Unseated champ practices whole dog

by Jun Hongo

Takeru Kobayashi prepares for the annual Nathan’s International July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest the same way an Olympic athlete would prep for a track meet.

He consumes well in excess of 6,000 kilocalories of food per day to enlarge the capacity of his stomach, then works out for hours to use up the energy and develop a superhuman metabolism.

Training is meticulously stretched toward the date of the match to expand his alimentary organs to the limit, while the down time immediately after competitions is followed with advanced practice so more franks can slide down his throat the next time.

And because of the intense workouts, Kobayashi, the six-time hot dog eating champ from Nagano with a bodybuilder’s stature and one of the best-known Japanese figures in the U.S., is confident he can overcome his recent defeat and get back on top.

“I was surprised to find myself optimistic even after I lost the competition this year,” Kobayashi, 29, said in a recent telephone interview with The Japan Times. “And that is probably because my records have been improving and I am convinced that I can still develop myself.”

His defeat in this year’s July 4 hot dog competition was his first since he began entering the event in 2001.

He gulped down 63 hot dogs in 12 minutes. That staggering number, equal to around 25,000 kcal, was better than the previous tournament record of 53, which he set.

But Californian Joey Chestnut beat Kobayashi by gulping down 66 hot dogs, taking home a $10,000 prize and the renowned mustard-yellow champion belt. Kobayashi received $5,000.

The only other loss Kobayashi had experienced on American soil in his career came in 2003 when he went up against an Alaskan bear in a frank eating match, only managing to eat 31 in some two minutes compared with the bear’s 50.

Although Kobayashi had been diagnosed with arthritis of the jaw and had a tooth extracted prior to his defeat to Chestnut, he refused to use that as an excuse.

“The defeat was caused by the fact that I couldn’t condition myself and take care of my body well enough to go into the race,” he said.

Kobayashi, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Yokkaichi University in Mie Prefecture, awoke to his extraordinary talent while a student. At a curry shop he easily gulped down a “challenge menu,” a supersize curry and rice.

After gaining publicity by appearing on Japanese television shows, he entered the annual hot dog eating contest in New York’s Coney Island.

In his first attempt in 2001, he doubled the previous world record and ate 50 dogs, earning him the nickname “Tsunami.” He has since conquered many of the “food fighting” matches in the U.S., including the annual hamburger contest in Tennessee, where he holds the world record of eating 97 in eight minutes.

He decided to embark on a career in competitive eating, living on prize money and TV appearances. He also manages United Food Fighters Organization, a group he founded in 2004 to promote competitive eating. The organization helps prepare young food competitors in Japan for contests at home and abroad, and spreads information on healthy diets.

Kobayashi says the art of eating hot dogs has been a constant evolution in itself, a continued progression of trial and error.

The 173-cm, 75-kg gobbler prefers plain food for daily consumption, including tofu and bagels. To wolf down dozens of juicy hot dogs, Kobayashi had to formulate original techniques to counter his U.S. competitors.

Early in his career he experimented with splitting the franks in half and swallowing both at the same time. The buns were then dipped in water for easier ingesting.

Kobayashi called it “the Solomon method,” but seeking to further improve his score he only applied this approach for a couple of years. He has moved on to experimenting with other tactics, including eating cabbage before matches to help digestion.

As “food fighting” develops into a legitimate sports genre in the U.S., the increase in stages for competition provides Americans more opportunities to improve and test their skills, said Kobayashi, who enters fewer than 10 matches a year because not many are held in Japan.

He currently is focusing his training on consuming a balanced diet of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, and improving his cardiopulmonary functions through workouts at the gym.

He acknowledged that he had thought of retiring when he turns 30 next March, putting more time on managing his United Food Fighters Organization and spreading the joy of competitive eating. But the adrenaline rush during matches has held him in its grip, and he keeps improving on his intake levels as his training progresses.

“The only thing you can depend on in a food fighting match is your body. That’s why it is so thrilling,” Kobayashi said. “The best way to walk away from the competition is to leave at the peak of your game, but I know I haven’t reached that point yet. I can still do this.”