A shamefully competitive fire burns inside of me. It ruins innocent games of cards, strains friendships, and makes me say and do things I’m not at all proud of purely for the sake of one-upmanship. The reward or goal of it all has no true bearing on my motivation. Instead, I’m driven by the addicting feeling I get when I prove something impressive to others and myself.
Needless to say, the decision to compete can be an unhealthy one. Emotionally, it puts me through the ringer. Mentally, it exhausts me and sometimes, if the stars align, it can take a very real physical toll. I’m talking here about food challenges.
Food challenges are the great millennial tradition where we test the limits of how spicy, how much, how fast or how painful a food we can ingest, typically, as we millennials do, on camera. For the hyper-competitive this becomes a perfect storm for self-injury. And so my story begins.
Somewhere along the line as I geared up for finals week, I caught wind of an intriguing rumor: Some senior friends of mine planned to host a “Food Challenge Party” at their house. The more I asked around, the more reports intrigued me. Someone was going to try to eat a gallon of ice cream in an hour. Another was going to eat and drink a jar of pickles and someone else was going to try to break the world record for the fastest time to eat a Big Mac and fries.
The kicker though, the clincher, the over-the-top detail too ridiculous to resist that pulled me, irretrievably, into the fire was that all of this—the food, the belches, the groans of pain and disgust, and of course the glory—would be live-streamed. Count me in!
All I needed now was a food challenge better than all the rest. I thought about two bananas and a liter of Sprite, something I’d done before that I knew I could handle. Then again, projectile vomit might put a dent in my public image and some stains in my friends’ carpet. No, I decided on Peeps. I would eat 30 Peeps in five minutes. So I went to the store to get my supply. Much to my shock, Peeps—those adorable little marshmallows, those national treasures of sugar and shame—like fruit, are seasonal. Without a challenge, hands in pocket and dreadfully disappointed, I paced the candy aisle.
Then I spotted them, as if from a dream. I came across the one thing that could lift my spirits, the one candy more impressive than Peeps: Warheads.
Warheads, for anyone keeping track, have a pH level of less than two. That’s less than one point away from battery acid. With that said, as I read the warning label on the package, “eating multiple pieces within a short time may cause a temporary irritation to sensitive tongues and mouths,” I thought: Challenge accepted. I’ll eat 45 in 20 minutes.
And it came to pass that the pickle jar was conquered, the ice cream eater vomited, and the Big Mac challenger was vanquished. It fell to me and people watched on from the party and the live-stream as I stared into a bowl of 45 warheads.
I picked up five, put them in my mouth, and began to chew. Five at a time, the first 20 were a breeze and I finished them in seven minutes. I stayed well on pace for victory. At 25, my stride slowed to two at a time. At 35, I tasted blood and began eating them one by one. I wish I could tell you I stopped there. I wish I could tell you I cut my losses and listened to my body. I wish I could tell you that it ends here, but competition is rarely so rational. I kept going.
I fought through the acid burn, the blood, the sweat and eventual tears. I focused on the possible sting of defeat versus the stinging in my throat. I was, as they say, in the zone. Forty-four. Pause. Forty-five. Nineteen minutes and 23 seconds.
I heard cheering and congratulations. Victory! Had I won though? Had I really? As I examined my mouth in the bathroom, I saw that pieces of tongue were missing and three separate spots where blood still flowed. I washed it out, got the bleeding to stop and said my goodbyes. By that time it was late and I sat alone in my dorm with a leftover pizza. I tried my best to maneuver a few bites but couldn’t taste a thing. For three days, everything I ate was as flavorful as a t-shirt.
College celebrates wisdom and maturity through the challenges we face and overcome. Taking harder classes and increasing responsibilities are signs that, yes, we’re growing up. However, college can be peppered with decisions that we later shake our head at and challenges we should have never accepted in the first place.
So, for some of us, the real wisdom lies in learning how to distinguish between the impressive and the impressively stupid. After all, some rewards are empty, some losses are actually wins and some victories leave a sour taste in your mouth—or no taste at all.