I knew I was in trouble when I considered taking off my shorts.
It was the top of the fifth inning and the visiting Seattle Mariners held a 1-0 lead over the Boston Red Sox. As I learned the next day when I looked at the box score, Ichiro Suzuki scored that first run on a double by Milton Bradley. Normally, it would be the kind of important play that makes everyone take notice. Instead, I failed to notice the run for two innings. Probably because I was part of something exponentially more exciting.
I was in Durham, standing on a driveway belonging to a couple that I met in person less than one hour before. Like me, roughly two-dozen of their closest friends, acquaintances, and neighbors were halfway watching the game on a TV in their garage. And just like me, half of them were eating their fifth hot dog and drinking their fifth beer in hopes of completing the 999 Challenge, in which competitors eat nine hot dogs and drink nine beers during nine innings of a baseball game. Some of them were already on No. 8 and imagining which of them might throw up first seemed far more appealing than watching some sober guy on TV try to swat a ball with a wooden stick.
But then, almost out of nowhere, I was overwhelmed by more pressing matters. My new pair of shorts felt like they were shrinking and the belt around my waste might as well have been a noose. Had I bought the wrong size? Nope, that was actually my belly expanding at the rate of a quarter-inch per inning. The waistline held nearly five hot dogs and slightly more than four beers just fine, but I feared it wouldn’t support sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth helpings. Oscar Meyer-flavored belches, which were becoming a by-the-minute occurrence, provided little relief.
The fact that stripping down to my underwear occurred to me—at a party where I barely knew anybody—was proof enough that I was in for the longest four innings of my life. (Not that I make a habit of taking off my pants at parties with people I’ve known for a long time.)
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
When I received the invitation to Matt Glass’ 999 Challenge, my first inclination was to decline. And not just because I have a terrible history with eating contests. After a year of competing in at least one offbeat or wacky competition, I was tired. I also worried that Matt’s 999 Challenge would violate the only rule I have for this blog and each contest I enter: Anyone must be able to enter the event. Clearly, this was more of a private contest.
Plus, I knew very little about my would-be host.
I did know that Matt Glass was one of the roughly 20 people I’ve never met who follows Anyone Can Enter on Twitter or is a fan of my Facebook page (which doesn’t include about a dozen Twitter followers that I’m pretty sure are robot spammers). In other words, he was a nonobligatory fan. Unlike a friend or a family member, he had no obligation to hit that Like button. He probably found the blog by chance, enjoyed watching a video of me humiliating myself in some fashion, and clicked Like without an ulterior motive. He wasn’t hoping that I would soon return the favor by Liking his recently uploaded vacation photos. He was simply a kindred spirit. Someone who seizes the day. Who’s willing to try any crazy sport once.
Or maybe, just maybe, he was a psychotic stalker and this was all a plot to lure me into some kind of deranged trap. Crazy as it sounds, I couldn’t rule anything out.
Soon after receiving his invitation, even worse scenarios occurred to me as I typed a mid-day e-mail to Carie. I had barely finished typing “999” in the Subject line when it hit me. What if 999 was a code for 666? Was I being invited to a satanic cult initiation?
I proceeded with caution. I Googled “999 challenge” and learned that it’s a rite of passage for an underground population of baseball fans. Some even do it at actual games, where it must cost them a small fortune. Next, I inspected the guest list for Matt’s 999 Challenge. Twelve people had already confirmed their attendance. A few of them even had mutual friends of mine from college. I Googled “Matt Glass” and “999 Challenge” and found an old blog post by one of his friends. I took a closer look at Matt’s Facebook profile picture. He didn’t look like a stalker at all. If anything, after my little investigation, I was the one stalking him.
All of a sudden, I felt like a spectacular creep.
