As the sun was beginning to rise in Mississippi on Friday, the only thing that stood between Lee O. Sanderlin and surviving a 15-hour visit to Waffle House was eating just one more waffle. It was his ninth, with each waffle consumed signifying an hour shaved off a 24-hour stay in a Waffle House as punishment for finishing last place in his fantasy football league.

“I thought, ‘If I can eat nine, then I’ll feel like I really did something,’” Sanderlin, a journalist at the Clarion-Ledger, told The Washington Post. “And hey, I ate nine.”

But while Sanderlin said he simultaneously felt pride and shame in completing the penalty, he did not anticipate tens of thousands of people following along in the fun and pain. Sanderlin documented his eating excursion of nearly 3,700 calories in a Twitter thread that’s gone viral and caused “Waffle House” to trend into Friday.

Hours after eating his last bite, Sanderlin, 25, said in an interview that the North Carolina native’s love of Waffle House had temporarily changed following the intestinal ironman challenge.

“This is not the way I wanted to get into The Washington Post,” he said.

The road to Waffle House began months earlier with a fantasy football league made up of high school and college buddies from around the country, he said. Though there’s personal glory in winning the league, more focus was on the punishment for the team that came in last. Sanderlin had an idea: He had seen instances of people being forced to spend 24 hours in a Waffle House and thought it would be funny if one of his friends did the same when they came in last.

“I suggested it because I thought there was no way I’m coming in last,” he said.

But a few weeks into the 2020 NFL season, his glee turned to dread as half of his fantasy team was placed on injured reserve, he said. Perhaps Sanderlin knew what awaited him halfway through the season when he changed his team name to “Waffle House 24.”

With his cellar-dweller status sealed, Sanderlin said he waited months after the season, and until he was fully vaccinated, before paying his fantasy football debt at a Waffle House in Brandon, Miss., about 13 miles east of the state capital, Jackson. In his Columbia University sweater and carrying books and magazines, Sanderlin said he sat down at a table at around 4 p.m. Thursday and began what he described as “pure misery.”

“I, a total loser, came in last place in my fantasy football league,” he tweeted. “As punishment, I spend 24 hours in a Waffle House.”

Though he vowed to enjoy his first two waffles lathered in syrup and butter, Sanderlin’s stomach was already rumbling, causing him to feel “dead on the inside.” A classic waffle at the restaurant has 410 calories, 870 milligrams of sodium and 15 grams of sugar, according to Waffle House.

The next few hours would be rough. At one point, songs played throughout the restaurant, like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” helped push him to order more. Other times, he found himself sitting in the parking lot, questioning whether he had the mettle to finish and if he would see those consumed waffles again.

“When you do what I do and eat five waffles in about four hours, you’re like, ‘Man, this isn’t that hard,’” he said to The Post. “But then you get to waffle No. 6, and it’s really painful.”

Makeba Parker, a manager at the Waffle House in Brandon, said she had not seen anyone take on a similar challenge in her eight years working there. Parker, 34, was perplexed seeing Sanderlin go forward with his penalty.

“It was very interesting to see him sit there and gobble down all those waffles,” Parker said to The Post.

Sanderlin said the staff couldn’t be nicer — he saw three shift changes — but they probably wondered, “Why would you do this to yourself?”

As he stared into the fantasy football abyss, “hoping for it all to end,” Sanderlin tweeted how the waffles were “going down like cement now, and the heart is beating real heavy-like.” The situation improved when Clarion-Ledger executive editor Marlon A. Walker came by the restaurant to show his support.

The restaurant playing LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” didn’t hurt either.

“Full of waffles but devoid of life,” Sanderlin tweeted.

Sanderlin could see the finish line at around 6 a.m. Friday: Two more waffles and he would be out at the 15-hour mark.

“Let’s do it,” he said of the two waffles, clarifying minutes later, “This is NOT enjoyable.”

Then, it happened: At around 7:30 a.m., Sanderlin had paid for his last-place finish with roughly 3,690 calories. He told The Post that completing his mission meant he “resented my entire existence.” After leaving a hefty tip for his time there, he said he was thankful to finally exit the restaurant.

“It was the most alive I had felt in nine hours,” he said of walking outside.

Parker, who had returned to Waffle House on Friday morning for her shift, could only laugh at seeing the customer still there.

“One thing I told him is that he could be a Waffle House employee,” she said. “We’re 24 hours and you’re a trooper if you can stay up.”

Sanderlin, an investigative and political reporter covering Mississippi, was surprised by the reaction his Waffle House trip received online. Even though “some people got to dunk on me,” he said, Sanderlin hoped his dine-in discomfort brought smiles to others. But that doesn’t mean he recommends anyone follow in his waffle wake.

“If you’re going to lose and you make a bet like this, you better be okay going through with it,” Sanderlin said.

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