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Buffalo Major League Eater talks training for U.S. Chicken Wing Eating Championship

“Buffalo” Jim Reeves doesn’t expect you to be impressed with his eating prowess, even though he holds the world record for gulping down watermelon – 13.2 pounds in 15 minutes – set 11 years ago at a festival in western Ohio.

In fact, years back, a $2,000 Jeopardy question asked a trio on the TV game show who set the record.

“Nobody knew my name,” Reeves said. “That shows you how famous I am.”

Come 5 p.m. Sunday at Coca-Cola Field, Reeves, 47, of the town of Boston, will shouler up to a big table and face some well-known characters in the world of competitive a the U.S. Chicken Wing Eating Contest at the National Wing Buffalo Festival.

His challengers will include three of the top five Major League Eaters – last year’s winner Joey Chestnut, previous winner Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, and 6-foot-9 International Federation of Competitive Eating rookie sensation Gideon Oji, who recently gobbled 170 wings in 10 minutes.

The Gowanda High School math and computer science teacher isn’t favored to win – he is the 20th ranked competitive eater in the world, according to the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) – but he can boast that he is the only one to compete in every Chicken Wing Eating Contest.

He enters the 15th annual festival this weekend 60-plus pounds lighter than the first.

“People don’t understand it,” Reeves said. “They think competitive eaters are just a bunch of fat guys but in reality five of the top 10 competitive eaters in the world are under 150 pounds. Competitive eating is extremely strenuous. It’s taxing on your body. If you’re not in shape, you’re not going to do as well.

"You can’t just sit around and eat as much as you can for 10 minutes three times a week like you’re running. We’d all be super fat if we did that. The reality is that most of us try to eat really healthy between contests and lose weight. We don’t go to the buffet two, three times a week and try to eat more, because we know when we gain weight we’re less effective."

The National Chicken Wing Festival takes place from noon to 9 p.m. Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday in Coca-Cola Field in downtown Buffalo

Reeves still has plenty to crow about when it comes to his eating career, which started on a lark at the first wing fest:

He’s finished as high as fifth in the wing contest, in 2013 and last year. His personal best is 144 wings.

He finished second in the first wing fest “Buffet Bowl Contest,” losing by seven-hundredths of a pound to winner and fellow Major Leage eater Cookie Jarvis.

He’s qualified for three Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating contests; his personal best is 28.5 dogs in 10 minutes.

He’s a three-time finalist in Krystal Square Off World Hamburger Eating Championship, a chain based in the Southeast. He placed 10th in one of those contests after eating 50 slider-sized burgers in 8 minutes.

Reeves has thrown himself in contests to see who could eat the most baked beans, apple pie, apple dumplings, whole pickeled jalepenos – the latter contest four times.

“I’ve eaten 100 whole jalepenos in eight minutes,” he said, “and lost by 141; Sonya Thomas ate 241 in that contest in Chicago. ... It’s also hard to explain to someone that I went to Coney Island and ate 29 hot dogs and lost by 40.”

Still, after 15 years traveling the nation on gastronomic adventures, Reeves has learned a lot. He shared some of those lessons during the interview, including how he gears up for the wing competition.

Here are excerpts:

Q. Can you talk about your challenges with weight over the years?

Jim Reeves, right, with, from left, Terri, Olivia, Cloe and Emily Reeves last year at Letchworth State Park.

Jim Reeves, right, with, from left, Terri, Olivia, Cloe and Emily Reeves last year at Letchworth State Park.

I used to be in the military and you had to be in shape. I went inactive in 1996 and got out in ‘98. I was working a lot and like a lot of people, when you’re working a lot you’re not eating healthy. I had years when I was working 70 hours a week and let my weight went up. In the early 2000s, I let my weight go to 300 pounds. That was no good for me and was unsustainable. It really had nothing to do with competitive eating per se but those two events coincided.

The fall of 2002 was probably when I was at my heaviest – 305 pounds – but was also when I started competitive eating.

Q. When did you decide to lose weight and why?

I started doing the South Beach Diet about the time of the first Chicken Wing Festival and over a period of six or seven months I lost about 70 pounds. I went from 305 to 235. My weight has gone up and down since. Five or six years ago, my wife, Terri, and I decided we were going to run a half-marathon. We’ve run three half-marathons in the last five years. We ran in the Buffalo Marathon relay earlier this year – and when I say run, I mean faster than speedwalkers (11- to 12-minute miles). It really had to do more with lifestyle changes: dieting, running, that kept my weight down but a consequence of that is that it’s allowed me to do better at competitive eating.

