RALEIGH, N.C. -- The e-mail from producer Scott Harves landed in my inbox Jan. 13. It read, in part:
I hope all is very well.
Have a quick question for you:
Would you like to participate in an ESPN feature where it would involve running 4 miles?
As a regular runner, I didn't think much of it and responded in the affirmative. The "very" should have tipped me off. My bad.
You don't get to be an exalted feature producer -- ESPN's best and brightest -- leading with the bad news. That Harves is one cagey fellow. What he didn't mention initially was the name of the race: the Krispy Kreme Challenge. Jammed (in retrospect, this is the appropriate word) between 2-mile legs of a race on the campus of North Carolina State University is the most daunting of athletic and gastronomic feats: Eating one dozen glazed doughnuts. On the clock. To successfully complete the challenge, runners must finish the race in under one hour -- and maintain possession of all their doughnuts.
This sounded like the horrifying intersection of competitive running and competitive eating. Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi meets Usain Bolt. The perfect event for a hungover college student. I mean, how do you officiate something like that?
There was a time, long ago, when a dozen beers out of the cold keg seemed like heaven, but now I was nearly three decades out of college, pushing 52. Why subject myself to that kind of punishment? And yet, a morbid curiosity began to gnaw at me.
I was clearly qualified for the race. I was in decent shape, so four miles wouldn't be a problem. The dozen doughnuts? I would be coming off a week at the Super Bowl in Tampa, where I was sure to get a few prodigious meals under my belt. The reporter in me was curious: Could I get through the race without hurling? And, hey, I'm a professional, and jobs are difficult to come by these days. If I could suffer through getting a Mohawk for a "College GameDay" feature a year ago, I could do this. Right?
Glazed and confused
The race began as a complete lark, the idea of Chris McCoy, a sophomore on the NC State basketball team. He dreamed up the run from the campus bell tower to the Krispy Kreme store on Peace Street for a dozen doughnuts -- and back. After some late-night discussions, it was determined that an hour was a fair deadline.
After listening to McCoy talk about the race for weeks, his friend Greg Mulholland finally pulled the trigger one Saturday morning in December 2004. About 15 people, including two Wolfpack coeds, showed up for the start. McCoy missed the race -- he slept in.
"But 10 of us completed it, and have rubbed it into his face ever since," Mulholland said. "When we finished that first race, we were pretty miserable."
The winner that day was a sturdy rower named Ben Gaddy, who completed the race in about 34 minutes. Then he got in his car and drove back down the final stretch to heckle his pursuers.
"You've got the mass of doughnuts in your stomach that's sort of sloshing around," Gaddy said. "Then you start sweating, and you're sweating glaze, you're sweating Krispy Kreme glaze, and it's coming out of your pores. You feel your arms are sticky, you're starting to salivate, but it's not saliva, it's syrup."
What's not to like?
In five years, the Krispy Kreme Challenge has exploded. There were 150 runners the next year, then 1,300 for the third running. In 2007, the challenge was event No. 85 on the list of "102 More Things You Gotta Do Before You Graduate" in Sports Illustrated's college edition. This helped grow the field to about 3,000 and caught the attention of Valerie Gordon, one of ESPN's feature aficionados, who pitched the idea "almost as a joke." This year's race had to be capped at 5,000 entries.
How and why did the race establish itself so quickly? The same impulse that causes rubber-necking when there's an accident on the highway, except the collision is in your stomach. The horror. The fascination. That, and the fact that it's for charity -- the North Carolina Children's Hospital. There is also a void of tradition on NC State's campus -- bonfires and campouts have been discontinued and football tailgate hours curtailed -- that left Wolfpack students ready to embrace something new, quirky and potentially disgusting.
Zero trans fat!
As I stood on the starting line at 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 7 -- stalked by my personal HD camera crew -- I wasn't really thinking about the first leg. There was an intense guy standing next to me, holding the leash of a three-legged boxer, but I was looking down the road, pondering the doughnuts and what they might look like splattered across my reporter's suit.
This, so-called nutritional information, from my pre-race notes:
- 12 Original Glazed Krispy Kreme Doughnuts contain 2,400 calories (1,200 fat), 144 grams of fatł 36 grams of saturated fat, 60 mg. of cholesterol, 1140 mg. of sodium, 120 grams of sugar, 24 grams of protein.
Those calories are enough to burn a 60-watt bulb for 125 hours, and, as Dr. Jonathan Allen of the school's nutrition lab told us earlier, you'd have to run all the way to Chapel Hill (32 miles) to break even.
On the bright side, this year's doughnuts had zero trans fat, which supposedly makes digestion easier.
The best advice from successful finishers was the idea of maintaining a leisurely pace, particularly in the doughnut transition area. That, and remembering to double-knot your running shoes. If you have to bend over and retie them on the way, watch out.
