Life List #206: Compete at the Nathan’s Famous July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest.
I was a celebrity. Being approached on the street for photos. Getting asked for an autograph at a bar. Receiving random high fives from the crowd. Being told by a mass of self-proclaimed groupies that they were rooting for me.
For me. A self-proclaimed groupie myself.
I told that group of guys that they picked the wrong girl to cheer for. I told them I came in dead last, far behind all the other totals. I told them I only had qualified by default.
But no one cared.
“But you did it,” they’d say. They’d all say, when I’d sheepishly tell anyone who asked of my last-place three-hot-dog total.
I ate three hot dogs and buns in ten minutes at the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest. I came in last place at the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest. It was, by all accounts, an embarrassment.
But I ate in the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest.
How many people in this world can say they came in last place at the biggest competitive eating event of the year? How many people get to eat on that stage? A friend insisted that just being there made me the thirteenth best female competitive eater in the world. Doubtful. But we can go with that.
Six years ago I was just a lowly competitive eating groupie. I’d watched the hot dog eating contest for years on TV, and that Independence Day, July 4, 2008, I’d traveled to New York to watch it in person. I’ll always remember the first time I approached Tim Brown, a Chicago competitive eater, on the boardwalk after the contest, and told him I was a fan. “That’s weird” he said.
It was probably weird.
It was on that Fourth of July, at the fourth live eating event I’d attended in a year that my love of competitive eating was cemented and my super-fandom status was born.
I enjoyed watching the contests, watching people eat inhuman amounts of food in inhuman amounts of time. I enjoyed trying to capture photographs of the agony and ecstasy of speed eating, of food particles crunching through the air.
But I never seriously thought about competing.
Sure I can eat fast. At least compared to “normal” people. I’m usually the first at the table to finish a meal. But compared to professional competitive eaters? No. No. No.
I am slow. I have no capacity. I can’t swallow big chunks of food. I chew too much. The texture of fruit-punch-soaked hamburger buns makes me gag.
But when, in 2011, the once uni-sex contest split into two divisions — men’s and women’s — the thought of maybe some day being able to compete entered my head.
There are a lot of amazing competitive eaters. Major League Eating, the force behind the July Fourth contest, ranks the top fifty. With only fifteen or so spots at the table, an unranked eater would rarely get the opportunity. But when the contest split, the spaces doubled. Thirty. Fifteen of those reserved for women. And there are only eight ranked female eaters.
For the first time, I had a chance.
In order to compete at the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest, you need to win a qualifier: the top male and female of each of those events move on to Coney.
I won my qualifier in December, in a fluke contest outside the normal season, by eating only 5.75 hot dogs and buns. A terrible showing. But I won. By default. By being the only female to show up for the contest.
But seven months later, I wasn’t alone. I was joined onstage by twelve other women, each of whom had eaten more than I had to qualify.
I knew I didn’t stand a chance to win. To come close. Or to land anywhere outside of last place.
But, as with most things I do now in life, it was the experience I was after. And, let me tell you, an experience it was.
In the weeks leading up to the contest, everyone wanted to hear about it. My friends would tell their friends or strangers or anyone who would listen and I’d go through my spiel, answer all the questions.
On the morning of, people looked at me differently when I walked down the street in my official Nathan’s t-shirt, carrying a jug of Crystal Light fruit punch. I had a radio interview with WLS Chicago. I drove from Manhattan to Coney Island in the back of a party bus alongside the reigning women’s champion Sonya Thomas and second-ranked eater Matt Stonie. When we arrived at the contest, people crowded around to take our photographs, shake our hands as we walked by.
Standing in our lineup, walking into an enormous crowd, walking across the stage, being introduced, stepping behind the table in front of thousands upon thousands of people looking towards me, wiping rain drops from my forehead as I attempted to eat all the hot dogs I could in ten minutes.
I felt important. Proud. Revered. Overwhelmed.
A mixture of all these things.
As our ten-minute contest began I knew I wasn’t going to do great. I apologized to my judge right away that I would be boring. And I laughed every time he excitedly flipped the card over to reveal my total. As he waited anxiously for me to get that last little bit in my mouth to fully count as eaten.
I wasn’t good.
It’s the same problems over and over again. I chew too much. My jaw hurts. I gag when I try to swallow.
Hot dogs are hard to eat fast.
I have a whole new appreciation and respect for every single competitive eater out there.
There are people cut out for competitive eating. People with natural talent. Miki Sudo, who won the whole thing with 34 hot dogs and buns, she has talent. Sonya Thomas, the previous 3-time reigning champion who came in second with 27.75, she has talent. Michelle Lesco, the third place finisher with 27, she has talent.
Me? I spent 10 minutes trying not to puke.
I have limits, walls, that I don’t know if I’m ever going to surpass, even with hard training.
But that’s for the future to hold.
Because, here’s the thing. I am an awful competitive eater. The worst. But that moment. That day. Competing in the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest. Was one of the most amazing times in my life.
And as much as I hate speed eating. As much as I promised myself that this was it. That retirement was in my future. I don’t know if I want to go back to watching from the crowd.
Several eaters have offered to train me. And maybe I’ll take them up on that.
And I have some of my own ideas. I spent so much time taking in tips other people had that I never really thought about what would work for me. And I didn’t think I cared about how I would do.
But I do.
And I want to go back, someday. I want to improve.
So maybe I won’t go into retirement just yet. Maybe I’ll try again.
I’m never going to be a Miki Sudo, a Sonya Thomas, a Michelle Lesco. But I can be a Val “Valkyrie” Bromann: that girl who always goes after the things she wants.
Compete at the Nathan’s Famous July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest was number 206 on my life list.