How to become a competitive eater

The server looked confused. In her hands were four plates, each loaded with a meaty sandwich and a heap of fries. But there were only two people at the outdoor table in downtown Sacramento, me and a smallish woman in a black hoodie, her ears adorned with multiple studs, her skin thoroughly tattooed. The server looked around, wondering if the food was for a table of four that had eluded her. It wasn't. The other waitress, who had taken our order, finally came out to explain the arrangement: for me, a single chorizo burger with garlic fries; for the unimposing woman across from me, a steak sandwich, a Philly chicken-and-cheese sandwich and a cheeseburger with mushrooms. And did I mention the glistening mounds of fries?

In the hour that followed, that waitress flitted by our table several times to watch the slight woman (55kg in weight; 170cm in height) across from me casually eating her way through the bulwark of grilled meat and fried carbohydrate before her. One sandwich disappeared, then another, then a third. The waitress appeared frightened, as if a rift in space-time were opening before her eyes, swallowing more food that a single person possibly could. As we ordered our dessert milkshakes, I felt it my duty to offer context for the digestive performance taking place on the patio of Burgers and Brews.

"This is Molly Schuyler," I said, pointing to the woman behind the stack of plates, on which not a sliver of French fry remained. "She is one of the best competitive eaters in the world." A woman whose CV includes consuming 363 wings in one contest and 26 burgers in another. The Stellanator; the Death Pizza challenge; the Goliath Burger Challenge: triumphs, all.

Schuyler offered the waitress a proposition: she would eat the entire Burgers and Brews menu — which includes more than a dozen variations of hamburger alone — provided the restaurant covered her tab were she to 1) eat it all and 2) survive. The waitress wisely demurred. Schuyler looked undaunted, and maybe a little peckish. "I could eat several more after this," she said before drinking her chocolate milkshake. I couldn't finish mine, so she gladly polished that off, too.

Some athletes run. Others throw, jump, hit. Molly Schuyler chews. Her skill is to be, in her words, a "bottomless pit", to eat beyond the limits of need or enjoyment, to eat so much so quickly that it is brilliant and pointless at once, like running a marathon in a Big Bird suit.

Schuyler is not yet as well-known as the most famous competitive eaters in the world: Joey Chestnut, Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, Takeru Kobayashi. But that could soon change. In April, Schuyler made headlines from the Washington Post to the Daily Mail for what is surely one of the greatest competitive eating accomplishments of this young century: eating three 2kg steaks (with sides that included shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and a roll) in about 20 minutes. That's a pace of about 300g per minute, more than an average burger every 60 seconds. And don't forget the shrimp cocktail.

The field of Schuyler's dreams was the Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo, which has for decades dared diners to eat a 2kg steak in under an hour – an alimentary accomplishment that would render the meal free and the eater a hero, at least in the Texas Panhandle. Schuyler took only four minutes and 18 seconds to finish her first 2kg steak during the April 19 event, which you can watch in all its magnificent surreality on YouTube.

Her three-steak carnage far surpassed the performance of the previous champ, hot dog king Joey Chestnut, and broke her own record. But that's not enough for Schuyler. "I gotta go back and do four. Totally doable," she says.

The Big Texan, which has hosted its steak challenge for more than five decades, is owned by the Lee family. One of the proprietors, Bobby Lee, remembers the first challenge in 1960, when Bobby was five and his father was running the joint, which then catered mostly to cowboys. Since then, he has seen about five people a day try to summit Mt Steak, with all too many of their dreams crashing down into a pool of vomit.

"I've never seen anything like that in my life," Lee tells me of Schuyler's performance, which earned her a $5,000 prize. "I'd put her up against a lion or tiger any day." Grabbing the medium-rare cuts of top sirloin with her hands, Schuyler tore off hunks of meat and swallowed them without chewing. Lee, who calls Schuyler "totally fearless", says he had both a paramedic and an oral surgeon on hand, in case she choked. "She is not even of this world," Lee says with awe.

Actually, Schuyler is very much of this world. She has four kids – three girls and one boy – the oldest of whom is 11 and the youngest six. Her husband is in the US Air Force, and it is his work that brought her to the Sacramento suburbs, which she calls "miserable". At least eating for a living lets her travel, to make money without having to work, of all places, in a chain restaurant.

Schuyler is a native of Nebraska, "corn and nothing", as she puts it. But it is home, and she yearns to return there one day. Schuyler started eating competitively about three years ago and signed with All Pro Eating in 2013. Her passion for it has a Midwestern simplicity: "It's free food. I love free food."

At home, she eats like the harried mother she is: in the morning, it's coffee while she gets the kids ready for school; in the afternoon, a lunch of baby carrots as she runs errands; dinner is often "grazing" on the leftovers of her children.

Schuyler is one of several women challenging the notion that competitive eating is a boys' club. In the top echelon of Major League Eating, four of the top 10 eaters in the world are women. Foremost among them is Miki Sudo, who upstaged Thomas, the "Black Widow", at last year's Nathan's hot dog eating contest on Coney Island.

Sudo, whom Schuyler considers a friend, bristles at any gender stereotypes with competitive eating. "There's three men ahead of me," Sudo tells me, "but many, many behind me." Schuyler, though, admits when she first started eating, she would lose time by repeatedly wiping her face, not wanting to be seen engaging in unladylike behaviour.

Sudo, like Schuyler, is in 55kg range; Thomas weighs even less. None of these women engage in excessive eating outside of competition: Sudo's diet, for example, includes staples like grilled chicken, avocado and kale. As she points out, competitive eating only consumes some 17 days per year. The rest of the time, she is an "incredibly boring" eater.

Still, the binge-eating takes its toll. "There are days you feel like garbage, just absolute garbage," says Sudo, and Schuyler concedes, "You're conditioning your body to do something it wasn't meant to."

What little research on competitive eating does exist indeed suggests it isn't the most beneficial way to spend time. According to research published in 2007 in the American Journal of Roentgenology, "professional speed eaters eventually may develop morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for a gastrectomy".

Schuyler will keeping eating as long as she keeps winning and making money. When we met, in mid-May, she was looking forward to a corn-dog eating contest at a county fair, which she figured she would win easily. But she knows that there will come a time when she can no longer eat half a cow in the time it takes a normal human being to brush her teeth. And when that time comes, Schuyler will be ready. As she says, "It's only food."