America can be a funny place sometimes. On TV, in newspapers, and on street corners, we rail against the obesity epidemic that is ravaging our nation. Trans fats have become a pariah on the same level (at least to many) as Donald Trump. Whole Foods and other markets of the same ilk have popped up everywhere, appealing to those willing to pay exorbitant prices for kale in an attempt to appear healthier. All the while heart disease is running up the score on every other cause of death in this country, killing over 60,000 more people per year than every form of cancer combined. Most of us agree that something must change. However, for one day a year, we push our anxiety over “healthy living” aside and celebrate gluttony in its purest form: a 10-minute contest over who can suck down the most tubes of scrap pig parts.
This is the 4th of July. And our event is the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, N.Y.
Every year on the anniversary of our nation’s birth, upwards of 40,000 people gather at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues to gawk in awe as 15 men and 15 women engorge themselves on processed meat and carbohydrates. Somehow, according to the Nathan’s official website, this all began “as a contest between friends to prove each other’s patriotism.” Because, as we all know, hot dogs + competition = America.
“If you don’t make it to Nathan’s, in my opinion you’re not really a professional eater.” —Tim "Eater X" Janus
The rules are beautifully simple: 1) Eat as many hot dogs and buns as you can in 10 minutes, and 2) Don’t throw up. The winner receives a bejeweled belt, a substantial cash prize (the total purse is over $40,000 this year), and—perhaps most important of all—national acclaim. ESPN started broadcasting the contest live in 2004, and last year signed a deal to carry the contest through at least 2024. No matter how gross it may look, people still watch. Last year, the contest attracted an astonishing 2.8 million viewers.
With all the media hype and both faux and legitimate traditions, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the competitors themselves. These aren’t just stomachs, after all; these are real people who have real thoughts, feelings, and gag reflexes. For most of them, competitive eating isn’t even a full time job. While you might prefer playing a sport, writing, or standing in line for sneaker drops as your favorite down time hobby, these are the type of people who choose to eat 50 hot dogs in their leisure to keep their stomachs limber.
Anytime you stumble upon a person willing to force 17,000 calories into their system in less time than it takes to defrost a pizza, you’re going to find others who attempt to profit off of them. Even the world of professional gluttony requires structure. Enter: Major League Eating (MLE).
Formerly known as the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), the organization was formed in 1997 by brothers George and Richard Shea. Their mission? To make order out of the chaotic world of eating contests, legitimizing it as a “sport” by creating rules and regulations and sanctioning competitions across the country.
And oh, how the eaters have responded.
Characters from all over the world come to the United States to take part in MLE’s events, with some—like Joey Chestnut and the now-exiled Takeru Kobayashi—becoming household names. One of the sport’s most prolific stars is Tim Janus, the No. 3 ranked eater in the world (according to the MLE rankings) and third place finisher in the 2015 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Known throughout the land as “Eater X,” Janus’ quiet demeanor and singular focus make him one of the circuit’s most mysterious stars, and he has placed in the top three at Nathan’s each of the last five years. “This is my eleventh year, and I enjoy the process of trying to get better at it,” Janus says, “It’s a great adventure for me.”
Tell me, how many great adventures have you been on that involved eating 10 to 15 pounds of hot dogs?
For MLE, Nathan’s is the pinnacle of their season and their signature competition. “It’s the biggest thing. It’s our Super Bowl, our World Series. This really is where you make your mark and show the world how good you are,” Janus says.
“If you don’t make it to Nathan’s, in my opinion you’re not really a professional eater. And if you don’t do well at Nathan’s, then you’re not really an elite eater. It really is the measuring stick.”
And when he says “make it,” he means it. You or I can’t just enter the Nathan’s contest; you have to either be the defending champion, win one of 12 national qualifiers (Janus coasted to victory with 36 dogs at Citi Field last month, admitting he “wasn’t looking to push” himself because of work that night), or have one of the two highest average finishes of someone who didn’t win a qualifier. Basically, you really have to want to do this.
“If you’re weak mentally, you won’t get 100 percent out of your body.” —Tim "Eater X" Janus
Just getting on that stage is an accomplishment on its own, but if you’re not ready for the pressure that comes with performing in front of tens of thousands of people in Brooklyn a few million more watching at home, you’re in big trouble. Sharpness is required from both body and mind. Finding your center is essential, lest you suffer a “total reversal”— MLE’s official term for puking.
