"Feel like a champ?" Katharine Moog asked her best friend, Melissa Askew, as they waited for a pancake-eating contest to begin at Pete's Grille early Friday morning.
Askew, 26, of Hampden, and Moog's brother, Patch Ronald, 22, of Jacksonville, in Baltimore County, were contestants at the annual contest. It was either the 20th or the 21st year, according to co-owner Darlene Castle, who said a previous owner started the competition.
"I'm not eating," said Moog, of Charles Village, said she snapped photos of Ronald and Askew. "I'm encouraging them."
The long, narrow eatery, a fixture in the 3100 block of Greenmount Avenue in Abell since it was Hooper's in the 1950s, has 26 counter seats. All but one were filled by 7 a.m., as 25 contestants each paid a $20 registration fee for the chance to win $500 in prize money in separate contests for men and women — and free food for life if they broke the records of 18 pancakes for men and 12 for women.
Waving a fan of $1,000 in $100 bills, Castle quickly explained the rules: one hour to eat as many hot cakes as you could, three per plate, not counting partially eaten cakes.
And you couldn't throw up — at least until you got your cash and posed for pictures, said Castle, who noted that at least one contestant whoopses every year.
Standing behind the counter to keep count of the pancakes eaten were several judges, including Jacq Jones, of Mount Washington, a regular Pete's Grille customer and the owner of Sugar, a sex toy shop in Hampden.
Jones planned to stay for breakfast after the contest, but passed on competing.
"I might have been able to do this when I played rugby," she said.
Both of last year's winners were competing again — Carolyn Bozman, a 21-year-old cake decorator, of White Marsh, and economist Nate Collamer, 40, of Towson.
Most contestants were young and trim, like Bozman, 5-foot-1 and 112 pounds, and Ronald, who stands 6-6, weighs 210 pounds and was on the rowing team at Michigan.
"I've always been a big eater," Ronald said.
And, to train for the contest, "I ate a little more this week, getting my stomach primed and ready. It's like priming the engine."
Some were looking for quick holiday cash.
Askew, a physical therapy assistant in a nursing home, said she was there for one overriding reason — "$500 for Christmas money."
"I need to do this," said Bozman, last year's female champion.
Yoga studio manager Kristi Allen, striking in designer eyeglasses, said she and her fiance, Jason Reed, were competing in hopes of winning money to pay off a $500 veterinary bill after their cat got into a fight.
Others were there just for fun.
"I don't even like pancakes. I'm a waffle kind of person," said Luma Samawi, a junior at Johns Hopkins University, majoring in neuroscience. Samawi is from the Middle Eastern nation of Jordan and said, "We do have pancakes, but never eating contests. My parents thought I was crazy."
Lining the wall of the restaurant were spectators, including Northrop Grumman employee Paul Freedman, of Homeland, and his old college friend, Mike Brown, visiting from upstate New York. They came in for breakfast, unaware of the contest, and ended up standing in the corner, watching the contest unfold.
"I can eat a lot, but I can't compete in one of these," Freedman said.
Promptly at 7 a.m., Castle called out, "Ready, set, go."
Eating strategies were varied. Bozman gobbled her pancakes in huge chunks and gulped water, but also dipped pieces in water. Collamer, the male 2011 champ, rolled and squeezed his pancakes, then dipped them in coffee.
Julie Mazer's approach was unique. The Stevenson College student, 21, of Owings Mills, ate casually, pouring goodly amounts of syrup on her pancakes, and brazenly told those around her, "I'm expecting some of you to fall out eventually, so I'm still going to chill."
"I like your strategy," said Allen, 27, of Waverly.
"I like your glasses," said Mazer.
As it happened, Mazer was among the first to fall out, after eating three pancakes and a bite of a fourth.
But most stayed in until it was clear that Bozman would repeat as women's champion, eating 10 pancakes. That left the men's race, a close contest between 2011 champ Collamer and upstart Ronald.
But that battle ended abruptly when Collamer got sick and Ronald, who ate 15 pancakes, was declared the men's winner.
"I gave it my best shot," Collamer said. "This guy's a stud."
Neither Bozman nor Ronald ate enough pancakes to break the records.
Victory couldn't come soon enough for Ronald and Bozman.
"The fullness is not the issue," Ronald said. "It's the sight of pancakes that's making me sick."
"I feel the worst I've ever felt," Bozman said. "But I got $500."