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Hot Dog, Ho!

The shimmering circus that is Times Square oozes neon fingers through the front glass of ESPN Zone, a restaurant in which people watch 14 large televisions while they dine -- and one small screen when they urinate. In a second-floor skybox overlooking this den of excess on an early July Saturday, a 44-year-old man-hulk from Hollywood, Florida, named Joe LaRue is settling down to a buffet plate heaped with goopy chocolate desserts. About 18 hours from now, he will ingest more hot dogs in 12 minutes than most people eat in a summer. Tonight, the brownie mound is a potential gut-plug after a full dinner.

"I wouldn't if I were you," fellow eater Dale Boone advises.

"Go get a plate," LaRue joshes. "I'll beat you."

Ah, the camaraderie is almost palpable, if not very palatable, before the world's biggest digestive bacchanal, the annual Fourth of July Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island.

Imagine, if you're not just sitting down to an omelet or a plate of noodles, a league of comic book heroes whose sole, shared superpower is the ability to down food in Costco portions at hors d'oeuvres speeds and you might begin to comprehend this gathering. The six-foot-eight white dude with the trimmed hair and a sapphire in his left ear is LaRue. The loudmouth tottering about in the overalls and coonskin cap? That's Boone, an alleged descendant of Daniel, who once consumed 28 reindeer sausages in ten minutes. The bearded fellow in the suit with his ass filling a crater in the couch? That's Don Lerman, who set a world record by gulping 7.5 sticks of salted butter in five minutes. "I love butter," he says. "But when you eat that much, it's not that tasty. The grease is overpowering. Best laxative I've ever had."

Across from Lerman, with the plate of victuals in his lap? That's Cookie Jarvis, a human Himalaya capable of scarfing 64 ounces of mayonnaise in five minutes. "That's only half a gallon," LaRue says, almost dismissively, when he recalls this fact. The guy in the mustard-colored sports coat and shorts with a bouquet of dreadlocks crowning his grinning head? That's Crazy Legs Conti; he's trying to explain to a New Zealand documentary film crew the meaning of tomorrow's Coney Island race. He asks what is the biggest sporting event in New Zealand, and the answer comes: Rugby World Cup. "OK, Rugby World Cup," Crazy Legs says in a gallant display of cultural insensitivity. "Take that, and bump it up a notch."

The towering Japanese fellow with the mouth seemingly large enough to conceal a mid-sized chandelier? That's Nobuyuki Shirota, the only human ever to have beaten the otherwise superhuman eating champion, Takeru Kobayashi, who in 2002 set a world record of 50.5 hot dogs in the 12-minute Nathan's Famous race. Aside from Shirota, only a brown bear has out-eaten Kobayashi.

"Beyond any sport, we're the most dedicated athletes," Jarvis says. "Because if you don't win, what's the point?"

Among this astounding group, LaRue stands out because of his height and also because his 280 pounds are more muscle than bulbous belly meat. After two years of competitive eating, he's ranked seventh in the world; that's hardly a scientific rating, but it's safe to say that few humans (or baleen whales, for that matter) can eat more food in less time than LaRue.

"He's one of the fastest-rising stars in competitive eating," says George Shea, who with his brother Richard runs the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), which oversees the contest. "He's a big man, and he harkens back to the very essence of humanity. If he were on the plains of the Serengeti 50,000 years ago, he would have survived."

He'll have his plates full tomorrow, when in front of 10,000 screaming, grimacing fans, he'll chug dogs against 19 others. ESPN will broadcast and rebroadcast the event to 2.75 million households. It's the first time the super bowl of competitive eating -- the Rugby World Cup of the sport, if you will -- has been carried by the network. The niche sport is growing even faster than America's collective love handles, and o! the glory that befalls its fearless competitors!

LaRue lives in a two-bedroom apartment on Sheridan Street a couple of miles west of I-95, in one of those fungible South Florida complexes that look like a layer cake of 40-year-old beach hotels. The living room holds a couple of couches, a desk cluttered with newspaper clippings, and a bookshelf jammed with about 80 cookbooks. LaRue is a part-time chef at one of the area's finer kitchens, the Turnberry Isle & Resort in Aventura; from banquets there, he has spirited out a mess of wine corks to glue against a wood frame to make a bulletin board. That project sits perpetually half-finished in the tiny kitchen that is LaRue's pantry, his sanctuary, his laboratory, and his training room.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling

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