Competitive Eaters Devour 12-Pound Turkeys -- and Still Have Room for Pie

Some people wear stretch pants on Thanksgiving in anticipation of stuffing themselves with turkey.

But on the day before Thanksgiving at the International Federation of Competitive Eating's turkey-eating championship, professional eater Crazy Legs Conti actually stretched before attempting to devour a 12-pound turkey in 12 minutes.

After a couple of hamstring curls and some limb-shaking, Conti ripped into his turkey like a jackal on acid. He vigorously shook his head and shoulder-length dread locks as he tried to jam as much turkey as possible down his throat.

Despite his theatrical efforts, Conti placed fourth in the competition, which pitted eight pro eaters against one another.

First place went to Patrick Bertoletti. As he tore apart his turkey's carcass, the lanky 21-year-old with a 6-inch mohawk bopped his head to punk rock that blasted through his headphones.

Bertoletti devoured 4.8 pounds of turkey in 12 minutes. His prize? $2,500, a cornucopia trophy and bragging rights at the holiday table.

Super Eaters in Human Bodies

The turkey-eating championship goes along with the great American tradition of eating much more than necessary on Thanksgiving.

"A lot of people consider Thanksgiving amateur hour," said Conti, who is ranked the No. 11 professional eater in the world by the competitive eating federation.

But for the eight eaters who competed in the federation's Thanksgiving Invitational, the event was more than just a turkey dinner. It was a chance to shed their everyday personas, take on alter egos and engage in a pastime they love -- eating.

Most days, Tim Janus is a trader. But when a competition rolls around, Janus turns into "Eater X," a face-painted tamale eating champion who can devour 51 of the Mexican corn fritters in 12 minutes.

When he's in his Philadelphia office, Eric Livingston is an IT director. On the eating circuit, he's the Scottish kilt-wearing, cheese-steak inhaling "Steakbellie."

"Most people don't know I'm into competitive eating," he said. "Those that do think I'm crazy."

Sonya Thomas works at a Burger King in Maryland. Few know that the 39-year old, 109-pound woman has beaten men more than twice her size in eating competitions. She's known as the "Black Widow" and is ranked the No. 4 eater in the world.

"I think working in fast food is good preparation for competitions," she said. "Usually, I work fast, here, I eat fast."

Redemption, Basted

For Thomas, the competition was also a chance to redeem herself. Though she was the defending champion of the turkey-eating championship and in April won the Baltimore Crab Cake Competition by eating 46 crab cakes in 10 minutes, she's recently fallen flat.

"Lately, I screw up. I've been losing many times. This is a chance to improve," she said.

Alas, it was not to be. Halfway through the competition, with sweat and shreds of turkey dripping down her chin, she put a hand to her mouth as if she were about to experience what those in the competitive eating circuit call a "reversal of fortune."

The turkey stayed down but Thomas bowed out, paving the way for Bertoletti's win.

After the competition, Thomas said her strategy -- "just swallow" -- was a failure.

"I tried to eat fast, but I was stuffing too much in my mouth and couldn't swallow," she reflected. "I got greedy."

According to Dr. David Katz, a Yale Medical School professor and ABC News medical contributor, shoving down too much food in a short span of time is usually a recipe for disaster.

"You can tear the esophagus. You can injure your stomach," he said. "When you're stuffing food in that fast there's a risk of things going down the wrong pipe."

Having participated in an impromptu eating contest with his roommate in college, Katz can sympathize with Thomas' forfeit.

After gorging at an all-you-can-eat buffet, "I reached the point where I couldn't turn my head for fear of throwing up," Katz said. "I was miserable."

A Rookie Usurps a Champ

Bertoletti triumphed over defending champion Thomas and the rest of his struggling competitors with enthusiasm and attitude.

His winning strategy? Eat the breast of the turkey first and then move on to the legs last.

"It was hard to chew in the beginning. I started with the breast because I thought it would be the hardest to get through," he said.

Bertoletti has been competing with the competitive eating federation only since January 2006, but already many professional eaters consider him a force to be reckoned with. In August, he won a pizza eating competition by taking in 19 slices in 10 minutes.

Not only does Bertoletti devour food, he appreciates it too. When he's not competing, he attends culinary school in Chicago.

As Bertoletti cradled his gilded cornucopia trophy, he chewed on a slice of the pumpkin pie Crazy Legs Conti brought the competitors for dessert.

Now that he's won, Bertoletti is looking forward to Thanksgiving. But there won't be any turkey on his plate.

"I'm not going to look at it tomorrow, I'll be honest," he said.