Joey Chestnut is hot dogs' top dog.
"I've figured out how to push my body to the absolute limit," explained Chesnut, 28, who set a world record last year for gobbling 69 hot dogs in 10 minutes at the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot-Dog Eating Contest and is favored to win this year's Independence Day nosh-a-rama.
The top-ranked eater in the world, Chestnut, who lives in San Jose, Calif., has not only won the Coney Island contest seven years in a row, but holds world records in scarfing down deep-fried asparagus spears, brats, chicken wings, fish tacos, hard-boiled eggs, jalapeno poppers, Twinkies, pastrami. . . . you get the idea. According to some press reports, he pulls down about $200,000 a year for his unusual ability.
Last year, Chestnut nabbed the Nathan's mustard belt by eating 18 hot dogs more than runnerup Matt Stonie.
"He just crushed us," recalled Tim Janus, 37, an East Village competitor also known as "Eater X" who placed third by eating 50 and holds his own handful of world records.
Chestnut's dominance is such that when competitor Yasir Salem, 37, of the East Village was asked how the Nathan's prize money is distributed, he said, "$10,000 goes to Joey." Catching himself, Salem amended, "I mean - whoever is in first place. Then there's another $10,000 distributed among the other four placers."
"You learn to ignore your feelings," of satiety not unlike an extreme dieter ignores hunger, explained Chestnut, adding enthusiastically, "feelings are not facts!"
Great eaters manage to out-psyche not just other eaters, but their own feelings of nausea. "As you get fuller, your gag reflexes heighten," as Janus delicately explained.
Not to worry, said a stoic Chestnut, reminding, "You only feel like barfing for a little while."
Chestnut preps by doing fluid fasts -- water with liquid amino acids or flavored with lemon juice and cayenne paper - and "practice contests" to stretch out his gut. The day of a contest, he stops consuming anything, even water, to "be sure I'm absolutely empty" for maximum gorging.
Six-feet-1-inch tall and currently at a highish 230 pounds Chestnut concedes, "I'm lucky to have a really big torso and possibly a large internal capacity." A civil engineer by training, Chestnut hacks capacity expansion similar to any other problem. He might drink an enormous amount of water, mindful that "it's not just how much you can drink, but how many gulps you take," to consume the most in the least amount of time. (Hot dog competitors dip the buns in liquid to ease and hasten consumption. While Chestnut is a water dipper, many others opt for Crystal Light.)
He also exercises. One trick is to suck in his stomach and stick it out, using a tape measure to track his accordion-like expansion. "That area of my body has to be really, really loose and flexible," he explained
He eschews sit-ups, though, fearing "they might reduce my flexibility." When training, he's mindful to ignore all the etiquette lessons about taking small bites and chewing slowly. "I have to keep the muscles of my esophagus supple," so huge, barely masticated gulps in rapid succession are the norm.
During contests, Chestnut's girlfriend is in the front screaming, "Don't get lazy! You're getting lazy!"
"She enjoys yelling at me,"and he responds well to "negative reinforcement," so it's a win-win for both of them.
Many of the male competitors, inured to the probability of Chestnut grabbing the top spot this Friday, believed the real nail biter in this year's superbowl of competitive eating will be the women's contest: While Sonya Thomas is the reigning queen, having downed 45 hot dogs in 10 minutes last year, Miki Sudo, a 28-year-old eater from Las Vegas, who was absent last year, has beaten Thomas in 10 recent contests and is confident her time has arrived.
"Sonya is going to be fighting hard to hold on to her title and I'll be giving it my all," said Sudo, who predicted the July 4 eat-off will be "one of the most memorable matches in competitive history."
Of course, nobody feels much like a winner after a contest.
"I use Google calendar so I know not to do a race the following day," said Salem, who also competes in marathons and triathalons and sticks to broccoli, cauliflower and water afterwards.. "Laxatives don't help," he noted.
Even Chestnut admitted to feeling like an extremely fatigued guy in an Alka Seltzer ad on July 5. "I roll around hoping to digest all that food, but I just can't find a comfortable position,"Chestnut said.