"People have never eaten at these numbers," says Hoover. "Nobody's studied it." The potential permanent health issues are rarely discussed. "I'll just listen to what my body is telling me to do," Hoover says, quickly adding, "Except when I'm competing. Then it's all about ignoring whatever your body is saying and pushing through it."

The morning of the contest, Wrecking Ball wakes up early. He doesn't eat, and he runs around his neighborhood for an hour and a half in the warm morning sun. "I wouldn't run if I wasn't in competitive eating," he says. "I hate running." Then he and Kim, a petite brunette, load their 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son into the car and head south. Everyone wears matching black T-shirts with an image of a grinning wrecking ball smashing bricks.

Fellow Floridians Sean "Wrecking Ball" Brockert and Hall "Hoover" Hunt each trained for weeks before the pickle-eating contest.
Tara Nieuwesteeg
Fellow Floridians Sean "Wrecking Ball" Brockert and Hall "Hoover" Hunt each trained for weeks before the pickle-eating contest.
Pat "Deep Dish" Bertoletti and Sonya "the Black Widow" Thomas are among the world's top-ranked eaters.
Tara Nieuwesteeg
Pat "Deep Dish" Bertoletti and Sonya "the Black Widow" Thomas are among the world's top-ranked eaters.

He arrives at the casino an hour early and waits to see his opponents. As they start to show up, equipment bags in hand, Wrecking Ball can't contain his smile. "That's Pat Bertoletti," he says, admittedly giddy just to be at the same table with some of these legends. "There's Notorious B-O-B, second-ranked in the world. There's the Black Widow."

Hoover and his wife drove down from Jacksonville and spent two nights at the Westin one exit down from the Isle Casino. The first thing he did when he got to town was go to the contest site to try the competition pickles. The morning of the championship, he drank two gallons of soda to stretch his stomach into game shape. When he shows up, he's dressed head to toe in Florida Gator colors. His turned-around blue baseball cap has "Hoover" and a tiny knife and fork embroidered on the back — the part that's facing the cameras when he's eating.

Antolini brings the eaters to the stage one by one, starting with the table-enders and ending with the stars. He warns the spectators in front that they are in a splash zone, in case a competitor has "any urges contrary to swallowing." By Major League Eating rules, a "reversal of fortune" is an automatic disqualification.

"You may get hit," Antolini tells the crowd. "If you get some relish on you, we do not cover dry cleaning."

Antolini leads the crowd in a countdown: "Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Begin eating!"

The Black Widow downs her first pickle before the announcer finishes his last word. His headphones on tight, Deep Dish is halfway through his first bowl at the ten-second mark.

"Notorious B-O-B is shattering the pickles in his hands, but they're not going down fast enough," Antolini says in the style of a '30s radio play-by-play man.

Less than 45 seconds into the competition, Hoover inexplicably drops to one knee, his face inches from the bowls of pickles. He's taking large bites and choking them down.

Wrecking Ball is taking two pickles at a time in his left hand and squeezing them against each other to get the excess fluids out. Then, like a thumping, slurping machine, his right hand pounds both pickles into his mouth.

A minute and a half into the six-minute contest, Deep Dish finishes his second one-pound bowl. He's swallowing a pickle every ten seconds. And with each pickle, Deep Dish bucks his head like a rooster downing a seed, his spiked hair wiggling. Without stopping the conveyer belt of pickle destruction that his hands and mouth have become, he periodically shakes his abdomen like he's dancing.

"Notice Pat Bertoletti shake," Antolini says into the mike. "When he shakes, the pickles fall on top of each other perfectly in his stomach, thus creating more room for the pickles!"

Moments after Deep Dish finishes his second bowl, the Black Widow finishes hers. "We are gonna see a record shattered here today!" Antolini shouts.

At three minutes in, it looks for a moment like they might run out of pickles. A new batch of bowls is weighed and distributed, and Antolini works in a plug for the casino's upcoming horseracing season and the poker room.

Hoover has eaten only a pound and a half, and the announcer tells the crowd: "Hall Hunt is rusty from a year off."

In his head, Hoover repeats a series of aphorisms to stay focused. Your throat is as wide as a trash can, he tells himself. Just throw the food down there. Your stomach is as big as a bedroom. There's plenty of room. Everyone's invited.

Sweat covers the competitors as they writhe and twist and choke back each pickle, ignoring the body's natural impulse to stop. A vein in Notorious B-O-B's forehead throbs. The muscles in Wrecking Ball's neck bulge.

With a minute left on the clock, Deep Dish leads the Black Widow by one pickle. He's shaking hard. She has pickle juice dripping from her elbows. Notorious B-O-B is obliterating the pickles at an even faster pace. He slaps the mush into his huge mouth with a disturbing urgency.

Thirty seconds to go and Hoover takes even bigger bites, trying to work each pickle down his esophagus with sips of the red drink. Wrecking Ball crouches over the table, pounding pickles into his mouth sideways. He's behind, but he refuses to quit.

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