With 35 minutes left in the Cluck Off, the first chicken wing-eating contest at the Tap House Thursday, Aaron Murphey's elbows were on the table and his hands were cupped around his forehead.
The goal for the seven competitors taking part in the event was to eat the most chicken wings in an hour. The winner got to ride home on a brand new yellow cruiser bicycle customized with Fat Tire beer decals by New Belgium Brewery.
Murphey, a 16-year-old Steamboat resident, was in the lead. He inhaled 50 wings in the 17 minutes after Tap House owner Dave Daggett thumbed the stopwatch to start the competition.
Now Murphey was slipping.
"Do you get disqualified if you puke?" asked competitor Walter Copeland, while eying Murphey from across the table. Copeland and his friend Alex Epp were both far behind, with maybe 30 wings eaten.
"Yes you do," Daggett said. "And you have to leave the Tap House after you clean it up."
There was no talking when the competition started. The only sound was the chewing of meat and the sucking of chicken bones. Now chatter began with competitors, focused on Murphey.
"Oh, he's gonna to boot," said Ben Truitt, sitting to Murphey's left.
"Yea, he's gonna boot," agreed Ben's brother, Nick.
Nick said he vomited after the qualifying round on Sunday, which saw 18 people compete. So the Truitt boys, each around six or seven years older than Murphey, ordered a pitcher of beer 10 minutes into the competition and were taking a back seat, enjoying the wings.
"I feel fine," Murphey insisted. "Good enough to beat these guys."
He motioned to two of his friends sitting to the right of him, Carter Dunham and Cooper Howard.
But with 30 minutes to go, both Dunham and Howard had passed Murphey and were neck and neck with about 55 wings eaten. The rest of the field was nowhere near that mark.
The boys had perfected a unique style of wing eating that proved to be paying off. Instead of sucking the meat off the bones, they used their fingers to scrape the chicken meat from off of four wings and gathered the meat into a pile.
Dunham used his fingers to eat the meat while Howard used a fork.
At 22 minutes left, Howard took the lead by eating 65 wings. He was then served 80 wings. He scraped wing 67, 68, 69 and 70 and slowly began eating the meat.
Howard said he prepared for the competition by going to Wing Night on Tuesday but admitted that he really doesn't eat large portions of food at one time.
Dunham had slowed, too, with about 63 wings eaten. Murphey had stopped.
"There just isn't enough room," Murphey said, now in better spirits.
A standoff between the leaders, each who had taken on a sickly green color, lasted for about 15 minutes, while the rest of the field steadily picked at their plates.
"I'm waiting for him (Howard), to go (vomit)," Dunham said. Being in second place, a disqualification for Howard would make Dunham the winner.
At seven minutes left, Dunham realized that waiting it out wouldn't produce him the win.
He also realized that if he ate just a few more wings, he'd be able to take the lead. So Dunham began eating again, rapidly. That lasted for about 30 seconds; then he was the one with his head in his hands.
With five minutes to go, Dunham was "ejecting" himself out of the competition into a bucket between his knees. Howard was on his feet, distancing himself, until Daggett stopped the watch.
According to the rules, Howard had to keep the 70 wings he ate down for five minutes until he officially won, which he did by walking.
"I feel really bad," the 170-pounder said after winning. "That was the longest five minutes of my life."
However, he said he is not swearing off chicken wings.
"They are one of my more favorite foods. I'll eat them eventually." he said. "I'll come back next year to do it. I have to defend my title."
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