But there was still the matter of this not being an event that anyone can enter. I thought about this for a while. Did I really need this rule? Wasn’t Anyone Can Enter more about the spirit of trying new things? Besides, anyone could pick up a case of beer, a couple of packs of hot dogs and buns, flip on their TV and attempt the 999 Challenge. So what if they couldn’t officially register for the 999 Challenge I was attending? So what if there wasn’t a race bib with an official entry number? So what if this event didn’t require a dozen sponsors and the cooperation of local law enforcement to redirect traffic for six hours on a Saturday morning?
Just like that, I had talked myself into the 999 Challenge.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
A few days before the challenge, I spoke to Matt on the phone. Like me, he was just turning 30. He had recently completed some of the same events as me, like the Tobacco Road Marathon and the Krispy Kreme Challenge (except that Matt, unlike me, actually finished the challenge with an impressive time).
Matt and a friend tried the 999 Challenge on a whim in 2005 while watching a Yankees-Red Sox game. Both of them failed to make it past four innings, so they gave it a shot again the next year. Matt finished that year, but he later vomited, took a nap, and awoke feeling like he was “sweating hot dogs.” Despite that, he’s held a 999 Challenge at his house every year since.
Over the years he has tweaked the rules. Unlike the general 999 Challenge, competitors in Matt’s challenge must eat at least one hot dog and drink one beer during each inning. If a double play ends the first inning and you still have a sip of beer or the butt-end of a hot dog on your plate, you’re out of the contest. Also, competitors can eat more than one dog and drink more than one beer per inning. Those who play for the win will mix in a few double-dog, double-brew innings. The record at Matt’s 999 Challenge is 13, a record he owns. He even has a plague in his garage with the winners’ name from each year. Matt’s name is on nearly all of the plates, so I asked him for his No. 1 piece of advice for a newcomer whose only hope is to complete the challenge.
“Don’t do anything differently than you would normally do,” he said. “If you have a favorite brand of hot dog, stick with it. If you have a favorite beer, stick with your brand.”
I couldn’t claim a favorite hot dog brand, so I decided to choose a combination of dogs, buns, and brew that stuck closest to the 300-calorie minimum. I found a bag of buns at 90 calories each, a 10-pack of Oscar Meyer dogs with 130 calories each, and I chose Yuengling Light and its 99 calories as my beer.
At 319 calories per inning, I was set to consume a whopping 2,871 calories during the game.
In order to maintain an inkling of dietary balance, I decided I should go for a 10-mile run on the day of the challenge. I threw in an extra 2.7 miles for good luck to burn an estimated 1,433 calories. When I factored in what I ate for breakfast and lunch, I calculated that my net total of calories for the day would be 2,089. Not too shabby, I thought. I didn’t bother tallying the fat, sodium, and artificial ingredients I was about to consume. Some things, like hot dogs, are better left a mystery.
Even after speaking to Matt and making my caloric calculations, a few co-workers and family members thought I was crazy.
The day of the challenge, I even received an e-mail from my parents and a phone call from my dad, suggesting that I shouldn’t enter because he thought the 999 challenge sounded like a “freshman-year binge drinking event.” I assured him this wasn’t the case. I had a designated driver. Not to mention the fact that my beer tastes had long since evolved past freshman level. Nine light beers didn’t scare me at all.
But what really bugged him, I think, was that the 999 Challenge seemed to have no redeeming value. Was there any possibility that I’d be a better person after such a gluttonous pursuit? Was there any way that the world would be better for it?
Probably not. But there was only one way to know for sure.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
When Carie and I arrived at Matt’s house, half the neighborhood appeared to be spilling out of his garage. Matt, who wore gym shorts and a neon shirt that read THE CHAMP IS HERE, spotted us immediately. He and his wife Danica were gracious hosts. Since our game was getting ready to start, Matt gave me some quick instructions. I opted to throw a few of my hot dogs on the gas grill, rather than the rented hot dog rotisserie. I was the 11th person to write my name on the dry-erase scoreboard (one more person entered after me) and I also weighed in at 165 pounds. Yes. There was a scale by the TV.
