Rider Highlight: Sonja Johnson smashes Unbound Gravel goal by nearly two hours

 Sonja Johnson recently competed at the Unbound Gravel,  the famous 206.7 mile Gravel Race across the Flint Hills of Kansas finishing in the top 10 overall for women and beating her personal goal time by nearly TWO HOURS. And all on about 12 hours of training per week. She kindly shared her prep and race experience with us: 

How’d the race go down for you?

Highlights: IDEAL conditions, the legs and fitness were fantastic, nutrition and hydration were on point, equipment was flawless. Finishing 8th Overall Female, 2nd 40-49 AG and crushing my goal time by over 90 minutes.

Lowlights: the last 10 miles were the most uncomfortable I have ever been on a bicycle – all the touch points – feet, hands, and saddle – were screaming back at me. The legs kept pushing, but body kept shifting constantly trying to find the least uncomfortable position. Not surprised to feel this way after 12 something hours and not sure how I could have better prepared without ever having ridden this far before.

Stage 1 –

48.3 Miles


Average speed 17.9mph

I broke the race down – physically and mentally – into 4 stages split by the 3 checkpoints. Stage 1 – 48.3 Miles, 2:42:12, average speed 17.9mph Fresh and fast. Looking at the profile I knew this would be the fastest part of the day and I just went with it. Big groups of riders to work with, cool temps, no wind and with a fair amount of flat to downhill sections. I lost a bottle right at the start crossing the train tracks at mile .3! But I was not concerned, I had enough fluid and calories for the more than 4 hours.
I went down hard into a turn at around mile 30 – and I took note, do not take the turns too fast – the gravel is very loose! Popped right back up, just some scratches and a bump on the right hip.
Check Point 1 approximately :05 mins In and out … This is a fully self supported event, meaning you have to bring everything you think you might need for the entire day, including a support person to shuttle your nutrition, hydration and spare gear from check point to check point. This takes as much planning as the race plan itself.
Blaize and I had created a transition plan and had gear organized in small bags – nutrition, skin care, apparel (spare socks, gloves, headband, arm coolers), and a cooler with cold drinks and wet towels. I swapped hydration packs, 2 new bottles of Crank Sports eFuel and more eGel, and swapped to clean fresh gloves. Consumed 1 gel and drank a bottle of water. Grabbed a cold wet towel to douse the face, legs, and arm coolers. Meanwhile, Blaize checked the bike, lubed the chain and the cleats.
The check points were organized chaos, imagine riding into a tailgating party with a HR of 160bpm trying to find your car and support person among 500 others. Riders were assigned color coded areas, but it was still pretty crazy. Fortunately, Blaize could track me minute by minute on my Quarq Qollector and he would see me before I could find him – calling my name, waiving a yellow towel, directing me toward our car.

Stage 2 –

56.0 miles


Ave. 16.1mph

Total : 104.3mi


The hilly part. Or so I thought … but it was all very hilly. I realized the course is more technical than anticipated. More like Rock Cobbler than RPI, the ever-changing surface means staying alert, very alert! Everything from super-fast packed dirt, to roads of small rocks that resemble marbles with a 3″ clear path for your tire, and super loose rock gardens on steep ascents/descents. The water crossing – both flooded and dry – were probably the most treacherous.
But I am happy to report I never once dismounted*. And I have never ridden through nearly waist deep water before – I hope there is a photo!! *except for a short nature break at mile 86 CP 2 – approx. :05 mins Clockwork like CP1 … in and out. Ditched the arm coolers – couldn’t keep them wet enough for the cooling effect, should have applied more sunscreen, oops. Grabbed an almond butter/jam half sandwich and restocked water, efuel and egel.

