clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Running on Full: I competed in a hot dog eating contest and lost. Here’s what I learned about competitive eating

SALT LAKE CITY — Let’s start with a vision. The kind kids have all the time. When they attend their first professional baseball game and imagine themselves tossing 100-mph darts to win the World Series, or after they watch a documentary about the moon landing and see themselves step onto Mars. I had many of these brief ambitions as a kid, including one that reappeared every July Fourth: To be a competitive hot dog eater.

I didn’t take it seriously. Like so many childhood ambitions, this one faded quickly, almost instantly, when the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest ended each year. But July Fourth nevertheless became synonymous with watching the annual gorgefest. The Kentucky Derby is known as “the most exciting two minutes in sports”; I’d argue a similar slogan could apply to the annual 10-minute contest of man vs. stomach capacity. I still watch every year. And this year, I happened to mention my July Fourth plans to my co-workers.

To gauge the balance between gluttony and sport, Ethan Bauer competed in a Major League Eating-sanctioned hot dog contest. Read the article here: https://www.deseretnews.com/article/900081781/running-on-full-i-competed-in-a-hot-dog-eating-contest-an
Steve Hammond, of Kirkland, Wash., celebrates his win in a Nathan's Famous qualifier hot dog-eating contest, having eaten 32 hot dogs, at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. The top male and female finishers in the event qualifie
Steve Hammond, of Kirkland, Wash., celebrates his win in a Nathan's Famous qualifier hot dog-eating contest, having eaten 32 hot dogs, at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. The top male and female finishers in the event qualified for a seat at the 2020 Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

That led to a discussion about competitive eating — admittedly a polarizing topic. While I enjoy it, I understand why many people don’t. The methods are visually disgusting, and the sport’s very nature invites questions about glorifying excess while people the world over — including near the main contest in Coney Island, New York — go hungry. Nevertheless, our discussion prompted me to look up a schedule of Major League Eating events.

There happened to be a qualifier for the annual July Fourth contest coming up in Salt Lake City. Applications were open. My boss suggested I apply and write about the experience. I figured I wouldn’t get accepted, so why not give it a try? MLE emailed me about a week later saying I’d “secured a spot.”

I had exactly three weeks to prepare. I figured I’d buy a pack of hot dogs and eat them as fast as possible just to see what I should expect. I mentioned this training plan in my application. Four days after my acceptance, I got another email. “I saw on your sign up that you mentioned home training,” it read. “MLE strongly opposes and discourages home training of any kind. Best to do speed/capacity eating in a sanctioned MLE event such as the one you are confirmed for.”

Who was I to argue?

For the next three weeks, I didn’t think about the contest much until the day of — Tuesday, July 23. That’s when the questions started. About the different guzzling methods, and which one I’d deploy. About ethics. About why I was doing this. And most importantly, about whether I could avoid what competitive eaters call “a reversal of fortune.”

Katie Prettyman, of Marysville, Wash., celebrates her win in the women's division of a Nathan's Famous qualifier hot dog-eating contest, having eaten 14 hot dogs, at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. The top male and female fin
Katie Prettyman, of Marysville, Wash., celebrates her win in the women's division of a Nathan's Famous qualifier hot dog-eating contest, having eaten 14 hot dogs, at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. The top male and female finishers in the event qualified for a seat at the 2020 Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The fat and the furious

One of my favorite TV shows is the animated sitcom "King of the Hill," and season seven’s “The Fat and the Furious” is about competitive eating. Protagonist Hank Hill’s fat, lonely, depressed neighbor Bill discovers a talent for eating hot dogs. He enters a local contest, where he’s beaten by his friend Dale. Dale refuses to enter another contest, telling Bill, who desperately wants to fit in, that, “Just because you have their attention doesn’t mean you have their respect.” Bill ignores Dale, but halfway through his next bout, he notices the audience laughing at him, calling him a freak, and decides to drop out.

I watched the episode a night earlier as a hype tape, and it looped through my mind the whole way to the stadium. I wondered what it’d be like to look up at the crowd. Would they cheer? Laugh? Mock? I had no idea. But I was (maybe-not-so) eager to find out.

