When the National Hamburger Festival kicks off Saturday in Lock 3 Park in downtown Akron, it will be the culmination of months of practice for a group of local firefighters.
They’ve been getting in shape for a hamburger-eating challenge between members of the police and fire departments at 2 p.m. Sunday, dubbed the Fire and Vice competition.
“We’ve been practicing at the fire station for months and months,” said Akron firefighter Matt Askea, who is coaching the firefighters’ team.
To start the competition sizzling, Askea and police Detective Paul Bralek competed in a mini challenge at a news conference Wednesday.
Both men were given two hamburgers — one from Max & Erma’s and the other from White Castle — and raced to see who could finish them first.
“I won, hands down, decisively,” Askea bragged.
Askea has competed in eating contests, and while he is not exactly a professional eater, he will be competing Sunday in the professional division of the festival’s hamburger contest at 3:30 p.m. An amateur contest takes place at 4:30 p.m.
Askea, last year’s defending champion when the event was a single division, can expect much tougher competition, particularly from Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas of Alexandria, Va., the world’s No. 1 women’s competitive eater.
Thomas is a serious threat, he said.
“She’s a superhero,” he said, noting Thomas’ recent win at the Nathan’s hot dog-eating contest on Coney Island, N.Y., in which she ate 45 hot dogs with buns to claim the top prize in the women’s division. She bested her 2011 record of 41 hot dogs.
Askea, 38, a seven-year veteran of the fire department, said last year he was able to down 11 one-third pound burgers in five minutes.
“It’s not pleasant and it’s not pretty,” he said.
For training his team, Askea said he has been coaching them how to eat to stretch their stomachs and to consume a lot of liquids.
“It’s all about speed. It’s all about how many you can do. Whoever is going to win, will eat a lot more than you might think,” he said.
The festival is open from noon to 11 p.m. Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday.
Lisa Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or at email@example.com.