It was unquestionably the single dumbest thing I have tried in my entire life: eating eight super hot wings at Caliente, a fun yet fiendish joint in Richmond, Va.
The wings are so hot they are actually called "Stupid Wings." They are so stupid the restaurant actually makes you sign a waiver before you try to eat them.
My initial reaction was caught on tape: "OH MY GOD, THAT'S HOT AS S***."
So why, why was I doing this?
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"These challenges have been around for decades," said Adam Richman, an undisputed authority on the subject. "[It's about] getting a chance to be part of the food lore of that city, because everyone knows someone that's tried the challenge, or their cousin tried it or wants to try it, or tried and had one wing and ran and stuck their face in a basin of water."
Richman knows a little something about food challenges -- because it's his job.
"My mother will go, 'You know the show "Man v. Food"?'" said Richman. "'My son is the man!'"
He IS the man. Literally, figuratively and gastronomically. Richman is the host of the wildly popular "Man v. Food" on the Travel Network. Now in its second season, the show follows the cherubic chowhound as he goes from city to city shining a spotlight on the local fare.
"I think it's really profiling the great iconic eats in any given city, how these foods could exist in no other place," said Richman. "And I think that it really also instills a tremendous degree of civic pride in these cities, 'cause it's like, 'Yeah, that's right, those are cheese steaks, that's my deep-dish pizza, those are my tacos,' and it's a great feeling and it sort of showcases the American landscape as a really great, vast culinary wonderland."
Richman showcases food the country really eats -- not exotic, unaffordable dishes.
"We tend to profile mom-and-pop shops, and these are places that only existed by the skin of their teeth up to this point, and really only have existed because they have that great broad appeal," he said.
Richman's spotlight can attract big business.
"Can we do well for mom-and-pop businesses?" he said. "Yes we can."
Man v. Food: Profiling and Pillaging
The profiling is just one of part of the job. The other part? Pillaging.
"I have mauled meat. I have bruised burritos and I have dominated dairy," said Richman. "This is a really dubious resume."
In each show, Richman tries to beat whatever the most legendary local food challenge or dining dare might be. One hundred and eighty oysters in New Orleans. A 72-ounce steak in Texas. An 11-pound pizza in Atlanta.
And in Richmond, when we were with him... those Stupid Wings. So hot that owner David Bender wears three sets of gloves while making them. The ingredients might as well include molten lava.
Richman claims there's a method to this madness.
"There's this sort of legendary status to most of these challenges, that it's linked with this sort of culinary tapestry of that city," he said. "So it's like, look, you got to do it all, you can't just profile these great restaurants. There's a whole experience you can take part in. And whether I win or lose, I mean it doesn't make a difference, as long as I just point the camera in that direction and let the nation know that there is a lot of some great experiences to be had out there."
I asked Richman what he thought it is about food challenges that captivate people's imaginations. They are, after all, kind of weird.
"I think what captivates people's imaginations is that we all can't dunk like LeBron, we all can't drive like Jeff Gordon or something like that, but I think that we all love to eat," said Richman. "A great many of us do, at least, and I think it's a skill set that people can point to, go, 'I can do that, I have a fork and knife and teeth and gums. I'll go for it.' I think it's accessible, it's exciting."
And excessive, maybe?
"It may be, but I think that that's just a person's opinion," Richman said. "It would be excessive if you made it a lifestyle choice, but if you make it a once in a blue moon..."
Man v. Food: The Wrong Message?
"Man v. Food" is a little discordant with the great national dialogue on fighting obesity, eating healthy and portion control.
I asked Richman if his show was sending the wrong message.
"Absolutely not," he said. "I think that were I to advocate eating like I eat, or eating what I eat on this show, as a lifestyle choice, would be foolhardy, it would be reprehensible. I think the bottom line is we're showcasing really once-in-a-blue-moon indulgences."
Incredibly, Richman has not put on pounds shooting the show, he said.
"I am proud to say, I am very proud to say I am wearing the same size jeans I did at my screen test," he said.
As far as training, Richman's background doesn't exactly scream "competitive eater."
"The one thing is, people are like, 'OK, you went to Yale Drama, and now you're eating seven-pound burritos, and there's a disconnect,'" said Richman. "And I get that."
That's right: The 36-year-old Brooklyn native is a classically trained actor, an alumnus of Yale's drama school. But he has always loved to eat.
Now that he eats a ton for a living, Richman exercises all the time -- and counts on some outside assistance.
There was the time in San Antonio, Texas, when he squared off against a particularly daunting burger.
"In San Antonio I wasn't going to win that challenge if it wasn't for that crowd," Richman said. "I'm being completely honest with you. It was a burger with the four hottest peppers on earth on one hamburger, and it was excruciating, and I literally looked over my shoulder. And to see a whole room of strangers so feeling what the show is about and so in my corner, it's the best thing in the world. Sometimes it's tough when their overexuberance leads them to patting me on the back when I'm four pounds into a seven-pound burrito. That can sometimes be compromising, but I know it's all done with love."
Amazingly, Richman has never gotten sick doing this. That's the part I was most interested in when I idiotically agreed to try the Stupid Wing Challenge at Caliente.
"These are some of the hottest wings I have personally ever faced, and I gotta tell you, I have so much admiration for you," said Richman. "So many people will talk to me about the challenges, interview me about me or the show. You are the first person that's actually gone toe-to-toe with the beast, and I have to say, I admire that tremendously."
Greaaaaat. But what will this small pile of fire actually do to me?
"A lot of spicy, it will increase your heart rate, you'll feel almost like pins and needles... and you get hiccups," said Richman. "If you can control those three things, you will win."
Winning was an afterthought. SURVIVING was the ultimate goal.