Photo courtesy of Shea communications

Twenty contestants, 10 minutes and an unlimited number of hot dogs. The competition is coming to Santa Cruz.

With followers and fans around the world, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest is just that — one of the most famous eating contests in the world. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the “Coney Island of the West,” according to Boardwalk director of sales and promotions Karley Pope, will soon have its first Nathan’s Famous regional contest on June 26.

Each year, the American hot dog company’s competition draws about 35,000 people to Coney Island, New York on Independence Day, with millions of viewers on ESPN. Across the nation, cities like San Antonio, Miami, Washington, D.C. and now Santa Cruz are hosting qualifying rounds this summer to pick out the best eaters for the Independence Day showdown.

As world champion and world record holder — with a 74 hot dog all-time high under his belt — San Jose native Joey Chestnut isn’t obligated to compete in the regional contests, though he said he sometimes uses them to practice. He automatically qualifies for the New York contest, which traditionally includes the defending champion, winners from the regional qualifiers and two walk-on participants. 

At six-foot-one and 220 pounds, Chestnut talked to City on a Hill Press about his love for competition, taking care of his body and the sport. 

What drew you into competitive eating?

I didn’t want to do it at first. My little brother knew I could eat more than everybody else in the family. […] [He] signed me up for my first contest. I was 21. […] I remember thinking this is crazy. I’m usually ashamed of how much I can eat. It’s usually something I hide. […] It was the weirdest thing. My whole life, I’ve been kind of ashamed of it, and then it got celebrated all of a sudden. Then, there was the competition aspect. Beating the guys and women next to me. After that first contest, it clicked. 

What would you say makes a good competitive eater?

You really have to love to eat. You have to really love food. […] Competitive eating is so new. There are no books written about it, and there are no trainers. You have to be really in tune with your body and really figure out how to push your body […] You have to teach yourself.

What do you normally do to prepare for competitions?

I get into a cycle where I do practice contests and recover as soon as I can start eating solid food. I’m pretty much eating greens and high fiber and trying to get back to a normal weight, and then I’ll start fasting again. No solid food for a day and a half. When I’m fasting, [I drink] lots of liquid to get back down to my target weight so I know I’m ready for another practice. And every practice I try to go a little bit farther, build a tolerance and convince my body what it’s doing is alright.

Do you have any advice for amateur competitive eaters or people just trying to come up to the scene?

Keep a food journal. A diary. For a long time, I kept a diary of everything that I was eating and how I was feeling, my weight throughout the day. […] Putting some time in figuring out your body is probably the most important thing, and realizing that I’m not going to feel good after a contest. […] I’m going to be uncomfortable, just like a runner who runs the marathon, they know they’re not going to feel great after the marathon. […] I’ve already committed myself to not feeling great after the contest. Just knowing [this] allows me to push myself pretty far. 

What does it feel like after a big contest like that?

Bloated. Muscles are stretching. Thirsty. Most of the food you eat is really salty. Usually my first craving is, “I’m thirsty.” And then I’m tired. […] I’m pretty much exhausted. 

Do you feel like you get to bond with a lot of people at these competitions?

I think that’s one of the greatest things — when competitors or even the fans tell me their favorite food to eat or they tell me what they did on the Fourth of July. It’s weird, but I think food really does bring people together. It lowers their guard. It lowers my guard, when you talk about food. I’m really lucky. I’m naturally shy, so it’s helped me come out of my shell a little bit.