Every June, Juan and Sarah Rodriguez are the couple buying up all the hot dogs off their local grocery store shelves. 

The Seattle-based husband and wife will be in this year’s Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4, marking Juan’s 10th year competing and Sarah’s fifth. Preparation starts about a month in advance and includes many trips to their local Safeway and Fred Meyer to purchase the essentials. 

Tuesday, less than a week before this year’s contest in Coney Island, they bought all the buns at the Fred Meyer in Ballard. Sarah memorized the prices: one 14-pack of Nathan’s hot dogs ranges between $10.99 and $11.99, and buns are usually $1.79 on sale. With both of them competing, it adds up.

“We have an overabundance of them at home right now,” Juan says, as he and Sarah sit in front of a platter of 20 hot dogs Wednesday morning. When they finish, the two bicker about who ate more. 

The Seattle-based competitive eaters met for the first time five years ago at the Nathan’s contest. Juan, whose record is 33 hot dogs in 10 minutes, and Sarah, whose is 24 1/2 when she placed second last year, got married in March 2021. Kirkland native Steven Hammond and Maryville native Katie Prettyman round out the Seattle-area contestants at Coney Island.

“It’s kind of like the Super Bowl of competitive eating,” Hammond said.

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Juan and Sarah, who shared a passion for competitive eating before they met, started talking on Instagram before the 2017 contest. In most years, contestants have to win an eat-off qualifier in order to be invited to the Nathan’s contest in July. Sarah flew to Texas and qualified for her first Nathan’s event. They first hugged in New York City and dated long distance, with Juan in Chicago and Sarah in Washington, before eventually moving to Seattle together.

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They had hot dogs at their wedding — just for the photos, though — and have a dachshund, err wiener dog, named Kujo. 

Juan has known he was built for competitive eating for a while. As a kid, he raced his younger sister and younger brother to see who could finish their plate first. Juan always won. One Easter Sunday when he was 19 or 20, after he and his siblings and cousins ate for an hour, Juan was the only one who wasn’t vomiting, he said. 

“I was like, ‘I got something here; like I can do this,’” Juan said. When the show “Man vs Food” aired on Travel Channel in 2008, he started looking into Major League Eating. Juan started competing in 2012. 

Juan, who’s also a wrestling fan, said he wanted to come up with a cool nickname, so that fans could root for him. He says it can’t just be all about the record-holder Joey Chestnut, who he’s friends with. Juan remembered that growing up, his mom would always repeat the phrase “if you eat one more bite, you’re gonna blow up” as he raced his siblings. The nickname Juan More Bite was born. 

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Nathan’s anticipates about 35,000 fans will convene for this year’s event, and Juan knows some of them will be cheering — or jeering — his nickname. A lot of fans are regulars every year, and they’ve come to recognize him. 

Sarah’s path into competitive eating started later, around 25 years old. A friend forwarded her a YouTube video of Sophia DeVita-Gutierrez eating a lot of cinnamon rolls, and Sarah was awed. But she also figured it was something she might be able to do, too. Friends joked that she had a “tapeworm” in her stomach because she could eat so much. 

“That took me down the bunny hole of the food challenges and then the contests and then Nathan’s,” Sarah said. “It’s kind of cool to see the progression of thinking I’ll never be on that level to going beyond it.”

Unlike Chestnut, whose primary job is competitive eating, Sarah works as a nutritional coach and Juan as a personal fitness trainer. Their understanding of nutrition, caloric intake and health and fitness helps when they begin their training every year in June. Outside the competition and training, neither touches hot dogs for the rest of the year, Juan said.

Competitive eating requires the same mindset as any athlete, Sarah said — you have to be mentally tough because of how unnatural it is. Just like a marathon runner or weightlifter, Sarah and Juan have to push themselves to points of “extreme discomfort” to improve their PRs.

The first year they were dating, Juan was watching from the greenroom when Sarah competed at Nathan’s, and he knew instantly she had PR-ed because she was “keeled over” after finishing. Sarah has PR-ed every year she’s competed on July 4.

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“When people say that they’re full, full is the smallest word to describe what you’re feeling,” Sarah said. “You’re going beyond what is full — it’s full-on pain.” 

Hot dogs make it even more challenging. They’re high in fat content, and the buns are high in carbohydrates. Juan said he can eat 18-20 pounds of liquid and food at his best, but that doesn’t equate to hot dogs.

“You feel sick and full even though you could probably fit, physically, another 3 or 4 pounds into you, as compared to your other training. Hot dogs are very weird,” Sarah explains.

In addition to hot dog trial runs, Juan and Sarah spend about a month training in their own ways. Juan increases his stomach capacity through “water training,” where he drinks as much as possible in a 10-minute span. He drinks nearly two gallons multiple times a day as July 4 nears, including as early as 4 a.m. as well as between the fitness classes he teaches.

He also focuses on jaw exercises and breathing exercises. One year, Coney Island was 94 degrees plus 100% humidity, Juan said, so he jokes about turning on the oven during training, just in case.

“Just like any athlete, you’re going to go back to the game tape and watch it, what went wrong, how do we improve it,” he said. 

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Sarah prefers “food stretching” where she eats giant salads, steamed vegetables and fruits with water and other liquid on top of it. She does it daily for 30 days, keeping a detailed log by weighing how much she ate, and cranks the training up to twice a day toward the finish line.

This year, Sarah expects to finish comfortably in third place now that Miki Sudo, who holds the women’s record of 48.5 hot dogs, will return.

On the stage, Sarah and Juan won’t be thinking about flavor. They do have an appreciation for good food, though some fine dining portions can be too small for them, Juan said. 

Hot dog eating is completely separate. During the contest, they’ll implement a strategy where they eat the sausage first and dunk the bun in water. They squish the bun and use it like a sponge, because eating a dry bun means too much chewing. Juan even adds strawberry powder to his water because the sugary flavor helps him eat the buns quicker.

Hammond, whose day job is as an engineer, has been working on a different strategy. He hates hot dogs, but competes because he understands that Nathan’s is a big deal. Last year in his first contest, he ate 27, five short of a personal best. 

Hammond said he had plenty of room left in his stomach, but would’ve thrown up if he ate any more (that leads to automatic disqualification). So this year, he plans to eat a pile of sausages first, and then work on the buns afterward. However many buns he finishes will be his total. 

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“We’ll see how that goes, it’s kind of a high-risk, high-reward strategy,” he said. 

Hammond started competitive eating because of his background as an athlete. He’s done three Ironmans, 20-25 triathlons and 20-30 marathons. Because of that, he’d eat large amounts of food, prompting him to sign up for a few Major League Eating competitions. 

Distance running complements hot dog eating quite well, Hammond explains. On July 4, he plans to wake up at the crack of dawn and go on an hourlong run through Central Park. Competitive eating is just a hobby for him, and he admits he’s not a very competitive person.

Still, the run will help put him in the right mindset. “Make sure that I’m nice and hungry,” he said with a grin.

The Whit’s End Bar (6510 Phinney Ave N, Seattle, WA 98103) near Ballard will be hosting a watch party starting at 7:45 a.m. Monday.