Miki Sudo on How to Dominate at Competitive Eating
Congratulations to Miki, who won the women's division of the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest!
Miki Sudo is not full. In fact, she is almost never full. Perched in the back of a booth at Kahunaville, the tropical-themed Las Vegas restaurant, competitive eating’s fastest-rising female star is surrounded by crumbs and bones and gristle—evidence of a 20-minute assault on a plate of buffalo chicken wings. Wings that have been doused in mouth-scalding hot sauce, then knocked back with six sliders, each as dense as a Big Mac.
Reaching down to her plate, Sudo showcases the technique that once helped her eat 172 wings in 12 minutes. It’s instinct now: First, the thumb dives deep into the cartilage, until the skin loudly pops. Then the wing is thrust into the mouth. An indelicate, half-sucking, half-gnashing maneuver that may be described as extremely violent is performed. A second later, the bone emerges, stripped of meat.
“This is what we call a flipper, or a flat—just your ordinary wing. Relatively easy to clean,” Sudo says. “With a drum, it’s a little trickier. More of a rolling thing.” She is good at talking with her mouth full.
Nearby, three staff members have gathered, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, to watch this feat of mastication. Wiping a smear of sauce from her face, Sudo flashes them a surprisingly dainty smile. “It’s OK,” she says. “After a while, you get used to getting stared at like you’re a freak.”
Competitive eating is not a new sport. Historians of esophageal athletics trace its origins to rural state fairs, where amateurs gathered to scarf down funnel cakes or grilled corn by the pound. But recently, a small handful of leagues, including the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) and All Pro Eating, have sprung up in the United States, with the aim of organizing and ranking the very best “gurgitators,” as speed eaters are sometimes called.
Among this elite group, where up-and-comers can train for years before cracking into the top tiers of the sport, the petite Sudo, with her bleach-blond hair, standing 5-feet-8-inches tall and weighing 125 pounds, is an anomaly—a circus act among circus acts. She entered her first food challenge less than three years ago on a whim. She was nervous but certain that, even if she failed, it would be something to tell her grandkids. The challenge was the Phozilla, mounted by Pho 87, a Chinatown bistro in Las Vegas popular with locals.
“I started kind of slow,” Sudo recalls, “but by the time I was down to the last few ounces, my friends were looking over at me, going, ‘Oh, my God—she’s actually going to do it.’” And she did. Thirty-three minutes and 12 seconds later, after 12 pounds of Vietnamese flat noodles and approximately one gallon of burbling liquid, she collected the $1510 prize.
Prior to that, Sudo, 28, had barely an inkling that she might be cut out for the extreme-eating lifestyle. She was born in New York but spent much of her childhood in Japan, where it is considered the height of rudeness to leave food on your plate. She learned early that if she didn’t want to embarrass her parents, it was a good policy to simply devour everything. Later, her family moved to Hawaii, and she has memories of going to fast-food joints after a long day of surfing and putting away a bag of burgers as if it were nothing. Of course, competitive eating was a different beast—consumption not for pleasure or politeness, but for the sheer athletic challenge of stuffing your body to the bursting point. But if it can be said that anyone competing in this sport is a natural, then Sudo is, to borrow an analogy from the popular baseball movie, the Robert Redford of distended abdomens.
These days, Sudo has an established routine: In the two days leading up to an event, she’ll juice all her meals, which provides the essential nutrients but clears room in her stomach. When she’s not on the road, she subsists mostly on heaping kale and avocado salads and the occasional grilled chicken breast. She works out religiously, spending an hour at the gym five or six days a week.
Sudo also has a tried-and-true game-day uniform: an oversize T-shirt and a pair of spandex bike shorts to accommodate her game-day belly, which can swell up like a water balloon. If the tournament food is spicy, she leans on chocolate milk to wash it down; if it’s sweet, she swears by coffee.
Sudo entered her first official competitive eating tournament in August 2012. The featured dish was ramen noodles—pounds of it. She was a mess—short of breath, damp-browed, on the verge of a panic attack. She knew she could eat a lot—she’d always been able to do that—but now she had a crowd watching her. There was pressure to perform, not just for a couple of friends, but for the world at large. Not to mention, she was a woman in a sport that is traditionally dominated by men.
