Hot dog eating contests and the 1952 Olympics

The Nathan’s Coney Island Annual Hot Dog Eating Contest has been taking place in the same location on July 4th since 1972. Contestants eat as many hot dogs and buns as they can in 12 minutes. For 23 years the record crept up incrementally, and going into the competition on July 4, 2006 it stood at 25. That’s 25 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. When the bell rung at the end of the competition that day, first-time entrant Takeru Kobayashi from Japan had eaten 50 hot dogs and buns. 50! He literally doubled a record that conventional wisdom would have you believe could only possibly increase by a hot dog to two per year. Yet Kobayashi didn’t let previous records define his ambition. He had planned to crush the record all along.

For a year leading up to the competition, Kobayashi quietly trained in his home in Japan. But unlike every other competitor, he didn’t simply try to figure out how to eat more hot dogs and buns the normal way you eat hot dogs and buns. Rather, he figured out a entirely new way to consume them. The first thing he did was decide to eat the hot dogs and the buns independent of each other. First hot dog, then bun. Next, he split each dog in half. Through trial and error he learned that he could get it down faster that way. Finally, he dipped the bun in water. Competitors are allowed to have fluid to help wash down their food, and he realized that dipping the buns in water helped them slide down his throat much faster. He also took training very seriously and decided if he was going to make the trip from Japan to Coney Island, he wanted to win. And win big he did. Event organizers literally ran out of signs displaying the number he had consumed. Nobody had even imagined 50 was at all possible.

Next we turn to 1952 and the Helsinki summer Olympics, when for the only time in history, one man won the men’s 5,000 meter race, 10,000 meter race, and marathon. His name was Emil Zatopek, and like Kobayashi, he trained very differently from his competitors. While everybody else ran long distances at sustained paces to train for long distance races, Zatopkek used interval training. He would ran 800 meters as fast as he could, stop to rest, then do it again. Over and over. This was a very unusual method, and some even credit Zatopek with inventing it. But that wasn’t all. As Wikipedia states, “Zatopek’s running style was distinctive and very much at odds with what was considered to be an efficient style at the time. His head would often roll, face contorted with effort, while his torso swung from side to side. He often wheezed and panted audibly while running, which earned him the nicknames of ‘Emil the Terrible’ or the ‘Czech Locomotive’.” Finally, he did odd stuff like running in deep snow wearing work boots, rather than running on tracks with running shoes. Basically, Zatopek did everything wrong according to the standard, conventional training methods at the time. Nevertheless, not only did he win those three races, but the marathon was his first ever marathon. That’s right, Emil Zatopek had never competed in a marathon in his life, and decided at the last minute to enter the Olympic event and won it. Oh, and not only did he win, he set an Olympic record in the process!

I love stories like these. I love it when everybody is doing something one way, trying to marginally beat their competitors, and then somebody comes along with a different mindset and using different methodologies, and literally sets a new standard. But it’s not easy to be the person who takes a new path. As I quoted from one of my all-time favorite books, “Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd,” in this post, “Great ideas, novel ideas, original ideas … are tenuous at birth. And the reason for that is that, early on, they are often indistinguishable from crazy, impractical ideas.”

You have to have a significant amount of self confidence and trust your instincts to pursue these seemingly ridiculous ideas. So people like Takeru Kobayashi and Emil Zatopek are fun to read about, and serve as great sources of inspiration for those of us that sometimes feel like we might seem crazy, but believe deep down that we are onto something worth pursuing.