“Without the physical, you’re screwed. You have no hope,” Janus says, while also pointing out that, “You also have to work hard and think throughout the contest and push yourself. If you’re weak mentally, you won’t get 100 percent out of your body.”
Is that LeBron James talking, or a competitive eater? It’s honestly hard to tell.
In terms of pure characters, other professional sports fall woefully short of MLE when it comes to preposterous personalities and nicknames. In addition to our face-painted friend “Eater X” and the aforementioned “Jaws” Chestnut, there’s a whole roster of legends with monikers such as Eric “Badlands” Booker, Matt “The Megatoad” Stonie, John “Crazy Legs” Conti, and Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas. Which all kind of make “King” James and “KD” sound pathetic in comparison.
And these people don’t just sound a little nuts, they prove it with the stuff they eat and the sheer quantity in which they eat it. There are of course the classics: apple pie (Chestnut owns that record with just over 13 pounds in eight minutes), baby back ribs (Patrick Bertoletti holds the title with over five pounds in eight minutes), and ice cream (Cookie Jarvis put down 1 gallon, 9 ounces in 12 minutes). But competitors in MLE will eat literally anything, including, but not limited to brain tacos, mayonnaise, pigs’ feet and knuckles, and beef tongue.
Competitors come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. Janus is a slightly-built, five-workout-a-week, 39-year-old. Thomas is a 40-year-old, 105 pound woman who holds dozens of MLE records. Stonie is 22 and—after upsetting Chestnut in yesterday’s main event—is widely considered the sport’s next star. Badlands Booker is 46 years old and weighs 400 pounds and records rap albums on the side. And, of course, there’s Richard “The Locust” LeFevre, who at 65 years old still holds the record for eating six pounds of SPAM (out of the can, mind you) in 12 minutes. Clearly, this is a profession that does not discriminate.
When they come to Nathan’s, competitors need to call upon every bit of the resourcefulness crafted throughout their time on the eating circuit. Every gulp of gyoza, every chomp of chicken-fried steak, every bite of birthday cake serves an important stepping stone to choking down dozens upon dozens of hot dogs.
Indeed, for many years it was the bun that confounded eaters and caused the most difficulty in terms of consumption speed. But like Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford before them, the eaters invented a process that they soon could not live without. To wit: dunking.
To make the bun consumption process easier, you’ll notice that everybody dunks their bread in a cup of mysterious liquid. Competitors have their choice of beverage, and Janus says that very few, if any, choose water. “Lemonade is the way for me,” he says. “The flavor added is really important, and lemonade cuts hot dogs like Palmolive cuts grease. It’s a great complement to the whole meal.”
Liquid accoutrement aside, there is a lot running through competitors’ heads as they double-fist hot dogs and buns, ingesting thousands of calories per minute. It’s easy to imagine the eaters slipping into a dark headspace, but these brave men and women train themselves to push through these difficult moments. “I just think about ‘Why am I here?’” Janus says. “I’m there because I’m trying to do my best, or I’m trying to win some money, or I’m trying to beat somebody, and I try to remember those things. When you’re feeling gross and when you’re feeling full, you need every last bit of motivation you can think of, so I try to draw upon all those.”
And while MLE is undoubtedly founded on the spirit of competition, it’s a deeply personal challenge for many of the competitors. Chestnut told the Boston Globe in 2005 that “This sport isn't about eating. It’s about drive and dedication, and at the end of the day, hot dog eating challenges both my body and my mind.” Janus presents a similar focus: “I do this for myself, and the most important thing for me is understanding myself. If I understand myself, then I’ve got all the information I need. I’d say for me, it’s a very solitary thing.”
Whatever it is that gets these gorgers onto the stage at Nathan’s (as well on stage at the other 80-plus MLE events throughout the year), there’s no denying the skill, stamina, and mental toughness required. The volume and speed of their food consumption is astonishing, and easily passes the “Is there any way I could do that?” test that separates professionals from the rest of us. All we can do is sit back, admire, and hope to avoid enduring an empathetic total reversal of our own.