Joey Chestnut continues to own the annual hot dog eating contest, but he's ready to meet his match.
As you watch Joey Chestnut–sweaty, forehead veins bulging–shove a record 74th hot dog in 10 minutes down his throat, it’s hard to believe that the 11-time Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest champ was ever hesitant to give his body and mind to competitive eating.
It was in college he made his foray into the sport at the urging of his brother, and looking back on it, he calls his first experience of eating in front of people “weird."
Yet at his first appearance in the Super Bowl of eating contests, the Nathan’s event in 2005, he gobbled 32 dogs to finish in third place, and never looked back. It took five years before he took up competitive eating full-time, not wanting to put his engineering degree to waste.
“I probably could have stopped going to work–a day job–earlier, and gone full time competitive eating,” he says. In 2010, Pepto Bismol offered Chestnut $10,000 per weekend to compete, and he finally had to make a choice.
He was leaving work early on Thursdays and missing Mondays altogether. Chestnut’s boss suggested he take some time off and return “if the eating slows down.”
“I never went back to work,” he laughs.
There’s no doubting now he made the right call. The world’s most decorated eater, Chestnut has won the annual hot dog eating contest in 11 of the last 12 years. The anxiety he once felt about his public gluttony has melted away as he’s become as much of a celebrity as any professional eater can.
Given the platform that eating has given Chestnut, he doesn’t treat it as casually as he once did. If he’s nearing a competition, his days center around managing his highly-controlled food intake and physical regimen. That involves a liquid diet, jaw exercises, and what he calls getting “empty and loose.” We’ll leave that to the imagination.
When he’s not competing, things are more relaxed. Chestnut wakes up around eight and grabs fresh eggs from his own chickens, has a cup of coffee, then gets into his stretching routine. He’s recently taken to practicing yoga to learn to control his breathing while in uncomfortable positions.
“Pretty much all I'm doing during an eating contest is being uncomfortable and not forgetting to breathe,” he says. “I went to a couple [yoga] classes, but I’m shy; I hate getting all sweaty in front of other people.”
The rest of his working hours are spent checking email and “all that garbage” everyone does, while keeping up an increasingly intense fitness routine. He still even finds plenty of pleasure in food. When he can stray from his diet on “cheat days,” of course.
“Those days have become fewer and fewer as I got older. Because if I do that more often, I gain weight like crazy,” he says. “It's not impossible to get rid of it, but it's a lot harder to get rid of it now than when I was younger."
Now 14 years into his career, Chestnut is more cognizant of how the sport affects him emotionally. The cycles of the Major League Eating season have left him with “the blues,” at times, as well as physically exhausted.
“I think that happens to anybody, when they train for things over and over again, and then they just realize, ‘What do I train for now?’” he says. “Even though I have other contests coming up right after the Fourth of July, I know it'll hit me a little bit, just not having this crazy regimen of practice-recovery, practice-recovery.”
But it’s never defeat that gets him down. And yes, Chestnut loses–fairly often, in fact. He embraces a “train smarter, not harder” mentality when it comes to putting it all on the line when it matters most: the Nathan’s contest.
“Some people are crazy, super competitive, where they don't like to lose any contests. I don't mind losing because it really shows me what the other eaters are capable of,” he says. “I don't want to train for every contest the way I do for the Fourth of July. It would be impossible.”
Therein may lie the key to his longevity. The veteran Chestnut does see an end in sight, but his current schedule keeps things manageable. But his continued success is contingent on not getting into another Chestnut-Kobayashi dynamic, this time on the losing side.
"I wanted to quit, but Joey broke my record. ... I knew I shouldn't run away."— 30 for 30 (@30for30) July 2, 2019
In 2007, Takeru Kobayashi was nearing his departure from competitive eating until Joey Chestnut broke his record, setting the stage for a July 4th showdown ... and a broken jaw. pic.twitter.com/4tRSJvz4wJ
“One of these days I'm going to run into somebody who's just an animal, and I'm expecting it. And then either I'm gonna have to eat more, or I'm gonna be in trouble,” he says. “It has to happen, because I can't really be that much better than people. So it's gonna happen eventually.”
If, and likely, when that does happen, he’ll recognize it as a part of the game.
“I'm not gonna be one of those people that are just like taken aback and shocked and won't be able to function,” Chestnut says about losing, adding, “It’s a big-ass world. It's gonna be great when it happens. I'm excited.”