Erik “The Red” Denmark works in aerospace procurement contracting by day, but he pursues a unique hobby when he’s not on the job.
Denmark is a competitive eater in Major League Eating, which hosts several contests – including the famous Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest that occurs every July 4 at Coney Island.
Denmark placed 10th in this year’s contest but has finished as high as fourth in previous eat-ins.
He also holds world records for eating 9 3/4 of Native American fry bread in eight minutes and over four pounds of spot shrimp in 12 minutes.
He began competing in 2005 but it was an event that happened four years prior that really inspired him.
“I was always fascinated by it but when (Takeru) Kobayashi doubled the world record with 50 hot dogs in 2001, that blew my mind,” Denmark said.
Denmark always considered himself to be a competitive eater even before he began competing.
“I had always thought I was a big eater. I ate really fast and I would never turn down a challenge,” Denmark said. “I would always do a lot of hot sauce chugging contests or eat the spiciest things.”
It was when he entered a chicken wing eating contest in San Francisco and finished in the top five that changed things for the man known in Major League Eating as “The Red.”
“That contest got me hooked and ever since then I’ve been trying to do the best that I can,” Denmark said.
He has competed in the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest since 2006; this year marked the first year he competed since 2018.
Denmark admits that this contest posed more challenges than any other.
“This contest gave me a shorter runway since the logistics of having the contest were in doubt until mid-May due to the restrictions in New York that were just lifted,” Denmark said.
Denmark would traditionally train for about three to four months prior to the contest and would enter a qualifying contest to compete on the Coney Island stage.
He would train by cooking as many hot dogs that he thought he could eat and then time himself for 10 minutes.
If there were any hot dogs left over at the end of the 10-minutes, he would still try to eat as many as he could.
Denmark has described this hobby of his as taking as much dedication as being a powerlifter.
“This profession almost takes the same amount of discipline as weightlifting in my opinion,” Denmark said. “There’s a lot of guys that switch over from weightlifting or professional training careers because they’re used to a regimen training schedule where they build muscle, but in this case, they stretch muscles.”
He also explained that after a big calorie intake during a practice, he often must scale back in the days following the practice.
“After I’m done eating in a practice, I have to eat really light with some salads and lots of liquids the following days so that I’m not constantly putting my body in distress,” Denmark said.
Denmark also said that he likes to stay active and spend as much time outside either hiking or playing volleyball, even during the heat of summer, to burn off excess calories.
“I think people imagine competitive eaters as being really big eaters or people that were out of shape but as you get more into it, you realize that it’s more beneficial to be in better shape,” Denmark said.
Being in good shape is a benefit when it comes to being a competitive eater but having strong focus is another key to success in the sport.
“The biggest thing is to stay focused. You only have 10 minutes in this sport and have to be totally focused and cannot let any of the elements get to you,” Denmark said.
Denmark has a pre-contest ritual that helps him maintain his focus as he competes.
“A couple of minutes before the contest, I try to get focused on the first few bites and really try to focus on chewing and swallowing and all the things that I’m there to do,” Denmark said.
Though he was focused throughout the contest, he also fed off of the crowds energy.
“It was a completely different energy than I’ve ever felt there before,” Denmark said. “A lot of the emotion in the crowd was relief,” “There were a lot of people there that wanted to celebrate restrictions being lifted and being able to get back to life.”
The energy was so high that it made him feel emotional.
“I got more emotional on stage than I ever have because I started thinking of the journey that we’ve been on as a country and the journey that New York went on,” Denmark said. “It was an honor to be on stage and to be a part of the rejuvenation of our country.”
When the competition began and the hot dogs began rushing into his mouth, the only thing rushing through his mind was to keep eating.
“When I’m going for 10-minutes, I have to push through the discomfort and make sure I don’t take any breaks because that’s when I begin to feel it,” Denmark said.
After the contest was over and Denmark had downed 28 hot dogs, that was where the real challenge began.
“I try to slow my breathing down and relax for about 10 to 15 minutes after so that the food doesn’t come back up,” Denmark said.
Contestants who regurgitate are immediately disqualified.
He feels he could have eaten about six more hotdogs and plans to return next year to make a bigger push to the top.
“It was motivating enough to know that I don’t need to retire, and I can go back and do better,” Denmark said.
In the meantime, he plans to do something he has not done in the past months.
“I would love to eat a hot dog and just enjoy it,” Denmark said. “I still like to enjoy a nice hot dog with some mustard and maybe a little relish and I certainly will enjoy a hot dog before the summer is over.”