John Gutz, of Salt Lake City, stuffs a hot dog bun in his mouth during a Nathan's Famous qualifier hot dog-eating contest at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. The top male and female finishers in the event qualified for a seat
John Gutz, of Salt Lake City, stuffs a hot dog bun in his mouth during a Nathan's Famous qualifier hot dog-eating contest at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. The top male and female finishers in the event qualified for a seat at the 2020 Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

I’d fasted ahead of the contest, eating only a bowl of corn chowder. Once I arrived, I was the kind of hungry where you feel a tingle all over. And for a brief moment, my childhood imagination reignited. Maybe I could actually win this contest. While this was an official qualifier for the annual Coney Island contest, the precise language said the men’s and women’s winners “each qualify for the opportunity to be invited to” the 2020 competition. Which can mean anything Major League Eating wants it to mean, so combined with the fact that this qualifier was so soon after the national contest, I thought that would lead to a small, amateur pool of contestants. If they let me in, I figured, the competition at this particular qualifier couldn’t be that tough.

When I reached my seat, the entire row was empty. Maybe only a handful of people even registered, I thought. Until halfway through the first inning, when a woman with blonde bangs, chipped pink toenail polish and an easy smile sat down next to me. She introduced herself as Katie, and she looked familiar. I soon discovered why: She was two-time Coney Island contestant Katie Prettyman, whose record is 14.5 dogs. She'd driven 14 hours to be there.

Darrien Thomas of Orillia, Ontario, Canada, followed behind her. I pulled out my phone and found his Twitter profile. It boasts his status as the No. 1-ranked competitive eater in Canada, and he’s also a veteran of the July Fourth contest.

Derek “Big D” Hendrickson joined a little later. He wore white Under Armour sweatbands around his elbows, two stud earrings on each lobe and talked with a muscular twitch in his neck. He carried a bag with some kind of handle sticking out. He’d never met Prettyman, but he recognized her. “Hi Katie,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”

Eventually I overheard Prettyman mention “reversals.” I asked if she was referring to reversals of fortune, and she said yes — even in casual conversation, competitive eaters don’t say vomit or throw up. I asked how I could best avoid one. “Since it’s your first time,” she answered, “if you feel it, just stop.” I also asked what I could expect in the aftermath. For about four hours after her first time, she felt “very ill.” But not to worry — it would pass.

From Iceland to Coney Island

One of the earliest accounts of competitive eating comes from a 13th-century Icelandic text called the “Prose Edda.” It tells of a contest between Loki and Logi, which Logi wins by eating not just the meat in front of him, but the bones and plate as well. Eating as entertainment emerged again in 17th-century England, according to Feast, with a man known as “The Great Eater of Kent.” He started out by eating massive meals as a display for curious onlookers and eventually challenged others. But according to Today I Found Out, the eating events we recognize today emerged in 19th-century America with pie eating contests.

Katie Prettyman, of Marysville, Wash., stuffs a hot dog in her mouth, on her way to eating 14, to win the women's division of a Nathan's Famous qualifier hot dog-eating contest at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. The top male
Katie Prettyman, of Marysville, Wash., stuffs a hot dog in her mouth, on her way to eating 14, to win the women's division of a Nathan's Famous qualifier hot dog-eating contest at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. The top male and female finishers in the event qualified for a seat at the 2020 Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The first known hot dog eating contest was held on July 4, 1916, in Coney Island. The winner, according to Jason Fagone’s book “Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream,” was Irish immigrant Jim Mullen with 13.

Competitive eating didn't evolve much over the next 84 years — the record reached 25 hot dogs and buns in 2000. But in 2001, it evolved from mere contest to full-blown sport. There’s a temptation to believe competitive eating, with all its overabundance, is a sport that could only happen in America, led by 300-pound, food-vacuuming men. But the person most responsible for creating the modern spectacle is a 5-foot-8, 130-pound Japanese man named Takeru Kobayashi.