The first two miles were pleasant enough, although the temperature was already past 60 and it was a tad warm in that suit. Despite taking my time and doing a number of on-course interviews with my ESPN microphone, I rolled into the already crowded Krispy Kreme parking lot in just over 18 minutes, right on schedule.
I walked to the nearest table and took my box of one dozen doughnuts and turned to look for a place to eat.
"No," said my cameraman Gregg Hoerdemann, who didn't like where the sun was. "Let's do that again."
Sure. Television pays the bills. Cost me maybe 30 seconds, but I was still in good shape.
After researching the race, I decided to employ a modified mash method. I stacked four doughnuts and used my palm to compress them into a single one-inch doughnut, dense as plutonium. It was a lot heavier than I expected, and it took about five minutes to eat. Not great, but still on schedule, since I figured on about 10 to 12 minutes for the entire dozen. The next four took about 10 minutes and I was starting to feel a little bloated. OK, a lot.
I started rethinking the previous night's dinner of osso buco and a few glasses of red wine. I flashed back, queasily, to a visit to the food lab, where nutrition science majors Christine Lamb and Ben Townsend did an experiment that simulated the race. After adding hydrochloric acid and water to 12 mashed-up doughnuts, they twisted and tugged the plastic Ziploc bag that represented the stomach.
"Eating and exercise are sort of competing events," Dr. Allen had told us. "The body really can't compete on both of those venues at the same time."
In retrospect, this was probably my undoing; I saw that scene in my mind's eye for the next 30 minutes or so. I remembered, too, that Steve Wymer, Krispy Kreme's market manager for North and South Carolina, had told us that there would be 48,000 doughnuts awaiting the racers, the product of some 7,500 pounds of dough and 400 gallons of glaze.
For some reason, the thought of smashing four more doughnuts did not seem possible. I ate them one at a time, in the conventional fashion: nine, 10, 11
"They are losing their attraction, I'm not going to lie," I told the camera.
then, finally, No. 12. It took me 26 minutes to get them down, with a single cup of water. Leaving Krispy Kreme with a pack of runners, I was determined not to let them back up.
A singular goal
I am an extremely competitive person. I used to cry as a kid when I lost to my mother at cards. I hate losing in tennis or ping-pong. I feel sick to my stomach when my lacrosse teams lose. But somewhere in that transition -- I'm pretty sure it was during the 10th doughnut -- beating the one-hour cutoff became less important than not spewing.
This went against my producer's goals for the feature, since a reversal of fortune would undoubtedly be "good TV."
I tried to focus on anything but my stomach. Hey, you couldn't beat the value of the race -- a nice T-shirt, one dozen doughnuts, the experience of a lifetime -- all for the registration fee of $16.96. Beautiful day, about 40 degrees warmer than home in Connecticut. I chatted with my racing neighbors, including the woman with two kids in a stroller who passed me going down the hill coming out of the transition.
Over the years, I've run a number of races, from the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon to various open-water swims to crazy events up mountains and through the woods. But never have I felt like there was a two-pound bass thrashing around in my stomach, trying to get out.
I had only one scare, about a half-mile from the finish, when I caught a vile whiff from a pile of spent doughnuts in the middle of the street. Running about 13 minutes a mile -- slower than a really fast walker -- I made it across the line and touched the bell tower. The trash buckets that lined the finish were mostly occupied by retching runners.
My time, courtesy of chip technology, was 1:10:35, meaning I failed the challenge by 635 seconds. Although Cameron Dorn, a 20-year-old from Waterloo, S.C., was announced as the winner, a day later the official winner was Eric Mack, a 22-year-old natural resources major who gassed the field in 28:09. He is also a member of the Wolfpack track team. He didn't stick around for the awards ceremony, he said later, because he didn't want his coach to know he had run the race. The key to his success?
"I fasted for two days," Mack told the student newspaper. "I didn't eat anything but a multivitamin and green tea."
I was left wondering how many of the 1,096 finishers who completed the race in under an hour actually ate their dozen doughnuts and kept them down. Most of the folks I talked to did not; many of the runners crossing the line carried their boxes with them.
The race raised $35,000 for the North Carolina Children's Hospital.
A few hours later, my producer and I sat at the Hibernian, an Irish bar, and hashed through the race. Harves attacked a massive pile of fish and chips, chased by a Bass. After the race I had been insanely thirsty but was afraid to add too much liquid to those doughnuts. I eased down two Gatorades and ordered a seltzer and cranberry juice. Food seemed like a bad idea.
I was reminded of something Greg Mulholland, one of the founders, had said.
"I've talked to so many people who have come back and feel like they are going to die," Mulholland said. "And, yet, every one of them feels like they are going to die with a smile on their face.
"That's what's great about this event."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.