It’s 3PM on a Saturday afternoon, and I’m watching a man who goes by the name “Hot Dogg Sanchez” take to a stage at Seal Bay holiday resort in West Sussex – a vast complex of caravan parks, formerly known as Bunn Leisure. “We Dem Boyz” by Wiz Khalifa booms out over the soundsystem as Hot Dogg Sanchez finds his place at a long table, shoulder-length mullet and mirrored visor sunglasses glinting in the sunshine. Next to him is “the continental breakfast eating champion of the world”. In front of them are paper plates piled high with hot dogs. The American MC, who’s decked out in a suit jacket and straw boater like an overgrown Etonian school boy, introduces the next contestant.
“He doesn’t typically do eating contests on the weekend,” he declares to the spectators assembled on sun loungers and hot astroturf. “In fact, on Saturday afternoons he usually hangs out in his kitchen, listening to Coldplay and Google Imaging old girlfriends, but he came here today to eat hot dogs.” As he says this, a man throws giant foam hands into the crowd. More contestants take the stage, Lana Del Rey’s “Diet Mountain Dew” plays and, just as the MC utters the phrase “this man has eaten 57 mince pies in ten minutes”, a guy loads up a T-shirt cannon and fires it high into the sky. Kids and adults shriek and scramble to catch the merch as it rains down, mere metres from Seal Bay’s Splash Zone.
This carnival of sensory overstimulation is only the beginning, though. All the holidaymakers, YouTubers and Americanophiles thronging around the stage have gathered here for a much more important reason: To see how many hot dogs these strong-stomached competitors can shove down their gullets in ten minutes, crowning them the UK champion. For this is not any old eating challenge, this is run by the world renowned, annual orgy of consumption that is the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, held each year in Coney Island to the intestine-churning delight of tens of thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers. Last year, the most famous “eater” of the modern age, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, earned his 16th title as hot dog-eating world champion. He also holds the world record at 76 hot dogs in ten minutes, which equates to roughly 22,800 calories – or a whole day’s recommended calorie intake every sixty seconds. Today in Selsey, at the tip of the Manhood Peninsula, eleven contestants are attempting to get close to Joey’s illustrious sausage crown. One male and one female winner will secure a spot at next year’s Coney Island extravaganza.
Officially sanctioned by Major League Eating – which dubs itself “the world governing body of all stomach-centric sports” – this is the first qualifying contest of its kind to take place on British soil. “The Nathan’s Famous contest on July Fourth is our World Cup, our Masters, and it will be fantastic to welcome the new competitors who will emerge from Selsey,” proclaimed Richard Shea, Major League Eating’s president and Seal Bay’s straw hatted MC, in the lead up to the big day. And now, here they are and here I am, ready to watch a dozen competitors going “cheek to jowl” eating as many hot dogs as humanly possible, in what Nathan’s Famous describes as “an unforgettable celebration of gastronomic prowess”. Ready to witness history. Stomachs have been stretched and emptied. There’s only one thing left to do: eat.
Before the contest kicks off, the “eaters” gather in a large room above the resort’s restaurant. In the middle of the room, a man with the build of a live-action Tarzan and a moustache like Tom Selleck is listening to Kesha on large headphones. He’s wearing a Nathan’s Famous tee with the sleeves cut off – presumably because this is the only way his bulging arm muscles will fit into it – and shorts covered with the word “Ronnie”. This is Ronnie Hartman, AKA “Megabyte Ronnie”. He’s the number 19th ranked competitive eater in the world, and has travelled in from the U.S. to try and secure his spot in Coney Island early. In other words, he’s the guy to beat.
“I got into the eating business because in 2013 I was in the Army,” Ronnie tells me. He only got a two week notice that he was deploying, so “wanted to knock off some bucket list things.” One was doing a food challenge like on Man v. Food – the American food reality programme fronted by Adam Richman, which is often cited as a gateway drug for competitive eaters. “I did a three pound burger and one pound of fries and beat the timer,” Ronnie says proudly. Days after he got back to the States he did a Nathan’s qualifier and was “hooked”. Since then, he’s eaten 68 hard boiled eggs in eight mins, half a gallon of chilli in one minute 34 seconds, and 12 pounds of strawberry shortcake in ten minutes. “I’m not the greatest eater ever, but I excel at sweet foods,” Ronnie declares.
