Nearly every morning, New Jersey's Montville Township School District Superintendent Rene Rovtar wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to venture out on a 5-mile run. Just shy of her 60th birthday, Rovtar has completed 23 marathons, gearing up for her next 26.2-miler, the New York City Marathon, in November.
The 102-pound Rovtar has a few other — rather different — races to conquer in the meantime. Up first? The annual Trenton Thunder World Famous Case's Pork Roll Eating Championship taking place on Saturday, Sept. 29, in Trenton's Arm & Hammer Park.
Rovtar has participated in 15 competitive-eating contests over the last 16 months. What makes the perseverance in her newfound hobby interesting is not the fact that she's often half the size of her competitors — three-time Wing Bowl champion Molly Schuyler also weighs in under 130 pounds — but rather that she places dead last time, time and time again.
"I'm OK finishing towards the bottom — it's really about me trying to beat my own personal goals," says Rovtar. "There are very few other events where people like me have the opportunities to compete against people that are the best in the world at what they do, which is just incredible."
On occasion, Rovtar will manage to take the second-to-last ranking, like the time her daughter, Kristina, 30, decided to join her at the table and see what this competitive-eating passion was all about. The two took on last Fourth of July's storied Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island, where Rovtar beat her daughter by 1.5 hot dogs.
"It was fortunate they placed us at opposite ends of the table," says Kristina. "Otherwise, I would've just spent the majority of the time in tears of laughter, watching my mom stuff as many hot dogs in her face as possible."
Kristina enjoyed the experience so much that she'll be taking on her mom once again at Saturday's pork roll event. Whether daughter or mom comes out on top is of little importance to either of them.
To put Rovtar's skill into perspective, Nathan's hot dog champion Joey Chestnut chowed down on 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes, more than 11 times the 6.5 hot dogs Rovtar managed.
For her, the towering 6-foot-1, 230-pound Chestnut is just an admirable friendly face that she can look up to — both literally and figuratively. Rovtar is more interested in making friends than rivals; Chestnut is slowly starting to fit into the former category. "I wouldn't call us best friends, but I got to give Joey Chestnut a huge hug at the end of the cheeseburger competition," Rovtar excitedly says about the White Hut contest she competed in earlier this month.
"A major characteristic of the sport is the camaraderie and the brotherhood and sisterhood it creates," says Richard Shea, president of Major League Eating. "I think she just gets a kick out of it. For many, Nathan's Fourth of July is a bucket list thing, which she did, but then continued on to become part of the community — and she's simply a delight as a part of it."
For the White Hut championship, Rovtar traveled to Springfield, Mass., where she took down five cheeseburgers in 10 minutes. While it wasn't anywhere near the 47 burgers Chestnut consumed to defend his 2017-winning title, it was just one burger enough to keep her above the 11th-ranking and last-place contender, Prudence DiBendetto. (Rovtar notes that beating DiBendetto, of course, did make her feel extra pleased.)
Rovtar doesn't train much to prepare for any of the events. "I'm not like the heavy hitters — instead of trying to quickly ingest 10 hot dogs, I may take two and see if I can get them down in a minute and a half," explains Rovtar. "I don't eat that much on a general basis, so having to regularly train would be too much of a lifestyle adjustment for me."
"These are some of the nicest people I've ever met; everyone's so very friendly and outgoing," says Rovtar of her fellow competitors, most of whom are well over 30 years younger.
Informally called the World Series of competitive eating, Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest got Rovtar interested in becoming a competitive eater. In 2015, after watching a young woman on TV casually eat four hot dogs at the end of the competition table, Rovtar thought, "I could do that." And so she set out to prove that she could, downing five hot dogs in her first qualifier race in Cincinnati, and going on to achieve a total of eight hot dogs ingested at the 2018 Nathan's competition. Already planning to participate next year, Rovtar hopes to make it to 10 hot dogs — that's one per minute, buns included — at the 2019 edition.
Other recent last-place-ranking events for Rovtar include July's Ontario's Pizza Eating Championship (1.75 pizzas consumed) and June's Hostess Donette Eating event in Philly (24 mini doughnuts consumed).
Despite the list of losses, it's hard to deny that Rovtar's ambition is impressive. Alongside updating her Morris County school district's website, juggling meetings, crafting reports, and the numerous other responsibilities that come with being a full-time superintendent, Rovtar has exhibited the stamina to average nearly one competitive-eating competition per month over the past year, while also making time for her family, running races, and singing her heart out at at least one annual Doobie Brothers concert.
"I have an incredibly rewarding job, but it comes with a lot of stress," says Rovtar. "Everyone needs a release. With competitive eating, I don't have to think about big problems. I just focus on whatever I'm eating, and it's pure fun."
It's the fun that makes the three or so hours of uncomfortable fullness after each event feel trivial in relation to the whole experience. Perhaps she'll feel differently as she works to improve, and as a result, inhale more and more calories. As for now, Rovtar reports that she rarely feels nauseated at the end of the events and generally feels brand new by the next day.
On Saturday, Rovtar hopes to consume a minimum of seven or eight pork roll sandwiches. Last year, she got down 5.5 of the quarter-pounders. Whatever happens, she knows there's little chance she'll get any piece of the $4,000 at stake for the top competitors. And again, she just doesn't care — probably one of the biggest differences between her and her new buddy Chestnut, who earns his living off of such events.