“This is the healthiest I’ve ever been,” Chestnut said, a few minutes after inhaling something like 19,000 calories worth of hot dogs and buns. “I feel really good. I know I have room for more.”
One of this summer’s great comeback stories launched a few blocks from the White House last weekend, when America’s most famous competitive eater sent a message to the world. His horrible 2015 is over. His mind is fixed. His body is right. He’s back.
“Oh my glory!” bellowed Major League Eating Chairman George Shea as Chestnut annihilated 73 1/2 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes, four more than he had ever done before. “This man’s coming back, and he’s coming for blood.”
Don’t worry, the blood has been properly cooked.
Imagine ducking into a neighborhood gym and seeing Steph Curry launching shots from half court, or stopping off at the local muni and seeing Dustin Johnson driving the par-4s. Now imagine walking down Pennsylvania Avenue and stumbling into history’s smoky (beefy?) embrace. I knew D.C. was hosting its first-ever Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest at last weekend’s annual barbecue battle, and I knew Chestnut was scheduled to appear as a celebrity judge. This had been well-publicized.
But milling around and posing for photos wasn’t compatible with Chestnut’s comeback schedule. See, last Saturday — nine days out from his Super Bowl — was a training day for Chestnut. And so he told organizers: If I’m coming to D.C., I’m coming to eat.
“I can’t skip a training day right now,” Chestnut said. “I’ve been waiting all year for the Fourth of July, to get it back.”
The Fourth of July is what made Chestnut famous. That’s when he won the Coney Island Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest eight years in a row, “restoring our nation’s honor and ushering in an era of economic prosperity — excluding 2007, ’08, ’09 and ’10,” as Shea put it. It’s what led Chestnut to quit his job in construction management more than five years ago, and to become a full-time competitive eater. (“It would be silly not to do it; I get paid to travel around the world and eat,” Chestnut noted.)
That’s when he got engaged, right there on stage in 2014. And it’s also where his 2015 season continued to unravel. His engagement fell apart not long before last year’s competition, and he managed to down just 60 hot dogs, losing by two to Matt Stonie. He also lost his world No. 1 ranking.
“Last year was a [horrible] year, a dog crap kind of year. It was awful,” Chestnut said, a few minutes after his latest win. “We called off the wedding. Then I lost. Everything kept going down. I lost a couple other big contests. Just: it sucked. I lost my ranking, Oh, God. . . . It was just so irritating, knowing I could do better and I wasn’t.”
The experience changed Chestnut’s motivation, starting with his health. He began running three days a week. He lost weight, getting down to 207 or so pounds. (He’s 6 feet tall.) He did interval training, too. The cardio work improved his breath control and his pacing; “the healthier you are, the harder you can push yourself at anything, even eating,” he said.
In May, he won the World Gyro Eating Championship over Stonie, setting a world record with 30 gyros in 10 minutes. (“I went in physically and mentally healthier than I’ve been in years, and ended up having my best performance in close to 3 years,” he wrote on Facebook.) Two weeks later, he won the World Burrito Eating Championship.
Around the same time, he started working again with hot dogs, “just building a tolerance of eating and digesting and recovering, just training my body, making my body adapt,” he said. He’s been doing a hot dog session every four or five days at home in California, where he cooks the dogs to perfection on a flat-top grill, and his performances have been encouraging. (“I’ve been doing some awesome numbers in practice,” he said.)
If he stayed home last weekend, he would have done a 10-minute main event, stopped, caught his breath and then done two one-minute sprints, “just to get used to eating fast while full.” Instead, he entered D.C.’s first-ever qualifier, even though he has a lifetime exemption into the July 4 event.
You probably think this entire item is a goof, and I guess it kind of is. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Chestnut’s performance wasn’t electrifying to witness. A record is a record, and greatness is greatness, and I’m not joking even a little bit when I say this was a total adrenaline-infused thrill. You’ve probably seen Chestnut eat on TV, but that’s not quite the same as being a few feet away, watching his eyes squeeze shut, his forehead crease with exertion, his fist jackhammer food into his mouth, his arms and jaws work in fluid coordination. I told him I felt like I had just witnessed history.
“You did,” interjected Major League Eating’s 34th-ranked “Wild Bill” Meyers. “I wish I could do half of what he does.”
The nominal winner of Washington’s qualifier — which included three other top-20 eaters — downed 42 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Chestnut reached that number less than halfway into the competition.
“I’ve never seen him eat so well, never,” Shea said after the event. “You have to understand; he always does 10 or 12 in the first minute, and then maybe 8 , 9, 10; 8, 9, 10. It’s going to slow down, right? When you see 30 in three [minutes], 40 at 4. I mean, he’s got six minutes left! . . . I have not seen him eat hot dogs obviously for a year, but I have not seen him look this good.”
The afternoon was scorchingly hot, which Chestnut said helped his cause; the dangers of fatigue and dehydration are countered by the benefit of muscles that feel loose and ready to work. The 32-year-old knew early on that he was challenging the world record, and he actually hoped to reach 75. Why go out on such an insane pace nine days before the biggest competition of the year? Why not just stop at 70, and leave room for a record-breaking July 4?
“I want Matt to know he can’t win,” Chestnut said, before correcting himself. “You can’t be too confident,” he said. “I’m confident I can get better. I need to just push myself and not worry about him.”
After the competition, Chestnut planned to take a shower and a nap, fill himself with liquids, and visit with his sister, who lives in D.C. (“We think it’s crazy, but it’s worked out well for him,” she said of Joey’s career.) He planned to go back home for a few days, and then travel to New York, where he would do one more training session: 45 or so hot dogs in about five minutes. He dropped a bun once and a hot dog another time during his record-setting performance here; his coordination has to be better Monday. If everything goes perfectly, he think he can break the world record again. That would be twice in 10 days.
“Absolutely breathtaking, breathtaking and amazing,” Shea told me after Chestnut finished, although I liked his description to the crowd even better.
“The rock on which he stands is not a rock; it is the United States of America,” Shea told the Washington audience. “He is America itself; American exceptionalism in action.”