Until May this year, eating was actually only one of Ronnie’s competitive physical vocations. Before a back injury forced him to quit, Megabyte Ronnie was also a wrestler. “I didn't start until I was 29,” Ronnie says, which is pretty late by wrestling standards. “It was sort of a disadvantage,” he explains, but luckily he had a unique selling point. “I'm the only competitive eater slash wrestler in the world, so it really took off as soon as I started,” he grins. His sudden popularity might also have had something to do with his finishing move: The People’s Hot Dog. “I do an elbow drop, but as I'm dropping the elbow, I have a hot dog and I bite into the hot dog.” Surely, with this fighting form, wolfing down a pile of the things should be a breeze?
Maybe not. After spending the last two days drinking gallons of water to stretch his stomach in a hotel near Heathrow airport, Ronnie got thrown at his final stage of preparation – eating his last meal, “normally a few spoons of peanut butter and jelly”, about 24 hours before a contest. He couldn’t find his usual crunchy peanut butter, so had to settle for smooth, and couldn’t source American jelly anywhere. With English jam just not hitting the same, could that blip in his routine hurt his chances today? Could the American forerunner be scuppered by an English preserve?
If so, another contestant who’s flown in for the contest could be in luck. Radim Dvoracek, known on YouTube as “Steel Rod Radim”, landed in the UK from the Czech Republic at 11PM last night, after almost getting stuck in Norway during his layover. “I didn't eat anything yesterday, I just drank a lot of water, about ten litres,” Radim tells me. Aside from these stomach-stretching routines, Radim professes that he doesn’t usually train much for competitions, though he did for hot dogs “to see what technique would be best to eat them”. Anyone who’s watched Joey “Jaws” Chestnut going hard on the dogs on YouTube will know there’s a specific technique to master. In this competition, the contestants are allowed to dunk their hot dogs into a beaker of water for four seconds before eating them. The result is soggy doggies – which are apparently easier to swallow – and quite a lot of mess for anyone standing too close.
Radim’s proudest record was at a famous dumpling eating contest in the Czech Republic: “My personal best is 205 dumplings eaten in an hour.” Oh, and he also went on Czecho Slovakia's Got Talent, where he devoured 43 hard-boiled eggs in five minutes, to the shock of the judges. “I think Joey could do 100 in five minutes,” he says thoughtfully, showing me his TV appearance on his phone. There are people who don't like his eating exploits very much, though – for example, his mum. But he’s not that surprised. “Sometimes this sport can be quite dangerous,” he says, seriously. Watching him gulp down egg after egg, hardly stopping for breath, I think I know what he means.
John Dawes from Billingham, AKA “Food and the Beast”, has a parental problem too. “Practice is normally in the back of my van, as I live with my mam and dad, and they don’t want me eating in the house,” he says. But this hasn’t stopped him training his daughter Katie to take up the competitive eating mantle. Today, he’s taken his son along to the contest, perhaps in the hope that one day it will be a whole family affair.
“I’ve got lots of restaurant challenge records, but the record I’m most proud of was eating 21 sausage rolls in 30 mins,” he tells me. After setting this world record, John immortalised his love for sausage rolls in tattoo form – branding himself with a muscular sausage roll ripping open its own Greggs wrapping like a pastry Superman. John’s not getting his hopes up for this contest though, after a training session where he only managed 12 hot dogs. “My only training session was with Max,” John tells me. “He was on like his eighth training session, I was on my first, and I think he got about 27.”
“Max” is Max Stanford, of Max vs Food YouTube fame. By day he works for a children’s charity, but he moonlights as one of the UK’s hottest tipped competitive eaters. He also has a sharply coiffed quiff, a great collection of food-related T-shirts, and, as John indicated, a seriously impressive training tally. Like Ronnie, Max says one reason he got into competitive eating is because he used to watch Man v. Food as a kid. He entered a challenge at Man vs Food, the restaurant in London, and the ball started rolling from there. “It was a metre long hotdog,” Max tells me. “I did it in 18 minutes and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that's pretty good for just some random guy.’” Since then, Max’s stomach capacity has gone from strength to strength: “I've done 103 Jaffa cakes in three minutes. I've eaten a 50 ounce steak in just under five minutes. I've eaten a five kilogram roast, the biggest roast in the UK, in like 47 minutes.”
