Tailed by ruffians, a young boy steps up to the cashier at McDonald’s, already digging in his pocket for his wallet. Somebody in class showed everyone a video of YouTube starlet Nela Zisser taking on the Big Mac® Challenge, eating 22 burgers, and his friends have convinced him he could pull off the same feat.
The cashier looks him down as if to ask, “How tough are you?” The boy squints and scans the plastic bulletin price list. The kids in tow are prodding him to place the order. “C’mon — Big Mac!” and “You said!” His eyes are trained on the burger’s high-res featurette. He drags out his wallet onto the counter, gulps and thinks, My parents aren’t going to like this.The children excitedly yip, “He’s gonna do it!”
Elsewhere, from a corner of the restaurant, they’re being watched. Under a heavy-lidded cap, a woman takes a long swig of water. Like a wise owl who sees things to come, she recognizes a prodigy’s “good ol’ days.”
Eating a lot — and fast — doesn’t mean a kid is ready for the big time. Anybody can put down a few burgers with proper preparation. She shakes her 32 oz. drink back and forth and offers a supportive “Keep it up, kid,” which nobody hears. Then she cracks off the plastic lid. Tilting her head back, she opens her esophagus wide and dumps the remaining water through the gauntlet of bulging mandibles and vicious, scissoring teeth, down into the pit of her stomach.
A New Old American Pastime
The annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is the world’s biggest stage for competitive eating.
The Competitive Eater — a hunched bolt of muscle tethered to a loose belly like an empty aircraft hangar — waits for the sound of the horn to unleash their jaws every July 4 on Coney Island. Everyone has triumphed at a regional qualifier and trained hard for their shot at hoisting the Mustard Belt as champion.
In its 102nd year, this competition draws the best in the world. The 2018 Nathan’s Hot Dog EatingContest drew 20,000 attendees and over one million at-home viewers via ESPN telecast and app streaming. Participants compete for $50,000, with the top prize taking $10,000 in the men’s and women’s contests, respectively. This past July, Joey Chestnut again dominated the men’s field with a record 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes, and 98-pound Miki Sudo ate 37 to retain the women’s title for the fifth consecutive time.
Kobayashi and Chestnut
I recall a morning in my youth spent marveling at the 132-pound Takeru “Tsunami” Kobayashi putting food into his mouth like I’d never seen before. He had just set the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Competition record at 50 dogs in 12 minutes (breaking the old record of 25 and 1/8), and I’ll never forget that feeling of confusion and awe. It hung with me for years.
Kobayashi has been joined by Joey Chestnut, the two biggest names in competitive eating. Both had transformative legacies. Kobayashi was the first; Chestnut the best. Chestnut would dethrone Kobayashi to become the sport’s undisputed king. He’s a perfectionist, studying minutiae down to the frequency of his breath to perfect his technique. Chestnut earns around $200,000 per year from competition winnings and promotions. He is competitive eating’s first full-time athlete and maintains an iron bite on the crown.
Heavy Lifting with Sarah Reinecke
Sarah Reinecke is an inspirational woman, professional badass and high-level competitive eater. Reinecke is founder and CEO of Whatever it Takes Health (W.I.T.H.), providing supportive, team-based fitness coaching and consultation services. Being her own boss allows her to juggle business ownership, bodybuilding and competitive eating. Oddly enough, she explains, “Competitive eating works with my fitness lifestyle.”
At the peak of her competitive eating training, she sticks to an intimidating regiment of cardio exercise twice per day, weight lifting and a stretch during dinner. The stretch is a painful but necessary routine for competitive eaters; it refers to the practice of overfilling the stomach to increase elasticity. Reinecke’s intensive training consists of consuming about eight pounds of vegetables and at least a gallon of water. Her cardio and weight fitness regiment, she says, “just keep me from getting fat.” Years ago, Kobayashi proved that belly fat actually prevents maximal stomach expansion. That revelation led to a whole new generation of fit competitors dominating the sport. Sarah estimates that up to 30 percent of competitive eaters are, in her words, “fitness freaks.”
