A newcomer to competitive eating tells us what she's looking forward to at this year's Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest.

Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest
Credit: WireImage

On Monday, Coney Island will once again host the Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest, as Nathan's celebrates its 100th anniversary.

In the men's competition, 2015 champion Matt Stonie and world record holder (and eight-time Nathan's champion) Joey Chestnut will face each other in what has become an annual tradition for the two. Chestnut has been preparing for a comeback.

In the women's competition, returning champion Miki Sudo will be defending her title. She ate 38 hot dogs in 10 minutes last year.

Thousands of people attend the event every year, but only a select few qualify to compete in the most famous eating contest in the world. Among the 2016 competitors is newcomer Hilary Andrews, who lives in Washington, D.C. and is making her second trip to Coney Island this Fourth of July.

Travel + Leisure asked Andrews how she got into competitive eating — and it turns out it was a trip to Coney last year that led to this weekend.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length.

Travel + Leisure: How did you get into competitive eating?

Hilary Andrews: I happened to be in New York for the Fourth of July last year, and I went to Coney Island just because I’d never been before but had always wanted to go. I had no idea the hot dog contest would be going on. I got there just as the women’s competition started.

Oh my god, it was ridiculous. The crowd was so into it. George, the emcee, is a true entertainer. Anyway, after watching the competition I found out all someone had to do is win one qualifying event to be onstage at Coney for the finals. I’ve always liked hot dogs. I know they’re terrible, but I kind of like them because they’re terrible, you know? So I thought, yeah I can totally do that. I had to try just for the fun of it and to say I did.

I’m new to the competitive eating circuit, so hot dogs are the only official MLE contests I’ve done. However I have attempted restaurant challenges before – those “eat this huge burrito and get your picture on the wall” sort of thing. I really want to try the Ben & Jerry's Vermonster Sundae challenge at some point.

Is travel part of the appeal of competing?

Travel is definitely part of the appeal, at least for me. Recently, I took a long weekend to drive down for the Nathan’s qualifying event in Norfolk, Virginia. I didn’t win that one but it was still a great trip because I got to see Virginia, learn about pirates at Harborfest, and my boyfriend/coach and I stopped for a wine tasting in Williamsburg where there happened to be some sort of music festival happening next-door.

Some of the other competitors I’ve met are strictly business. They’ll fly in that day to compete in a qualifier, then hop back on a plane the next morning. I’m greener and am definitely not in the running to beat Miki Sudo or Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, so for me it’s more for fun and I’m more of a tourist.

How do you eat on the road?

I’ll eat normally, but I won’t go for anything that’s super high calorie. That means no desserts, which is lame. My diet the day of a competition is dependent on what time the contest is at. If it’s early in the day I’ll have something small like yogurt or fruit, and I’ll have something more if it’s later in the day. Either way, I wouldn’t compete on an empty stomach because I feel like I’d get full too fast and I want to have some enzymes already working in there.

I typically don’t eat the rest of the day after an event, but will drink. There was this coffee shop, Java Surf, in Norfolk I ducked into to get out of the sun that had amazing fresh squeezed orange juice. The days after a competition, especially one that’s meat heavy, I go for vegetables.

Where have you traveled already for eating contests?

I haven’t gone to many, but I’m definitely planning to do more. The only official Major League Eating contests I’ve done are Nathan’s hot dogs (VA, DC, and NY), and I’ve done restaurant challenges in San Diego and D.C.

Now that I live on the East Coast, I want to see what Southern food contests there are that I can try. I’d love to go to New Orleans. Coney Island was definitely the most memorable and I was only a spectator for that one. I can’t believe I’m going back as a competitor this year!

What are you most excited about seeing in New York City this year?

The first time I went to Coney Island was last year. There’s nothing like Coney Island. It’s such a great place for people watching. And I’m not talking about the Coney Island Circus Sideshow — although that is an awesome show and you must see it at least once. When I go this time, I’m definitely checking out the aquarium. Besides Coney Island, there are a few other things I want to see and do in New York City while I'm there. (Explore Dumbo in Brooklyn, go to Eggloo ice cream in Chinatown, and the Evolution store in NOHO.)

What do you think most people would be surprised to learn about eating contests?

The cash prizes for first place can be ridiculously good. Like for Nathan’s, 1st place gets $10,000. Also, some people eat whole heads of cabbage to train for eating contests. Watch Andrews and the other competitors Monday at Nathan's Famous.