Q. Why did you decide to get into the competitive eating gig?

It was just on a lark but I’ve always competed in something. I played football baseball, hockey. I was first team, all division as a (West Seneca East) high school football player, I was an all-star in hockey and baseball and I was in the Army. I got to the point where I couldn’t play softball with the boys anymore because we all got married and had kids. You don’t lose that competitive desire. I did the competitive eating on a lark but it was funny because I had watched programs about the IFOCE on TV.

You show up after watching these guys and TV and they’re talking to you just like we’re talking. They call professional eaters but it’s not like we’re pro football players. Nobody’s really arrogant. Everybody’s pretty friendly. And you get to see and do some things most people don’t do. We all march to a different drummer but it’s fun to be around these people. Many of them I’ve known for 15 years.

Whenever I can, I take my wife and kids with me. We’ve been to New York City. We’ve gone to the Statue of Liberty. I’ve taken my wife to Chicago for Kim Chi. It’s like a paid family vacation, an excuse to travel around. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.

You have to be in shape. When you’re out on the circuit, you’re not getting paid. You’re winning prize money, so you have to be good enough, fast enough, to offset the cost of traveling around the country. That’s why most people don’t stick with it for more than a year or two. If you don’t every place in the money, it becomes a very expensive hobby.

I’m good enough that I’ll usually spend $2,000 or $3,000 a year flying around the country but I usually win a couple thousand dollars a year, so it’s largely a wash. Thousands of people have competed and there’s probably 30 of us who compete in more than a couple of contests a year. I don’t compete as much as I used to but I’ll do six, seven or eight contests a year.

I always do Buffalo. Next month, I’ll go up to Toronto and do poutine. I’ll do Nathan’s qualifiers. They do chicken speedies down near Tioga Downs and they do pepperoni rolls down in West Virgina.

Q. What is your diet like between these contests?

When school is in session, I generally take plain Greek yogurt to school every day. I eat bran flakes for breakfast, yogurt for lunch. I work at the high school and she works at the elementary building, so I pick up the kids every day and usually cook dinner. We eat chicken and stir-fry vegetables or rice. Now that I’m 47 and have three kids, my diet is exclusively about trying to lose weight. I’m down to 240 now but my goal is to get down to 210, 200.

Q. You’re going to do the wing eating competitions on Labor Day weekend and sometimes over the next two or three months do another half-marathon?

The second half-marathon I did was the week after a Nathan’s qualifier. I ate 25 hotdogs and the next week I did a half marathon. I know people build up all that hype about competitive eating but the reality is that most of us are trying to be healthy and keep our weight down. We don’t sit around eating a ton all year round. Like you tell your kids, everything in moderation. If you’re going to have snacks once in a while, that’s fine, but if you’re doing it every day, you’re not healthy.

Q. What about your exercise?

The training we do is out of a book called “The Non-Runners Marathon Trainer.” .... It outlines a 16-week training program. You train four days a week and if you’re first starting out and can’t run three miles it gradually increases the amount of time you can run until you can run 30 minutes at a time. We’re long past that. It’s four days a week and you’ll run 3-4-3-5. You’ll have a long run on the weekend and the long runs get progressively longer .... to the point where, after about 10 weeks, your long run will be 13 miles. We both run somewhere between 11½ to 12 minute pace.

I’ve torn both my rotator cuffs and popped a capsule in my elbow so it’s been 25 years since I’ve lifted weights. We’re primarily runners and belong to the Southtowns Y and use the equipment there.

Q. What is it like to train for competitive eating? Why can somebody who weighs 100 pounds beat someone a lot bigger?

It’s changed over time and I’m not going to say anything I do it typical of what everybody else does, but when you first start out in your mind you imagine the most important thing is training your capacity: “I’ve got to train my body to eat more.” So you eat a lot of cabbage and lettuce and vegetables. You drink a lot of extra water with dinner every day. And, believe it or not, it really doesn’t take that long befor your stomach can hold a heck of a lot more than you can put into it. It’s been a long time – probably 10 years – since I’ve worried about my capacity.

I’ll drink extra water with dinner every night but you don’t want to just drink water to stretch your stomach out because you can get hyponatremia – basically water intoxication – and it can be pretty dangerous.

Officially, the IFOCE discourages anybody from doing any kind of training, specifically speed training, which is why we compete in sanctioned contests. There’s always an EMT present in case somebody chokes on something. At home, you don’t really work on speed; it’s really more familiarity with the food. I did Kimchi in Chicago and only ever had it once, so I drove up to Williamsville and hit an Asian food store and bought a gallon of it and ate a bowl to see what it’s like.