Despite rattled nerves, she managed to consume seven pounds of ramen—approximately 50 times the amount of noodles in those microwavable cups—in half an hour, nabbing first place and $250. Two months later, she went on to mow 35 full-size ribs in five minutes for a jackpot of $1299. A quirky quasi-career was hatched.
In April 2013, Sudo signed with Major League Eating, which operates under the IFOCE umbrella. She’s spent the last couple of years touring the country on weekends while holding down a day job in marketing. Along the way, she’s racked up some incredible achievements: 71 Twinkies in six minutes; 76 tamales in 10 minutes, 109 hard-boiled eggs in eight minutes. And she has set a couple of unofficial world records: in kimchi, the fermented cabbage Korean side dish (8.5 pounds in six minutes), and in Cadbury eggs (50 in six minutes and 15 seconds). She also once ate 1.687 gallons of chili. In less than seven minutes.
Sudo claims never to count calories, but suffice to say they are in the thousands and often in the tens of thousands—numbers that can put a strain on even the most accommodating digestive tract. As Jason Fagone, the author of the 2006 book Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, puts it, ingesting such quantities is just “pain and pain. The human stomach is a medical marvel that can take an incredible amount of abuse,” he says. “But it’s still abuse.”
To spend any time with Sudo is to find yourself constantly wondering how she deals with it: How can someone so small and so seemingly normal possibly cram so much food into her esophagus?
“The best I can explain it is that it’s adrenaline,” she says. “During a competition, it just completely takes over. I try to pay attention when the emcee calls time or announces where another competitor is in terms of quantity, but other than that, I don’t see or feel anything.”
The competitive-eating process, Sudo explains, is as much mental as physical. “I know what I’m capable of,” she says. “Sometimes you get toward the end of a competition, and you want to throw in the towel and say, ‘I’m done with this.’ But you can’t whine. You’ve got to have that drive.”
Of course, there are the occasional hiccups. A few hours after eating 147 wings, for instance, she felt a burp coming on, only to discover that her mouth was full of briny orange liquid—mutant acid reflux. At another event, an ice-cream-eating frenzy (13.5 pints in six minutes), her core temperature dropped to dangerously frigid levels, and she had to chug hot coffee to bring it back up. And then there was the time that Sudo took an overly ambitious bite of hot dog. “I thought, ‘Is it going up or down?’ It went down, but it was scary. You’ve just got to tell yourself that there are EMTs there,” she says. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
And yet, Sudo has a way of making what she does look effortless. “I remember coming back from a wing competition where I’d eaten pounds and pounds of wings,” she says. “I took a day off, and then the next day, I had this intense craving for wings—more intense than it had been before.”
Major League Eating currently ranks Sudo fourth on its leaderboard, behind three experienced male competitors. Sudo says she is happy with her status, but she clearly relishes the idea of giving “the boys” a run for their money. Given her career trajectory—and the fact that her day job increasingly takes a backseat to her professional gorging—they should probably be worried.
It’s not just glory she’s after: She knows that, if she can keep up her winning momentum, lucrative sponsorship opportunities await, such as the $100,000 Pepto-Bismol awarded top eater Joey Chestnut for endorsing its product.
When we meet, Sudo is preparing for a grilled-corn-eating contest: “I’ll probably go grab some ears tomorrow and practice my technique,” she says. (She tied for second place by eating 42 ears of corn in 12 minutes.) Then, in July, Sudo will be entered in the combined Super Bowl and World Series of extreme eating: Nathan’s International Hot Dog Eating Contest, on Coney Island.
This would be her first time at Nathan’s—remember, she’s only recently entered the ranks of top competitive eaters—but she’s optimistic. “It’s a big stage, and I think I can make my mark.” She pauses. “Look, I know this is not a traditional sport, but it is a sport, and I take it seriously. It pushes my body to the limit, and it requires focus, stamina, endurance. There’s a lot on the line. And people are counting on you to put on a show.”
She peers down at the plate. There’s one wing left. “Hey,” she says. “Are you going to eat that?”