Today, though, Max feels the pressure. “It's pretty nerve wracking to be honest, because I've never done a hot dog eating contest before. I wasn't really thinking about entering Nathan's for, like, another year but it came to the UK so I thought I might as well.” He can’t help being aware of the other “eaters” who will be up there with him, too. “I've got stiff competition from an American coming over, who's kind of a veteran at this,” he says, meaning Megabyte Ronnie. “And then Radim from the Czech Republic, who's also signed with Major League Eating as well.” Out of the corner of my eye I spot Radim carrying two giant jugs, one full of water and the other tropical juice, presumably to help wash the hot dogs down in only a few minutes' time. “He's a professional eater,” Max continues. “So I'm kind of the amateur hobbyist trying to represent the UK. I'd say I'm a bit of the underdog to be honest.” Competitive eating is a dog eat dog world, after all.
At roughly quarter past three, Richard Shea leads the crowd in a countdown, and then suddenly, they’re off. UK “underdog” Max and American “veteran” Ronnie gulp down three dogs in 30 seconds. Nathan’s Famous helpers hold up number boards, trying to keep track of how many have been scoffed. Three minutes in, Ronnie’s pace falters, but Max and Radim are still shovelling dogs down. Max seems to be stuffing two damp dogs into his mouth at once. At around the seven minute mark, “Parklife” by Blur comes on the sound system and I spot sausage roll enthusiast John, swaying his head and hips, dancing along as he gorges. The numbers keep rolling over, with Max and Radim apparently still going pace for pace: 20, 21, until as suddenly as it started, it’s all over. The numbers come down – they were only an unofficial count anyway – and the real judges get to work, inspecting buns and figuring out who’s meaty tally has nabbed them a trip to Brooklyn. “Big Mouth Strikes Again” by The Smiths accompanies the count.
The first announcement comes as no surprise. Rhea, the only woman competing, is the female winner, and is on her way to Coney Island having eaten four hot dogs. “Four! I could eat four,” a kid behind me shouts out in consternation. But then it’s time for the big moment. Which of the eleven dudes at the table will be trying to give Joey a run for his money next July?
It’s Max! Max, the self-proclaimed UK underdog, has won with a whopping 34 hot dogs eaten. “You couldn’t do 34 though could you,” the kid’s dad replies, an unmistakable note of awe in his voice. As Max lifts the gleaming winner’s trophy, even I can’t help feeling a surge of something close to patriotic pride.
So, how should this momentous occasion – a Brit qualifying for the Coney Island competition on British soil – be marked? Richard has one suggestion for me. “Put this on the record,” he says with a gleam in his eye. “I’m extending a formal invitation to Prince William and Kate to come to Coney Island on July Fourth. They can stay at my place.”
Eventually, the post-contest frenzy dies down, and the contestants head back upstairs to let their bloat develop. “It's funny,” says Max, “my partner always says that I used to be very funny about food. I used to be like, ‘Oh no, I can't have too many carbs’ and, ‘Oh, we're gonna put oil in the food? It's bad for my health’. But actually doing all these challenges has made me realise I can eat whatever I want and then, after a couple of days of low calorie meals and training, I'll be fine.”
Having eaten 14 and a half dogs, and coming joint third with Ronnie, John seems chuffed, too. He tells me how much competitive eating has helped his mental health. “It's the only thing that keeps me going,” he confesses. “I try to win, but if I don't win it’s fine.” Since he started competing, John has actually dropped eight stone. But more importantly, he says he’s made friends all over the country – “mates for life”. It’s hard to suppress the thought ‘men will literally eat 20 hot dogs instead of going to therapy’, but I swallow it. I can see how much this event, and this gastronomic hobby means to each and every contestant here. There’s a real sense that they’re all in “the eating business” together. They might’ve been competing against each other just moments ago, but they also seem bonded, like blood brothers – bread brothers, perhaps.
How do the eaters come down from the hot dog high then? Well, it’s Max’s birthday tomorrow, so he’s planning on relaxing and revelling in the glory of his big win with his girlfriend and parents, who were all there cheering him on. Ronnie’s flying back to the States, possibly to scheme a farewell wrestling match, but both John and Radim are already chasing the next hit.
“I've got 40 Mr Beast chocolate bars in the back of my van,” John says. “I'm gonna try to eat them tomorrow.” Radim is off to Southampton, to the Nathan’s Famous restaurant there. He’s going to eat the entire menu. “I’m happy it’s not just all hot dogs,” he says with the air of a man who has just summited Everest. “I hate eating all the same. I like challenges with a longer time limit because I can enjoy it more, not choke and not eat too fast.” Right, I think, as the fellas pose together with the winners’ trophies, broad grins on their faces despite their jaw ache, because where would be the fun in that?