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Eat, pray, stuff: the Nathan's hot dog contest

Friday - 7/4/2014, 1:55am  ET

Chestnut (Getty)
Joey Chestnut has become a household name thanks to his competitive eating prowess. (Getty Images/Andrew Burton)

WASHINGTON -- It's a tradition as American as apple pie. But once the competitors taking part are done, they won't have any room left for dessert.

The 99th annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest happens Friday in Brooklyn. Perhaps the oddest juxtaposition involving the nationally televised competitive eating event is that the men's competition will air at 12:30 p.m. on ESPN 2, then be rebroadcast on ESPN at 2 p.m., immediately following, of all things, Wimbledon.

The show of American excess and intestinal fortitude has become synonymous with Independence Day as its popularity had continued to grow over the years, but its first star was not even an American.

Japanese competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi burst onto the scene in 2001, doubling the old record of 25 hot dogs and buns eaten in 12 minutes by annihilating 50 in his first competition. He won every year from then through 2006, when he needed to break that record (53.75) to stave off up-and-coming American Joey Chestnut (52), who would go on to win the next seven titles leading into this year.

Chestnut has continued to break his own records, consuming 69 hot dogs and buns last year. He has become a bona fide star, traveling around the country for eating competitions.

Chestnut has established himself across the many culinary obstacles that have stood in his way. From apple pie (13.1 lbs) to brain tacos (54), from funnel cake (5.9 lbs) to shrimp cocktail (9.25 lbs.), from tamales (102) to Twinkies (121), he's demolished it all -- thankfully, not in the same sitting.

But Chestnut is famous for his performances at Coney Island, where he will be the odds-on favorite Friday. The real question is less whether he'll win and more about whether or not he can break his own record of 69 hot dogs and buns, becoming the first person to ever cross the threshold to 70.

"No doubt!" says Sonya Thomas, of Alexandria, Virginia, herself a successful competitive eater, of Chestnut's odds to win. "I expect Joey to break his own world record."

For the big eaters among us, it may seem like a pretty nice way to make a living.

But according to eatfeats.com, a website devoted to tracking results from competitive eating competitions, Chestnut has netted only $49,350 in winnings the past calendar year, including $10,000 for taking home his record seventh consecutive Nathan's Famous contest title a year ago. That, despite winning 16 of the 20 events for which the site lists his finish and placing second in the other four.

For the other eaters on the circuit, such as Thomas, the competitions represent more of a hobby than a full-time gig.

Thomas maintains a far healthier diet when she isn't competing. Her favorite foods include sushi, kimchi, seafood and tofu. That, plus a naturally expeditious metabolism, has helped keep her at 105 pounds, the same weight as when she began her competitive eating career.

There is now an entire circuit of 13 Nathan's events around the country -- in places ranging from Las Vegas to Fort Lee, Virginia -- the grand prize for which is a seat at the main event at Coney Island.

The expected field of 28 at this year's event includes 12 women. The leading contender among the females is Thomas, who led the field by eating 38 hot dogs and buns last year and owns the female record with her 45 consumed in 2012. The two- time defending female champ, she is currently ranked fifth by Major League Eating (MLE), second among women behind 28-year-old Las Vegas resident Miki Sudo.

The sport's governing body, the International Federation of Competitive Eating, has been absorbed under the MLE masthead, the world body that oversees these events. Their logo is red, white and blue, complete with a triumphant fist grasping a fork.

MLE's website proclaims that the organization conducts about 80 events a year, but the Nathan's challenge is the undisputed marquee event. And why not? What could be more American than a hot dog-eating contest on Independence Day?

"It is the Super Bowl of competitive eating!" says Thomas. "We are all celebrities on July 4."

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