Believe it or not, no matter how much you like a food – it can be your favorite food in the world – after about two minutes of eating as fast as you can, it tastes like crap. So one of the biggest problems you have in any contest is not capacity, it’s flavor fatigue.

Nathan’s hot dogs, if you eat one of them they taste good. They’re a lot more highly seasoned than Sahlen's. Sahlen's are kind of like bologna; Nathan’s are kind of like Polish sausage. If you’re eating one or two of them, it’s no big deal but by the time your north of 20, the thought of putting another one in your mouth is really terrible. The flavor of the food really seems to change when you’ve got a lot of it going in there.

The training that I do, because I only do a few competitions a year, I’m not going to sit around and keep my capacity high all year long. I know that my weakness is the ability to chew and swallow fast enough, so for me it’s really about familiarity with the food.

Take chicken wings for example. The best eaters in the world, when they’re done, they’ll only have 5 or 6 pounds of chicken wing meat in them. It sounds like a lot but the fact that most of these people can eat 15 pounds, it’s nothing. Nobody’s going to finish anywhere near full. So for chicken wings, it’s the ability to get the meat off the bones quickly. I’ll buy a double order of chicken wings and eat ‘em fast to remind myself the difference between the flats and the drumsticks. Everybody likes to eat the drumsticks because there’s only one bone and it’s easier to get the meat off the outside. But the drumsticks are drier than the flats are; the flats tend to stay warmer and looser. Anything dry is difficult to eat, which is why guys dunk buns in water. So it’s really more about the familiarity with the food than about chewing and swallowing and capacity. Those things don’t really come into play in a chicken wing eating contest. There’s different techniques to eating the flats. Do you strip off the outside and break ‘em? It’s really a technique thing for what we call debris foods, where there’s something left over, whether it’s ribs or bones of any kind.

Preparing for a contest is more about the technique and just trying the food and if you’re not familiar with the food, eating it so you can see what it’s like. I’ve had a few pieces of chopped up jalepenos on nachos but there’s probably not too many people who’ve tried to eat 20 or 30 whole ones at a time. I’m going to eat that much to see what it’s like. Should I be drinking water or should I be drinking milk? Is it a highly seasoned food? Should I be drinking Kool-aide or Gatorade or something like that. ... Jalepenos, I use milk. The first time I didn’t and I thought, “I’m going to go to the hospital.” It was terrible.

Q. How long do you have to keep this food down?

Until the buzzer goes. I will say this, and I know it sounds like balogna, but I’ve been doing this for 15 years and I’ve seen at least 10 to 15 people at 150 contests and I’ve never seen anybody throw up at a contest. ... If you’re sitting around eating and you all of a sudden start feeling not good, you stop jamming food in your mouth. You stand there with this look on your face.

We call 8 minutes “The Wall,” because that’s what separates the pros from the amateurs: 8 minutes.

Being full is not physically being full. When you feel full at a normal meal, it’s not because your stomach is fully distended. It’s because after a certain amount of time, due to proteins in your stomach, the brain will send a chemical signal that says, “I’m full.”

When doctors say one of the ways to lose weight is to eat slower, it’s because that message is going to come at 8 minutes, whether you’re trying to eat a lot or eat a little. When you’re trying to lose weight, just eating slow allows you to reach the 8-minute mark without putting a lot of food in your body. The converse is also true: The more you can get in before 8 minutes, (the more you can eat). People say, “I can’t imagine eating 28 hot dogs.”

... The difference between the amateur and the pro is what happens from 8 minutes on. Very often in a contest, there’ll be a bunch of amateurs at the table and they’ll announce, “Holy cow, this new guy is ahead of the pros, or neck and neck, and then 7 or 8 minutes go by and the guy just stands there and can’t put any more food in his mouth. He’s hit the wall. That signal has been sent. What separates the pros from the amateurs is that we’ve experienced that feeling a bunch and trained ourselves to keep going even though that message has been sent. Very often, the amateurs and the pros will be neck-and-neck until about 8 minutes and in the last two minutes the amateurs all fade and the pros keep eating.

Q. After a contest, do some in a contest vomit?

Some of them probably do, I would guess. Me personally, I never have, but I’ve never had 69 hot dogs in my stomach. I wouldn’t want to keep that in if I was any human. But there are so many things that are counter-intutive about it. When you’re done, it feels like you just had Thanksgiving dinner, except you just had it in 10 minutes instead of an hour and a half.

Twenty-four hours later, no matter what you have, your body’s very efficient at processing it and getting rid of it. ... You’re back to normal, though you do drink a lot of water.


Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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