropriate ones). However, the snow had scared a few vendors away, and our very first stand (in the park) was missing. To make up for it, we moved the start of the race back just a bit, and started the race in true “hot dog challenge” form – with every contestant holding a dog appropriately dosed with their chosen condiments. On the “ready, set, go” start of the race, everyone chowed down. No running until your hot dog is fully swallowed!

Since there weren’t enough refs to go one to a competitor, as had been the plan, the job of the ref was more general than specific – to watch for cheating and help the competitors follow the planned route (so they wouldn’t have to waste any brainpower on thinking and all of it could go toward digestive processes). Laura and I decided to team up and follow the Greatist entrant, Dave Tao. (This turned out to be a great decision from a spectating point of view, as he won the race by an insanely large margin). While Dave claimed to not be much of a runner, Laura had convinced him to enter solely based on his eating prowess – and at this first hot dog, we saw just how strong he was in that regard. I watched Dave eat his first dog in three big bites and couldn’t decide whether to bow down in awe or to squat down and throw up – I have never seen someone eat that fast. But I didn’t really have time to think about it – we were off and running, far ahead of all the other contestants who were still on their first bite. Yeah, Tao!

We began running toward the main loop of Central Park to head out of the park at the southeast corner, and had a pretty good lead on the other competitors. However, everyone else competing was an insanely fast runner, so it was no surprise when people started catching and passing us. Since Laura and I were at the front of the ref pack, she stayed with him while I went on ahead to the next hot dog stand, to ensure that no contestant was left unreffed and potentially without an idea of where to go. By the time we got to the second hot dog stand, there was a bit of a line to get dogs – bringing the race to a fairly even match between the top four or so competitors. Tao stretched a bit as he stood in line – apparently that 1/4 mile had been a bit much for him.

But as we hit stand #3 (directly across the street from #2), Laura and I assured Tao that there was no reason to worry – what he lacked in running ability, he could more than make up for in his ability to eat an entire hot dog in less than 5 seconds flat. When we left stand #3, we were in third place – with 8 more hot dogs still to go before the glorious finish. Go, Tao, you can do it!

Unfortunately for Tao (though perhaps fortunately for everyone competing), stand #4 was missing. Instead, we found AbbeLew waving us onward. It actually worked out well for Tao that we hadn’t known about this missing cart sooner, as it led to quite a long stretch (~0.6 miles) with no hot dogs at all. I mean, 5 minutes of running without a break for refueling – what kind of shoddy race organization is this?? Fortunately, by the time we realized that there was no cart at 57th and Park, we only had 5 more blocks to go, and I used my best “mile 20 of the marathon” pacing/cheering skills to encourage Tao to keep up the pace and continue onward.

At the new stand #4, we began to make some headway – catching up with Neil and catching sight of Matt6 (the favorite to win, since apparently he had actually trained for this). However, just five blocks further we hit Dead Man’s Corner – and as any true Hot Dog Challenge fan knows, Dead Man’s Corner will make or break your race. It was here that we lost Claire to the fate of projectile vomiting (which thankfully I was not around to see). For my part, I had quickly eaten a bowl of split pea soup (with chicken sausage) just before coming to the race, and I was feeling a little queasy from running with that in my stomach – I couldn’t imagine how people were doing it with now 5 hot dogs and buns in their bellies.

Dead Man’s Corner was also notable because this was where Tao made his gamechanging move – scarfing down the #4 hot dog nearly twice as fast as Matt6, at which point he only had to go across the street and repeat that feat in order to have a substantial lead. With Dead Man’s Corner being only 4 blocks (0.2 miles) away from the beginning of the Gauntlet, it was clear that running skills would be far less valuable than eating skills from here on out.

At 46th and 6th, our first cart of the Gauntlet (and 7th cart overall), we encountered a friendly hot dog man who wanted to give us the best quality dog he could offer – attempting to toast the bun before placing the dog in it. “JUST PLAIN! DON’T TOAST IT! FAST!” was our screamed response to that attempt at quality control. Can you tell we are New Yorkers and not tourists?

The Gauntlet of 46th Street was pretty brutal – every corner yielded a hot dog stand. After hitting stands #8 and #9 right across Times Square from each other, Laura and I fought our way through the tourist crowds to clear a space for Tao – I considered yelling “elite athlete coming through!”, but kept quiet and simply used my elbows instead. Much more effective! And with Tao starting to show signs of illness, I would hope that any tourists would clear a path just for that.

There was just one more cart to go – and when we turned around, we couldn’t even see any competitors behind us in the distance. We cheered Tao on in this homestretch, reminding him that he had it in the bag – just ONE more hot dog, and then a quick quarter mile to the finish line. Orrrr not so quick – we had enough of a lead that walking was fine, and the most important thing was ensuring that Tao didn’t throw up (which would be grounds for an automatic DQ). However, Tao managed to maintain a pretty decent pace, and far surpassed even Baker’s expectations for how fast he could eat dog #10 and get to the finish… because when we arrived, there was no one there.

Laura and I assured Tao that Rudy’s was definitely the ending location of the race, and once he was sure, he let out a yell to rival any Giants player after last week’s Superbowl. This brought Tao’s friends out from the cafe next door, where they had been enjoying Spanakopita for brunch, and were shocked to find out that Tao was the winner. A few minutes later, Baker came running up to officially pronounce Tao the champion, and shortly thereafter, Matt6 came chugging in too. The results were coming in – and while there was a big gap between some competitors, it was particularly exciting to find that third place was a female. No handicap here – super fit and svelte Bojana somehow managed to eat 10 hot dogs (and buns) and run 2.6 miles and still finish ahead of most of the guys!

Not one to be left out of the meat-eating festivities, I enjoyed a complimentary hotdog at Rudy’s with my blonde ale – the main reason this particular bar had been chosen as the finish line. Baker too enjoyed a free dog, while anyone who had competed looked at us with sheer disgust/horror on their face, and then headed to the bathroom to vomit. Hey, the only rule was no vomiting within 3 minutes of finishing – they were safe now!

But as for hot dogs? I don’t know if they’ll ever eat another one again.


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