Most of us will be looking forward to a enjoying a nice, grilled hotdog this weekend at Fourth of July barbecues, topped with all of our favorite condiments.  But the folks competing in the 2015 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest this Saturday afternoon will skip those dog toppings, because it’s all about the numbers, including the money.

The storied contest takes place at Nathan’s Famous original site in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn and pits the world’s most talented competitive eaters against each other for $40,000 of prize money that will be divvied up amongst the top five men and women in their categories.  Nathan’s will also donate 100,000 hot dogs to a NYC food bank after all of the holiday carnage. The women’s competition will be broadcast live at 11 a.m. ET on ESPN3 and the men’s competition will be live at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

Though all eyes will be on previous champions Joey Chestnut (Men’s) and Miki Sudo (Women’s), one eater awaits her chance to shine. Arizona native Michelle Lesco placed third last year, wolfing down a total of 27 dogs, but is eager to muscle her way through and give her friend Sudo a challenge.

The 31-year-old Arizona high school math teacher is known as  “Cardboard Shell,” in the competitive eating world and stands at 5’4″ and only weighing close to 115 pounds. This year, her goal is to break the 30-hot dog barrier. When she does, it will be for charity, as it always has.

Through four years of traveling the country as a competitive eater, Lesco has helped raise over $10,000 for charitable organizations that impact the global water crisis. Working with youth and giving back inspires her to reach the pinnacle of the Nathan’s contest. 

Lesco got her got her start by taking on a local Tuscan restaurant’s 3-pound burger challenge and finishig it in less than 20 minutes. After her friends saw what she could tackle at the table, they encouraged her to seriously compete. 

After placing seventh in her first competition (oysters!), a fire was lit inside Lesco and unleashed upon the rest of the competitive eating world elite.  During the following day’s taco-eating contest, Lesco says she “went balls to the wall and ended up getting second place, beating Sonya Thomas [a former Nathan’s champion]. I was the first female to ever beat her so that was really cool.”

Following her breakthrough performance there, Lesco spent the next few years zig-zagging across the U.S. on her teacher’s salary, in search of the most prestigious competitions, and eating everything from tacos to brownie desserts. When it comes to contests that test capacity, Lesco tends to be realistic and will pace herself, while taking into account how much liquid she can hold. Other contests, like those that showcase ribs or wings, are more conducive to Lesco’s stomach threshold.  “I tend to do a lot better in those and I’m a lot more confident because I can kind of push as hard as the next guy,” she says.

Last year Sudo dethroned reigning champion Sonya Thomas in the women’s division of the competition. Now, Lesco wants to break the 30-dog barrier and gnaw her way out of third place.  She even practices eating with Sudo.

“We actually became really good friends early on, because despite the fact that I’m super competitive and so is she, outside of it [competing] we get along,” says Lesco.

Lesco and the other competitors traveled around the country for qualitifying events in order to make the coveted position on the nationally televised stage this Saturday, July 4th. 

When she’s not competing, Lesco’s daily eating habits aren’t a major focus. She’ll either skip breakfast or have a protein shake, then have a sandwich or salad for lunch while she’s working at the school.

How Competitive Eaters Train

“My training is more about capacity training rather than hot dog technique,” Lesco says. “Since my Nathan’s qualifier, I’ve done maybe four to five hot dog “runs” where I’ll cook about 40 hot dogs and try to eat as many as I can.”  She’ll time herself during these practice runs to figure out where the flaws lie in her technique, as was what flavors hot dogs taste best dipped in. So far, Gatorade is in the lead for taste, and, Lesco says it helps stretch out her stomach, leading to more capacity on competition day.  The Nathan’s constest requires physical and mental preparation. “This morning, I went on a run and did push-ups, pull-ups, and crunches at night. General exercise helps a lot. Those last three minutes [of eating], you just want to die but you have to keep going. It takes everything you got,” she says.  After the competition, Lesco say it’s important to keep moving, drink lots of water, and eat fruit to help flush the sodium from her body.

As July 4th competition day draws near, roughly 40,000 eager spectators will crowd Coney Island to watch Lesco, Sudo, and Thomas chow down on a heaping helping of hot dogs. With a few months of training in the books, and her fellow eaters chomping at the bit to hoist the title, Lesco knows what she’s up against. 

“It’s so hard to say because the women’s field is getting so tough and everyone is pretty well-matched,” says Lesco. “I’m shooting for in the 30s. That’s my main goal and focus. I would really be disappointed if I’m any lower than third place.”