This weekend, on July 9, Yasir Salem will defend his championship title at the 28th annual Tour de Donut race in Staunton, Illinois.
Billing himself as “The World’s Top Speed-Eater Ultra Athlete,” he’ll attempt to ride his bicycle 32 miles over rolling terrain, stopping at several checkpoint stations to cram dozens of doughnuts down his gullet.
For every doughnut eaten, participants—there were almost 1,200 last year—are given a five-minute time deduction. At the 2015 race, Salem ate enough for a finishing time of a negative hour and a half. Nobody else even came close.
Could this be the future of competitive cycling? Will tomorrow’s Lance Armstrong be stuffing his face with doughnuts until he gets busted for “doping” with Pepto-Bismol? Of course not.
Salem, a 38-year-old New Yorker and marketing director, might not be a role model for athleticism or smart eating choices, but you’ve got to respect his ingenuity. In addition to Illinois, he’s also won Tour de Donut races in Ohio (2014, 2015), Utah (2014, 2015), and the Donut Derby bicycle race in Pennsylvania (2015). He stumbled onto something that nobody else was especially good at, and he became the best at it.
We called Salem to find out how he became the star athlete of a bizarre new sport you’re likely just finding out exists.
Men’s Health: Which came first? Were you the athlete who discovered competitive eating, or the guy who loved deep-fried dough and decided to get on a bike?
Yasir Salem: Actually it was neither. I was never especially athletic. To this day I’m not very good at sports. And I don’t really care for doughnuts.
Well then what the hell?
It was really a matter of trying to find my niche. I got involved in competitive eating in 2008. After almost a decade, I’m not the number one competitive eater in the world. I’m ranked number ten. I’m not the best cyclist, but I’m generally okay. So it started with me wondering, where can I dominate?
If you can’t be the best at one of them, maybe you can be the best at both?
Exactly. I put these two skills together. Individually, I’m just okay. But together, I’m a champion.
You’re a defending champion at this summer’s Tour de Donut in Illinois. Do you feel the pressure?
Oh yeah. I put the pressure on myself more than anything. I was a little disappointed with my performance last year.
Why? You could have peddled faster? Eaten more?
I wanted to eat sixty doughnuts.
But you ate fifty doughnuts! In the middle of a bicycle race!
Yeah, but you’ve got to keep pushing yourself. I’m still trying to find my limit.
Sixty is your personal doughnut Kilimanjaro?
That’s the goal. But I try not to think about doughnuts as individual increments. I eat them by the dozen. I squoosh them together and shove them in.
How are you not constantly puking?
I never puke. Haven’t done it once in a race.
How is that possible?
There’s no advantage to puking in the middle of the race. First of all, it’s against the rules. And second of all, the whole point of eating doughnuts is to gain time on the clock. If you throw up, you’re throwing up your advantage.
You’re also not going to get many crowds at these races if the competitors are all barfing.
That’s right. There was a race last year, I think it was Tour de Donut in Ohio, where I was eating a little messy at one of the stops, and I was disappointed with myself, because people were watching me and taking pictures. It wasn’t the image I wanted to project.
What could you have done differently?
Don’t make a mess. Don’t dribble everywhere. There’s an art to making something so crazy look kind of graceful.
So you want to be the Fred Astaire of gorging on doughnuts and then riding a bike?
That’s better than being the Cookie Monster. What’s the point? That’s just gross.
Do you have any serious competition?
There’s a guy in Massachusetts named Geoff Esper. He’s got these monster legs, and he’s really good at going uphill. He’s also an excellent competitive eater. He’s right at my level. I was going to face him at the Donut Derby in Connecticut before it got cancelled. Leading up to the race, I was really excited and scared at the same time. I was doing lots of hill sprints and different exercises and making sure my capacity was good for doughnuts.
How do you do that? Are you stretching your jaw muscles? Do you practice over-eating?
I chew on silicone tubes made for people recovering from jaw surgery. And I’ll drink a gallon of water in 40 seconds before exercising.
Why so fast?
So it hurts. You need that feeling of being extremely and uncomfortably full. That’s really what winning is about. It’s about dealing with that fullness and discomfort. It’s not about what’s happening in your stomach, it’s what’s happening in your head.
You have to control the fear?
Yes, exactly that. In competitive eating, people get nervous and start to panic and that’s when they vomit. But your body is fine. It’s your head that’s saying, “This is insane! Abort, abort, abort!”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the July/August 2016 issue of Men’s Health.)