I never meant for it to become a thing, but at a party the day before I competed in an official Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Qualifier, it was clear that it had become, without a doubt, a capital-T Thing. Every single person asked me about it, and even though it was a great conversation starter, it was a terrible pick up line. As much as every party sort of devolves into having the same exchange over and over, for this one, I followed a script.

Are you ready for tomorrow?


How many do you think you’re going to eat? 

“I’m thinking 12, but my big goal is 15.”

How many do you need to win? 

“Probably 25.”

Do you love hot dogs?

“Not particularly.”

Well then why are you doing it? 

“It’s kind of hard to explain, and I couldn’t quite put a finger on it but then the other week I was reading this story about Antarctica, and there was this quote from one of the first guys to try to get to the South Pole, and he said something like, ‘Some people think I do it for science, and I say no. A lot of people think I do it for the adventure, but that’s not it. Really, there are just these little voices in me that are calling me to Antarctica.’ I guess you could say hot dogs are my Antarctica.”

Most people walked away at that point.

Coach Russ (left) and my fan Will (right)

Meanwhile, my phone was blowing up from just about everyone I have ever met. It was as if I had cancer. A family friend: “Our whole family is pulling for you!” A high school classmate: “I believe in you. They may have given you long shot odds, but know that you can do this.” A professor: “We are all rooting for you.”

Some friends made shirts with my face photoshopped onto Joey Chestnut and were planning on caravanning to the tournament. “The Road to Coney Starts Here,” it said next to the picture.

On the eve of the contest, all I wanted was for the road to stop in Poteet. As the person who had more support than anybody in the history of hot dog eating contests, there was real pressure to perform. Not necessarily to perform well but to put on some sort of show. I knew I wasn’t going to win, but maybe I could throw up everywhere and give everyone a laugh. I had to do something. It had gotten thrown so out of proportion that I had no choice but to return the favor. I had to go out big.

•   •   •

It all started in earnest a little more than a month ago. The MLE (Major League Eating) tweeted out a link to register for the upcoming qualifiers for the famous, ESPN-broadcast hot dog eating championships at Coney Island every Fourth of July. There was one in Poteet, TX, outside of San Antonio and about two-and-a-half hours from Austin. I texted my uncle, “Should I sign up for this?” and he said, “Yes.” So I did.

Watching the contest has become a Fourth of July tradition. My family would spend the Fourth with cousins in Lake Geneva, WI, and we would all run up from the lake still dripping wet and watch Joey Chestnut stuff his face full of hot dogs. The year Kobayashi was banned left everyone in shock. The year Matt Stonie beat Chestnut was even more unbelievable.

I guess there has always been a part of me that has wondered if I could do it. After watching the contest, we would wander out to the porch and eat brats and hot dogs. We never had a formal competition, but we always paid attention to who had eaten the most. I remember one time eating a brat and looking out at the lake, wondering how gross the bun would be dunked in water.

If I was going to do it, I would have to do it right. I knew enough about the sport to understand it deserved respect and was not for the faint of heart—literally, it would kill you if your heart’s not ready. After signing up, I asked my friend Russell to be my coach. Russell is a freak planner. He showed me an itinerary he put together once for a family trip once. “9:30 leave hotel. 9:33 get on bus. 9:50 arrive for tour. 10:00 tour begins…

He’s not someone I would want to travel with, but he seemed like someone who could put together a schedule for me to follow. He said he’d have to do some research first, but he’d be honored. A few hours later, he sent me my calendar, complete with clip art representing all the foods I’d be eating. “4 lbs of cauliflower” was one day, and there was a cartoon cauliflower with big, loopy eyes right below it. I’ll admit to being afraid of that cauliflower man. He taunts me.

•   •   •

The first step of training was to do a simulated contest to see what we were working with. I guaranteed I could eat 15, maybe 20 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. We bought 25 hot dogs and buns, cooked them up in a dorm room microwave and decided to head to a park in case things got messy. As far as dunking buns would go, we quickly learned that water would not do. Dunking only in water could lead to what’s known as “flavor fatigue,” where you’ve ingested so much of the same flavor that your mind just won’t let you eat any more. Joey Chestnut uses Propel. After much debate, we settled on Crystal Light: not too sweet or heavy but enough of a change-up to get the buns down.