He revolutionized hot dog eating by dipping the buns in water to make them more easily swallowed, snapping the dogs in half and introducing the “Kobayashi shake,” a maneuver to help the food slide down his esophagus. He doubled the previous record, gobbling 50 hot dogs.

Kobayashi dominated for six straight years, peaking in 2006 with 53 ¾ hot dogs and buns. The sport also grew. MLE sponsored other kinds of eating contests, from donuts to chicken wings to oysters to tiramisu. And thanks to a 2003 TV deal with ESPN to air the July Fourth spectacle, competitive eating gained a national audience. It peaked in 2011 with nearly 2 million viewers.

The current face of the sport, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, dethroned Kobayashi in 2007 with a record 66 hot dogs and buns, using a double-dog technique. He’s only lost once since. He also holds the current dog-gobbling record at 74 and the most hot dog eating titles with 12.

I didn't run through all those facts as we descended into the bowels of Smith's Ballpark, but some of them provided my flustered self with a warm blanket called tradition. I also still didn't know whether I'd emulate the techniques of Kobayashi and Chestnut. I wondered whether I'd be more impressed with them once this was done. I remembered Bill's experience once more.

And suddenly, all those thoughts faded, and something more pressing took their place.

Getting the meat sweats

I don’t know if it was nerves, the fact that it was approaching 9:30 or the chilled, stomach-constricting water I’d just drank, but when I reached the waiting area, with all the hot dogs displayed on a pair of foldable tables, I no longer felt hungry. That, as you can imagine, is an unsettling feeling minutes before an eating contest. I distracted myself first by pacing, then by reporting, falling back on the question of why.

I’d gotten an inkling of an answer when Hendrickson introduced himself to Prettyman. I figured I’d test my hypothesis further, starting by talking to Hendrickson.

Steve Hammond, of Kirkland, Wash., stuffs hot dogs in his mouth on his way to winning a Nathan's Famous qualifier hot dog-eating contest, having eaten 32 hot dogs, at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. The top male and female fi
Steve Hammond, of Kirkland, Wash., stuffs hot dogs in his mouth on his way to winning a Nathan's Famous qualifier hot dog-eating contest, having eaten 32 hot dogs, at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. The top male and female finishers in the event qualified for a seat at the 2020 Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

I learned he’s formidable — ranked No. 34 in the world and able to consume 31 glazed donuts in eight minutes. I learned he once weighed 300 pounds (you’d never know it by looking at him). “I lost 100 pounds,” he said, “and here I am eating hot dogs. What’s more unhealthy?” And I learned about the handle sticking out of his bag. It was Thor’s hammer. Why?

“No. 1, I love Thor, so if Chris Hemsworth could follow me, that would be great,” he said. “No. 2, the hammer kinda signifies all the years food hammered me, beat me up. You know, I was 22 and they basically told me, ‘You’re gonna die before 40.’ Had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, was pretty much diabetic. So now it’s my turn to hammer back food.”

He hit on a more universal reason to embrace competitive eating when discussing the community. Many competitive eaters follow each other, talk to each other and host each other when tournaments bring eaters to their cities. We all know it can be hard to find a community — whether geographic, organizational or occupational, they often fail to offer fulfilling friendships. So to find one that, for however small a group of people, does exactly that? Why wouldn’t they stick around?

Plus they’re united by the same force that unites all athletes: competition. As Ryan Amy of Spanish Fork put it, “You see these people who — a lot of them say they aren’t really good at a lot of things, but they can pound it down. They’re really, really good at eating. And I think it’s amazing when anyone can focus that hard on one specific thing and do an awesome job at it.”

So much of sports is arbitrary. Why is a basketball shot from behind a certain point worth more? Because the rule-makers said so. Why do baseball pitchers need to throw over the plate, between a batter’s knees and jersey letters? Because that’s what rule-makers decided is the strike zone. Stephen Curry and Clayton Kershaw have made (very lucrative) careers out of exploiting these arbitrary rules. So when MLE decided the best way to measure who’s best at eating is to let competitors have at it for 10 minutes, why shouldn’t the people who are best at that at least have a good time doing it?