The Life of a Competitive Eater
We spoke with Reinecke, Seattle’s eminent eater, about the life of an elite competitive eater. She calls it “the weirdest, most strange good time.” It’s hard to explain, she says, “unless you’re a part of it.”
During the summer months, competitive eaters travel to prominent heats scattered through America’s rural towns. Competitions usually provide one or two of about 30 standard food items to be consumed, en masse, on a time limit for a small cash prize. A win will garner, at most, a few thousand dollars, and less for a second or later finish. Competitive eaters are like casino-goers, playing primarily for the social experience and breaking even — but also occasionally winning some money.
In one of the competitive eating lifestyle’s numerous charming moments, Reinecke found herself en route to eat the so-called “loose meat sandwiches”at the Canteen Sandwich Eating Championship in Ottumwa, Iowa. She wondered what the hell she had signed up for. To her surprise, the flavor was — in her words — “oh-my-god amazing.” Reinecke recalls meeting the mayor, seeing her face on the front page of two of the three local newspapers, and the standing ovation locals gave her when she walked into the bar after the competition. “They kept buying us rounds of drinks,” she laughs, adding, “I will 100 percent be going back to Ottumwa every year.”
It’s a life with humbling moments, as well. Speaking on her first time attending and competing in the famous Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Competition, Reinecke says that she can no longer even “talk about competitive eating without talking Nathan’s.” She spoke through a grin; she couldn’t believe “20,000 people waiting in 90-degree weather to watch competitors eat hot dogs.”
It also has a few moments that change your life forever. Reinecke met the love of her life in a fellow competitor, Juan Rodriguez. They stayed up the whole night after a competition, talking and sharing the wild experiences that brought two competitive eating weirdos together. After a long-distance courtship, they recently drove a U-Haul packed with Juan’s things 2000 miles from Illinois to Seattle — just in time for their final competition of the season, all-you-can-eat Gyoza fare.
Talent for competitive eating typically shows early in life. Family and friends will often be familiar with a carrier’s unusual abilities — Joey Chestnut was forced into competition after he regularly ate through his parents’ refrigerator in his 20s. Competitive eating talent may be hidden by a carrier out of fear of being different; their talent might bubble up over their repression, and maybe only when they’ve got munchies.
If you have the bug, what’s stopping you from jumping in with a local eating contest? The bigger events are mostly seasonal, and peak during summer. The best way to get involved is to check out your local circuit — tryfor a comprehensive list of eating competitions.
Restaurant eating challengesaren’t what they used to be; despite the relative popularity of eating competitions, restaurant eating challenges are disappearing from menus. Some still offer them, though, and these challenges are a great way to test your skill set and possibly cop a free meal. Online directories likeare great for locating local restaurant eating challenges.
Competitive eating is a sport that’s admittedly a little offbeat. The elite athletes endure grueling training to strengthen their jaws, stretch their stomachs and enhance their technique. During the moments backstage before Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, “everyone has their head down, maybe listening to music, concentrated on what they want to accomplish,” Reinecke recalls. After the competition’s over, though, it might not surprise you to hear these pent-up stress monsters like to let the freak out and party. Reinecke loves her fellow competitors most of all, more so than the sport itself, calling them “mirror images of myself — freakin’ weirdos!”
Training for Competitve Eating
Humans grow incrementally. Each of these three orthodox training methodologies emphasize gradually and safely increasing intake to naturally expand stomach capacity.
Water Training: Considered thebestand toughestway to train. This involves drinking up to a gallon of water in a minute, regularly, to stretch stomach capacity. Practitioners risk water-poisoning, vomit and developing an aversion to water.
Vegetable Training: Vegetables are mostly water, and the body discards the excess nutrients ingested during vegetable training. Training eaters will consume six to eight pounds of steamed vegetables in a single timed sitting. Vegetable training expands the stomach with minimal caloric intake.
High-Calorie Training: The old standard of eating a lot of just about anything is still viable. Training at the all-you-can-eat buffet will enhance your familiarity with competition foods (essential for developing technique), but at the price of overall health.