April 12, 2006 - There are several names that will always resonate throughout the cultural pantheon that is modern day sports. Wayne Gretzky. Bill Russell. Babe Ruth. But Takero Kobayashi?

Had Ruth been born 70 years later than 1895, there's a good chance, given his penchant for gluttony, that he may have had a different career path in the world of competitive eating. Sultan of Swat meet Kobayashi, the Sultan of Swallow.

At the very least, Ruth most certainly would have been a cultural icon on www.watchmeeatahotdog.com. Which is where I made my first foray into the world of competitive eating.

Within a week of discovering the site dedicated to pictures of people chowing down on dogs, I found myself training for a competition of my own: Spring Fling at Rillito Race Park.

The contest? Cram as many jalapeno poppers into your body as possible in 10 brutal minutes. A finish in the top three - in the first ever jalapeno popper eating contest sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating - could potentially launch a new, lucrative career, one that could take me as far as my arteries will allow.

The problem was trying to sift through the 2.94 million Google hits under the search terms 'how to prepare for an eating contest.'

Speed-drink 2.5 gallons of water twice a day in the week leading up to the event, one said. Others recommended inhaling massive amounts of vegetables, such as cabbage, every day. Let me tell you, no one is your friend if you eat nothing but cabbage.

I thought my competitive-eating career was going to end before it even got a chance to come to an end at Rillito Park when, earlier in the week, I suffered an injury to my ribs playing basketball.

I didn't see a doctor for my aching side, opting instead to consult my brother Brian, who is an authority on everything. Brian's advice was no laughing for an entire week. To accomplish this, he suggested lots of rest and Jimmy Fallon movies.

When it comes to ribs, however, nobody can hold a pork chop to Joey Chestnut. The 22-year old Chestnut holds the IFOCE record after inhaling 5.5 pounds of pork rib meat in 12 cholesterol-riddled minutes on July 17, 2005 at Chinook Winds Casino.

Chestnut's training secret is ironically delicious: Don't eat for a day and a half before the contest.

"Just protein shakes and a lot of water," said Chestnut. "Things that make my intestines empty and ready."

That's the last time I'll ever ask anyone that question.

Unfortunately for me, and fortunately for my intestines, the 10-person field filled up faster than Chestnut at a buffet. Otherwise, I would have joined him on stage as he put down a record breaking 118 poppers in 10 minutes. The previous record had been set the night before in the intercollegiate competitive eating contest.

That's too bad for me. I had trained all week by eating an extra helping here, a super-size there. Physically and mentally, I was ready. I devoured every little nugget of information I could find on the subject - even if it meant listening intently to a friend describe how he once ordered a quarter-pounder patty on a Big Mac at McDonalds.

All week I debated with whomever would listen. How do you power-eat a popper? My guess was quick bites. Others pushed for stuffing it in your mouth all at once. Another thought sucking out the cream-cheese middle first was the way to go.

It's probably for the best that I missed out. I'd have a long way to go before catching up with Chestnut. In the year since his little brother signed him up for a lobster-eating contest, Chestnut added ribs, waffles, poppers, grilled cheese, Crystal Burgers and hot dogs to his resume. Or is that considered a menu? Whatever it's called, Chestnut has vaulted himself to the ranks of No. 3 overall eater in the world, according to the IFOCE.

This summer his goal is to oust Japanese eating sensation Takeru Kobayashi at his own game: hot dogs. The No. 1 ranked Kobayashi holds the IFOCE record with 53 and-a-half dogs in 12 minutes.

Joe "Loppi" Kershner held the previous mark for inhaling poppers. Loppi, a lanky student at the UA, set the record the night before in the collegiate gorging contest. Loppi's record was a paltry 41 poppers.

That didn't stop him from feeling confident the next day. In fact, he hadn't eaten since the Friday contest to ready himself for the professional one on Saturday.

As the contest began, I found out the true way to power-eat a popper: smush it with your fingers into popper oatmeal and shove the chunky liquid in your mouth.

"It's more about the technique than aerobic conditioning," said IFOCE event coordinator Michael Castellano.

Loppi lost it at the seven-minute mark, literally coughing up about 50 poppers off the left side of the stage and a chance to extend his own world record.

With Loppi lopsided and several other competitors opting to gaze rather than graze, the final minutes boiled down to the quartet of world-ranked power eaters - the four horsemen of the esophagus.

The rankings are serious business. Chestnut's binge earned him a $1,000 paycheck - or roughly $8.50 per popper.

"It's a professional sport. We actually wanted to do an Olympics, but the Olympic board wouldn't have it. We would have had a guy carrying a big ham instead of a torch," said Castellano hyping up his sport. "You don't need to rent court time, it's open to the people. It's all about making celebrities out of the layman.

I'm fairly positive he meant filet-man.

Castellano and the tour will continue on after Tucson. Spring Fling was the conclusion of the Inter-collegiate tour, which was highlighted with a huevos rancheros contest in South Padre Island and a Key Lime contest in Panama City, Fla.

With the college kids out of the way, Chestnut and his fellow athl-eats will be back to the tour, which works it's way through every state - whether it's challenging each other to onion eating in Maui or competing for the Hibernation Cup in Alaska.

Castellano's next show will be in Myrtle Beach and the Steeplechase, which features two-minute rounds of chicken wings, hot dogs, ice cream and shrimp.

As Chestnut lumbered off the stage, the 22-year-old flashed a greasy grin and made a startling confession.

"I'll probably eat again tonight," he said.

Whatever you do Joey, just please stay away from the tilt-a-whirl.

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