We got all set up at the park, with Russell yelling encouragement in my ear and my friend Will filming, so we could break down the results later in the film room. I’d decided to go with Joey Chestnut’s two dogs-two buns approach. I’d eat two dogs at a time, together, and then two buns in a row. I can only imagine what the moms playing with their kids in the park were thinking as they watched me.

Two bites in, I looked up and with a mouthful of hot dogs said, “Thith ith disguthting.” I also realized quickly that 15 or 20 was impossible. You know when you’re golfing, and in your mind,  you look like Tiger Woods? As you start your backswing, you’re sure you’re about to drive it 250 yards perfectly straight, and then you hit the top of the ball and it dribbles to a stop about 25 feet in front of you? That was me eating hot dogs. It’s hard.

After about four, my brain was begging me to stop. I could chew the dogs and buns, but I couldn’t make myself swallow them. I finished with 8.5, and then I went back home and ate the same number of Tums.

•   •   •

Dad called and asked if I was still going to do my training. “Well, yeah,” I answered.

“Why don’t you just show up and do the contest, and that will be that?”

I never even considered it. Over the next month, I hazed myself almost every day. Immediately after waking up, I would attempt to chug a gallon of water, believing it would help expand my stomach. At first, I’d chug about half of it and then throw up. By the end, I’d finish the entire thing, wait three minutes, and then throw up pure water. Someone could probably still drink it.

“Is the water really necessary?” I texted Russell one morning after throwing up again.


Twice a week, I would do some eating challenge. The name of the game was high volume, low calorie foods, to fill and expand my stomach while not putting on fat (fat takes up valuable stomach expansion space). Eating those four pounds of cauliflower wasn’t too difficult, all things considered, but the gas that resulted was one of the more painful things I’ve ever endured. It nearly caused an explosion inside of me equivalent to Hiroshima. No amount of Gas X helped. My roommates were not too happy.

But the worst of it was watermelon night. Russell and I almost killed each other. Russell was a good coach because, even if he didn’t actually have an answer to my questions, he would give me one with such confidence that I followed blindly, and secondly, he would never let me quit or stop early. The watermelon challenge brought to bare both of these qualities. I took an entire watermelon (weighing in at 18 pounds, including the rind), cut it up, put it in a big bowl, and sat on the couch watching TV, steadily making my way through it. Eventually, I asked, “Are we sure watermelon’s low calorie? It has to have so much sugar.”

We looked it up and discovered that, in fact, an entire watermelon has an average of 1,500 calories and 250 grams of sugar. That’s when I started complaining, but I kept eating at Russell’s command. Yes, I was concerned about being healthy while training for a hot dog eating contest, and yes, I understand the irony. About three-quarters of the way through, my insides turned upside down, and I ran to the bathroom.

“This is madness!” I said. “I’m not eating any more!”

“You’re exaggerating,” Russell said, and when I showed him photographic evidence of what had just occured, he said, “Well there’s space for more, now.”

“Dude! This isn’t healthy! This is messed up. I’m not eating any more.”

“Stop whining and eat.”

“There. Were. Undigested chunks of watermelon. Coming out. Of. My. Ass.”


I wouldn’t have kept subjecting myself to those challenges night after night, except it seemed to be working. When we did another hot dog training round two weeks after the initial test, I ate 11 and wolfed down four in the first minute. On the week of the contest, Russell’s schedule called for “YOGURT GULPING!” The idea was that I’d strengthen my gulping muscle by chugging yogurt instead of my typical water. The yogurt we got wasn’t thick enough in our minds, so we blended it with berries, ice, and peanut butter into a thick shake. There was a liter of it, and apart from pausing for occasional brain freezes, I downed it no problem. My confidence was as high as it had been since the start. I was ready to eat.

•   •   •

The Poteet Strawberry Festival is like a giant county fair, and there wasn’t a single strawberry anywhere. We were searching for Stage 4 to check in, wandering past rows of carnival games and Turkey Leg stands. It was 72 and sunny. “Perfect hot dog eating weather,” we joked. Then we finally found it, a big, tented stage. A mariachi band was playing. It was down wind of the diaper changing station. It was perfect.

