I once entered a hot dog eating competition. Not because I’m gluttonous, a fan of Man Versus Food or because I like hot dogs. I did it for love.
In early 2012, my girlfriend and I moved back to London from New York, where she’s from and I’d been working, and it hadn’t gone well. We were stuck staying at a friend’s and struggling to find work. By the summer we were both getting fed up. Her especially.
With 4th July approaching, I thought, for some unknown reason, that to cheer her up I would embrace America’s penchant for overeating by entering a hot dog eating contest. Now, the thing to know about Steph is, she’s a vegetarian. Making this competition deeply inappropriate. Watching Independence Day would have been a better idea. But it was too late. And it wasn’t on Netflix.
On the day of the competition, I was fairly relaxed by the whole thing. Then I did some research, which was my first mistake. Actually, it was my second. My first was breakfast and then lunch. Through my research, I found out that pro hot dog eaters don’t eat on the day of the competition. Not only that but they also train. Usually by eating a stream of cabbages as they expand the stomach but aren’t laden with calories. This level of cabbage consumption goes some way to explain the prevalence of bachelors in the sport.
I then discovered that the world record for hot dogs eaten is held by Joey Chesnut from New Jersey who ate 70 hot dogs. In one sitting. In only ten minutes. I read this whilst finishing off a carbonara. What chance did I stand of winning this thing and cheering Steph up?
That night, at the venue, I was increasingly nervous which led to my third mistake of the day. I drank a Guinness to help calm my nerves. I was soon ushered to my seat where I was joined by my mate Josh, who was taking the role of coach and cheerleader after Steph decided that she’d watch from a distance.
First came the rules, which were fairly easy to understand as they were primarily based around eating hot dogs. Then they said something I wasn’t expecting. The competition was 30 minutes long. Which if I am aiming for even half of what Joey Chesnut manages is still 105 hot dogs. I looked to Steph for encouragement but was met with a woman frustrated that this was going to take a lot longer than she thought.
The whistle blew and we started. But this is where my research had given me an advantage. Professionals use a technique where they dunk the bun in water, squeeze it into a ball then swallow it in one go and I was the only one doing this. All around me people were eating them like normal. Some were even putting condiments on top. Using mustard as if it was some sort of hot dog lube. With this technique, I started to get a good rate going, around a hot dog a minute. At the halfway stage I had eaten 12 hot dogs.
The wall is something you hear marathon runners talk about. It exists in competitive hot dog eating too. 12 hot dogs are my wall. Maybe it was mental or maybe it was because I had 12 hot dog buns slowly expanding in my stomach. The only reason I didn’t throw the towel in was that I physically couldn’t. So I sat there. Hot dog chemicals coursing through my veins.
At the 25 minute mark, the judge read out the standings and incredibly I was only half a hot dog behind the leader. A man in a heavy metal t-shirt who looked like he had also hit the wall. Repeatedly.
I just needed one more hot dog and I would be in with a chance. I grabbed a bun and dunked it, an act that made me physically shudder, and I started eating it. Once that was dispatched, with the clock running down, I tried the hot dog. Gagging with every bite. But it was useless, I could only manage half.
When the final whistle went I looked around and to my horror, the other guy had eaten two more hot dogs. It turns out he hadn’t hit the wall. It was just his general vibe.
Dejectedly, I went outside with Steph who was mildly impressed with my efforts. As much as a loving partner who cares about your long term health could be. Elated, I found a bench and sat down to concentrate on digesting.
As I sat there a guy came up to me and said, “are you the guy who was dunking the hot dogs?”. I nodded. Then straight out of a carry on film, he said: “I like how you were handling them”. And that was it, the thing that finally impressed Steph, that I’d been hit on after eating 12.5 hot dogs.