Darrien Thomas, of Ontario, Canada, stuffs himself during a Nathan's Famous qualifier hot dog-eating contest at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. The top male and female finishers in the event qualified for a seat at the 2020 N
Darrien Thomas, of Ontario, Canada, stuffs himself during a Nathan's Famous qualifier hot dog-eating contest at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. The top male and female finishers in the event qualified for a seat at the 2020 Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

I’ll tell you why: the optics. It’s very uncomfortable to watch folks ingurgitate at such a high level. If soccer is “the beautiful game,” competitive eating is… well… certainly not that. Perhaps “the grotesque contest”?

I learned that firsthand. As we made our way up the concrete steps toward the field, my hunger remained absent, and anxiety about facing a crowd took its place. Everything started to move quickly. I was assigned to the far-right side of the table. Second from the end. One of nine competitors. I chanted in my head, “Just don’t reverse.” I cracked my knuckles. Took deep breaths. Cleared my mind.

Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Go!

I grabbed a sausage. My chewing couldn't match the speed of the moment. Forty seconds. It took 40 seconds just for the dog. I dipped the bun in water. Wet bread, it turns out, doesn’t taste very good. I nearly reversed from that alone. All around me arms flailed. Water spilled. Pieces of bun flew through the air like mosquitoes. I finished one. The leader was up to six.

I changed my strategy. Wet buns were too nasty. I bit the dogs normally. The buns were like glue. I started gulping water after each bite. That helped it down. The leaders still doubled my pace.

I finished my first plate of dogs. Eight minutes. It took eight minutes for only five dogs. At least I met my goal. Amy encouraged me to keep going. I took a tug on dog No. 6. I was very full. Halfway through, I felt a rush of salivation. The kind that often precedes a reversal. Prettyman’s words echoed in my head.

I stopped.

Instead of finishing, I looked up into the fairly full bleachers and saw people who looked entertained. Few were overly enthusiastic, but few appeared overtly disgusted. As much as I love "King of the Hill’s" realism, Bill's experience, with people mocking and degrading him, was nothing like mine.

I then looked down the line of eaters. Thomas stood out. Pieces of bun flew in all directions when the dogs slammed into his mouth. Water dripped from his soaked T-shirt. Pieces of stray dough peppered his beard. It was gross — but understandable. He was close to the lead.

It wasn’t enough. Steve Hammond, a rookie from Seattle, took the men’s title with 32. Thomas finished with 29; Hendrickson finished with 23.75; and Prettyman secured her third trip to Coney Island with 14. My 5.5 ranked dead last.

I lumbered toward an exit about halfway through post-contest fireworks — the stomach cramps had begun. The meat sweats followed almost as soon an I found a way out. I felt immense regret about not carrying any Pepto-Bismol. But despite the physical symptoms, I experienced psychological peace. A childhood dream had been lived, and it was clear that this dream ought to die. Because let me tell ya: No matter how hard (or easy) you imagine it is to scarf double-digit hot dogs, you have no idea until you’ve actually tried. How Joey Chestnut reaches heights of 70-plus is a cheek-puffed, salt-soaked, bun-coated example of the human body’s potential.

Eaters like Thomas and Hendrickson know they’ll never reach similar heights, and they’re OK with that. Multiple times while waiting, they expressed that these contests are not — and shouldn’t be treated like — very serious affairs. Maybe for the true outliers like Chestnut, but not for the other 99 percent. I happened to run into the two of them outside the stadium, and they both said they were happy to see a dark horse contestant secure the win. But their slight frowns and clenched body language suggested some measure of frustration. With my competitive eating journey over, I asked them what was next.

Despite his disappointment, Hendrickson sounded excited about the question. Not qualifying here means more money spent, yes, but also more chances for new relationships, new memories and new opportunities to push himself. I departed hoping to make it home without ruining my car’s interior. He departed with a goal: the Des Moines, Iowa, qualifier, coming up on Aug. 10.