I walked up to the designated check-in point, and a big man with dreadlocks and a well-manicured mustache was there to hand me a waiver. If I choked on a hot dog, the MLE was not at fault. The dreadlocks gave away that I was standing in the presence of Crazy Legs Conti, oyster, cannoli and donut eating champion of the world. “Well,” I told Russell. “Pressure’s off to win.”

Crazy Legs

There was an old guy named Bill who asked me if I would stick around after the contest ended to sign his shirt. “I get all the eaters to sign my shirt whenever I go to one of these things,” he said.

“Oh, do you do this a lot?”

“Yeah. This is my fourth year doing hot dogs. I also do bratwurst and tamales. My son lives in Tulsa, which is where they do the bratwurst championships, so I use it as an excuse to see him.”

Eaters kept checking in, with pros Juan Neave and Steven Schuster joining Crazy Legs. A high school football and wrestling coach was competing “because it’s a bucket list thing.” George Shea, the commissioner of the MLE was there, is a full suit and one of those barber shop quartet hats. As they set up the stage, I realized that having a reversal of fortune wouldn’t really be possible. There was nowhere to turn to, and if I was going to go out in a blaze of glory and projectile vomit straight ahead, I would ruin the contest for everyone else around me. That would’ve been bad sportsmanship.

All the eaters (there were about 12 of us) were herded to the side of the stage and told that once we were introduced, we should run on stage and give the crowd of about 300 some love before taking our place. Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” started playing over the loudspeaker. Shea would be the emcee. “They say competitive eating is the battleground upon which God and Lucifer waged war over men’s souls, my friends,” he said. “And they are right.”

“Oh, shit,” I thought.

•   •   •

Right before the contest began, up on stage, I just kept looking at the hot dogs. Not in a stare down, intimidate the hot dogs kind of way that’s competitve and would have gotten myself in the zone or whatever the eating equivalent is. It was just hitting me again how gross this all was, and I got an odd urge to touch them. They were cold. Even grosser.

The crowd seemed to be a little confused by the whole event. A lot of empty stares. They had been watching mariachis one moment, and then a bunch of idiots eating hot dogs the next. Many just didn’t want to leave their seats in the shade.

Shea screamed go. I started eating and knew I was behind my four dogs in the first minute pace. My friends yelled, “EAT THOSE WIENERS!” at me. Everything was hard to get down. Some of the eaters were talking about how, because they had been sitting out for so long, the buns had become dried out. I can’t say I’m in tune with the finer details of bun hydration, but Bill said he ate the fewest dogs he had ever gotten.

I wish I could say that there was something therapeutic and soothing about an eating contest, but really, it’s just gross. The buns are harder to eat than the dogs, even when dunked in Crystal Light. Part of the problem is that they’re just absolutely disgusting. The other problem is they’re dense, and slowly expand in your stomach after eating them. After about five dogs and buns, every bite made me want to throw up. With about three minutes left, I threw up a little in my mouth and swallowed it back down. “That’s the stuff of champions right there,” I thought.

I finished with 10, which was good for about sixth. Juan Neave won with 24. Crazy Legs got 12, and a friend texted upon hearing the results that it was like the end of Rocky. I had gone the distance with the champ and stood toe-to-toe with him.

The thing with hot dog eating contests is that they’re not like a basketball game, where you can point to a specific highlight and build a story around it. You just eat hot dog and after hot dog. It’s all kind of anticlimactic. People asked how I did, and I told them and they said they were proud of me. I don’t know if there’s much to be proud of. It was just this grand, futile thing that I did without thinking.

I’d be wrong, though, if I said I didn’t enjoy the wasted effort. A month of my life was dedicated to expanding my stomach to fit as many hot dogs in it as possible, and the best-case scenario was that I’d get the opportunity to do it all again in another contest that I had no hope of winning. There’s so much pressure as a kid these days to always be achieving. In high school, you do things to get into college, and in college, you do all these things to get a job. The fact that I ate 10 hot dogs in 10 minutes isn’t ever going to get me a job, but is it really less useful than signing up for the investment club because you want an internship at a bank? Now I have a story to tell and 15 pounds to lose. Investment club is just another bullet point.

The aftermath.

I did not throw up on Saturday, but I came close. We were walking around the fair afterwards, and I said I needed to sit down. I was lightheaded and nauseous.

“So when does training start for next year?” my friend Will asked me, as I was keeled over, towel over my head.

“One and done, baby.” I said.