Since I hadn’t eaten much in the past five hours, I was happy to bite into my first hot dog. In fact, I had finished it before the first out. The first beer was equally welcome.
Over the first few innings, I watched the game like I had never watched baseball. Although I wasn’t paying much attention to who was at bat, the count, or the score, I constantly kept watch over a small arrow next to the inning, indicating whether it was the top or the bottom of the inning. And the outs. Every other inning, usually with about 2 outs in the top of the inning, someone seated near the TV would yell, “Two outs!” Inevitably, this would cause at least two people, who were standing in the driveway and thought the inning would soon be over, to chug their beers. Once, I’m sad to say, it even happened to me.
The Mariners eventually took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning. By then, the scale said I was nearly four pounds heavier. Fortunately, the pressure on my waistline had eased after a pit stop. Even better, I wasn’t really feeling the effects of the alcohol. Most likely because it was competing with processed meat, gooey balls of dough, and French’s mustard.
My biggest problem was that I seemed to be missing two hot dogs, which were probably casualties of another drunken competitor. I decided not to worry about it, knowing that there were plenty of dogs on the grill. At that point, I didn’t think anyone would mind the new guy stealing his wiener.
While I was simply happy to be on track to complete the challenge, Matt had set a gut-busting pace by eating two hot dogs and drinking two beers in each of the first three innings. He seemed destined for a solo victory, but one competitor, whose name I didn’t catch, dreamed of taking him down. I know this because I overheard one of his friend’s urging him on to eat more two hot dogs in the eighth inning. For the better part of the evening, I made small talk with several people, but I had abstained from talking junk. Better to bite my lip, I figured, in a setting where I barely knew anyone. But now that I was feeling slightly tipsy, I decided to urge on this rising contender.
“Come on man, this is your one chance to be great,” I told him. I meant it with a hint of playful sarcasm, obviously, although it came across quite seriously. I assumed he would laugh and maybe say something like, “Then I’m going to need a dozen more hot dogs. And relish. Lots and lots of relish.” But the thing about sarcasm is that you have to know somebody to know that they’re being sarcastic. And this guy definitely didn’t know me.
“Actually, I was a state champion in wrestling,” he said, completely straight-faced, as if no other achievement could match it. Seventy-six ounces of beer dared me to tell him that I had actually won a national championship last year. But something else—probably the hot dogs—told me not to mess with a champion wrestler who’d been drinking for the past two hours. I froze for an incredibly awkward five seconds.
“Well,” I finally said, “consider this another opportunity to be great.” He continued to stare blankly at me. So I shut up.
When the ninth inning rolled along, I was especially happy that the Mariners had the lead, meaning that the Red Sox would have to bat in the bottom of the inning and extend the time we had to complete the challenge. Even though the mystery hot dog I chose from the grill tasted like it had gone for a ride down the Glass’ driveway, straight to the gutter, and back to the grill—and even though it was burnt (something like seven innings burnt)— I refused to let one bad hot dog ruin eight innings of hard work. I finished the burnt dog and chugged my last beer with one out to spare.
The real surprise came at the last minute, when the wrestler revealed that he had eaten two dogs and drank two beers in the final inning to tie Matt for the title. Between them, they’d put away 24 hot dogs and a case of beer over the course of three hours and five minutes.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
As Carie drove us home, I thought back to that phone call with my dad. I considered calling him to let him know that I wasn’t terribly drunk. Of course, I planned to do this by acting extremely drunk, at first, before screaming, “Siiiiike, dad! I totally owned the 999 Challenge and I’m not even that drunk!”
Mainly, I thought about his biggest concern. That there was no value to participating in the 999 Challenge.
Now that I’d completed the challenge, I realized that those concerns were all for nothing. There was great value in this. I had made new friends (considering Matt doesn’t think I’m a psychotic stalker after reading this) and I had witnessed two men push themselves to extremes.
Best of all, I discovered the secret to guaranteed success in the 999 Challenge:
Always wear shorts with an elastic waistband.