By the barest of margins — a quarter of a hot dog, bun included — Nathan "Nasty Nate" Biller won the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest qualifying event Sunday night at the Florida Strawberry Festival.
Biller downed 23 dogs in 10 minutes. As he was declared the winner, the runner-up marched off the stage while the others cheered. To the audience, it looked like anger. But it was a more involuntary reaction than that.
Like some of the other contestants, he was struggling to keep his hot dogs down.
Crazy Legs Conti — yes, that's his legal name, according to his driver's license — became a competitive eater 14 years ago. The 44-year-old New Yorker has competed at the Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island 10 out of the past 12 years.
Sunday's competition was the first qualifying event of the regular season. Conti has about a dozen more opportunities to qualify, but he was hoping to make quick work of it this year. Usually, it takes him three attempts to qualify.
"Generally, it's a long season for me," Conti said. "It's getting harder and harder every year."
Competitive eaters are determined. It's a mental sport as much as a physical one, they say.
"Proud" might not usually be a word used to associate with people who voluntary shove plates of food into their mouths in front of crowds of hundreds or thousands of people. Or with a man who gives interviews with flakes of hotdog bun clinging to his beard, evidence of his recent battle. Or a woman who chokes back the urge to let loose on crowd members as she chews the 10th hot dog, seeking her next win.
But these competitive eaters carry a sense of pride with them through every contest, like any athlete in the playoffs.
Mary Bowers, who qualified in the women's contest Sunday after ingesting 10 hot dogs, said successful competitive eaters have the same qualities as any accomplished businessman.
"There's always a limit that you hit, and you have to keep pushing," Bowers said. "And just really believe that you can keep moving forward and continuously keep getting better."
Competitors get into the sport for different reasons. For Bowers, it seemed like a natural choice.
"I've been eating every day since I was born, so I just figured I might as well do something special," Bowers said.
Chicken wings, pot stickers, ribs — she's eaten it all in hopes of victory. Even cow brain tacos. They taste exactly like you think they would, she said.
Bowers and Biller both fell short of their personal records Sunday, despite qualifying for the national finals. Bowers' personal best is 11 and three quarters in 10 minutes; Biller's is 25.
After finishing two short of his record, Biller said he wondered if he could've pushed himself harder.
"I feel okay, which makes me think I could've eaten more," Biller said. "But maybe it's the euphoria of the win."
He credited Conti with setting a fast pace and pushing him to 23. Positioned next to each other on stage, the two were in a dead-even sprint at the end.
There are rules to competitive eating, and one of them tells competitors to maintain a relatively clean eating surface throughout the contest. Excess debris — think leftover chunks of bread or bits of meat — might result in a deduction from the eater's final totals.
"It was neck and neck in our men's division," Major League Eating emcee Barclay said when announcing the winner. "Deductions played a part. There was debris. I made a call and I stand by my call."
Conti said he saw a "fair amount of debris" on Biller's side as well, making it a tough loss. But he said he trusts the judging.
"I'll have to make it to other qualifiers and find lesser competition," Conti said.
Until then, he hopes to enjoy the rest of his time in Tampa Bay with a stop at a cigar shop in Ybor City.
"It would be nice if it was a victory cigar," Conti said. "But I'm sure it will be a good smoke nonetheless. Maybe next year."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.