On stage, the man called “Silo” wears yellow shorts he found online for $1.50. He devours nightmare food for hearts and arteries: pronto pups, pulled pork sandwiches, bacon burgers, pumpkin pies. He pauses only to swig water to wash down the next few thousand calories. He pumps fast-paced electronic “dubstep” music into his headphones.
On Saturday, he’ll add cheese pizzas to his competitive resume, trying to wolf through as many Ian’s 24-inchers as possible in 10 minutes as part of the national pizza eating championship. Posed with the obvious question — to fold or not to fold the slices? — he won’t answer.
“Confidential information,” he said with a smile. A $1,000 prize goes to the winner. He’s not about to divulge strategy.
Off stage, UW-Madison senior and computer engineering major Eric Dahl — Silo’s alter ego — has the young, hip look of a college student. He’s 6-foot-3 but puts down no more than 3,100 calories a day, much of it vegetables, usually at just one meal. He’ll eat 10 pounds of cabbage or broccoli at a sitting followed by a gallon or two of water, the more to stretch his stomach without bulging his waistline.
In three years as a competitive eater, Dahl’s risen meteorically — at one point, he was top-ranked nationally in All Pro Eating rankings, while now he’s No. 3. He’s earned more than $18,000 in prize money or merchandise.
“I’m eating for my education,” he said. “It helps me get through.”
It’s included feats that may make the average person vomit, which in competitive eating circles is called a “reversal of fortune” and a big no-no: you’re immediately disqualified.
His first paycheck, for $250, came at Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in suburban Minneapolis, where he inhaled nine pulled-pork sandwiches in six minutes. His biggest payday came at the 2012 California State Fair, where he took home $2,500 for eating 20 extra-large corndogs in eight minutes.
Dahl came upon the competitive eating scene accidentally. In 2011 at the former Big Red’s Steakhouse on University Avenue, he didn’t want to pay for his meal so he signed up for a challenge: eat a three-pound cheesesteak sandwich in less than 10 minutes and skip the bill. He finished in 5 minutes, 50 seconds.
“It just started rolling from there,” he said. The three-sport athlete in high school — football, wrestling and track and field — found the eating competitions addicting and the over-the-top atmosphere reminiscent of professional wrestling.
“I really get pumped when the crowd starts cheering,” he said. “I’m friends with other competitive eaters, but once I’m on stage I don’t have any friends.”
His parents in Minnesota were leery at first. His dad figured the muscular former defensive end would balloon to 300 pounds.
But his strict workout regimen — lifting weights twice a week, walking a few miles a day, playing intramural soccer and hockey — has allowed him to remain at 219 pounds, same as when he started. Like comics character Dagwood Bumstead, he’s a lean man with a large appetite.
Dahl graduates in December. He had job interviews in the last year before settling on an offer to be a technical sales associate with Texas Instruments in Dallas starting in February. Every interview eventually came to the same question: What’s with competitive eating? Most said they expected him to be middle-aged and obese.
Dahl described it as a business enterprise, talking of his earnings and of building his brand on Facebook and YouTube. He has 2,182 subscribers to his YouTube channel. One video of him eating an 8-pound bacon cheeseburger at Reverend Jim’s Roadhouse in Madison has garnered 1.2 million views.
About midway into the “double glutton burger challenge,” as it’s known, a friend asks incredulously in the video, “Where’s all that food go?”
“It’s in the Silo, man,” another friend answers.