Stage 3 –

58.1 miles


Ave 15.0mph

Total 162.4mi


I was expecting this to the be the hardest part of the day- the longest section and the hills just kept coming! I broke this one into 4 x 1 hour rides, focused on keeping up with my nutrition and hydration. Trying to stay with groups of riders to share the work. I was picking up and dropping off groups, trying to find the right mix of speed, climbing / descending pace and skill was hit and miss. Coming into CP 3 l pulled about 10 GUYS for over 10 miles … while I appreciated all the gushing compliments – my elbow flicks, looks over the shoulder, and swapping ‘lanes’ didn’t result in any helpers. Your welcome.
CP 3 – approx. :05 mins A flurry of F Bombs. And a costume change. So, riding in wet shorts for 150 or so miles really really sucks. No amount of that fancy dancy Assos cream can protect you from that. To seek relief, I changed into a dry new kit and applied a generous amount of chamois cream and aquaphor. I also swapped shoes and gloves. Chugged a 7oz coke and a fig bar. The touch points were started to scream, but I felt I was mentally prepared to shut them up.

Stage 4 –

44.4 miles


Ave 16.0mph

Total 206.8mi


12:48:51 moving

The last 44 miles. And more fucking hills. I thought I left all my F bombs at CP 3, but apparently there was a need for more. (seriously, I was an angry sailor, I even apologized to the people in ear shot). Legs were feeling good, but the climbs were getting steeper, albeit shorter, taking a bite out of me each time. The climb at mile 171 was remarkable and then there were at least 3 or 4 more just like it, including a paved hill just within a mile from the finish. Who said Kansas was flat? I did. Ha, silly me!
With 20 miles to go, I started to feel the day pushing back at me, but I was still driving with the goal of beating 13 hours. Rebecca Rusch had talked about the course being like hot coals. You can walk or run across, it is still going to hurt, so you might as well get it over with as fast as possible. For me, this was quite literal. My feet hurt so bad, a constant burning pain. I would look for any opportunity to coast, and then get back in my head – “hot coals – just hurry up and finish, HOT COALS!”.
Each mile got harder and harder. With about 9 miles to go, a pretty good group came up on me and I jumped on. (the eventual #7 OA / #1 40-49 AG Female was in this group too). I stayed with them about a mile, but after a hard right turn I couldn’t jump back on. 2 other guys were with me and we all tried for a moment to catch back up but it wasn’t going to happen.
7 miles … 5 miles … 3 miles … the paved roads of Emporia … the last hill … the winding driveway through campus … Commercial St. and finish line. The tears. Tears of joy and tears pain. I was so proud of myself, a year ago or so, I never thought this was possible – or at least too crazy to attempt.
206.7 miles in 13:04, 1 hour and 40 minutes faster than my goal time and finishing in the top 10 overall made it that much more special. I was greeted at the finish line by the race director. He noticed a stick taped to my hydration pack. He asked, “Is that your lucky stick?” I had kinda forgotten about it, and smiled and replied “yes, it is … it was there to keep the mud off my bike … and this year there wasn’t any mud“.
Sunday at 6am Blaize got up to wash my bike and clean up my gear. Without any thought, he threw away the “Lucky Stick”. Too bad, it would have been a great keepsake, although I think I took all the luck the stick had to give.

Which coach do you work with and how did your training help you prepare for the event?

I worked with Adam Mills – since he is from Kansas, this seemed an obvious choice, like home field advantage. Unbound Gravel would be the longest ride I had ever done, let alone it was all on gravel roads.
With a full time job as an Independent Sales Rep in the cycling industry, I have some flexibility to my work schedule, but also some unpredictability. There would be trade shows, expos, sales meetings, and an average of 400 miles a week of driving (which if anyone knows, it grueling on your cycling muscles).
Prior to working with Adam, my training consisted of long weekend rides and maybe a turbo trainer session or 90-minute group ride during the week, typically training 8 hours a week. To prepare for this season, we bumped that to an average of 12 hours, but more importantly, Adam added greater specificity and quality to every workout and ride.
Adam formulated a 6-month plan to prepare me for the Dirty Devil in late March, the Belgian Waffle Ride in late May, and then just two weeks later, The Unbound Gravel on June 3rd. It was these critical weeks before and after BWR where Adam’s guidance really paid off.
I had the perfect balance of rest and recovery without the loss of any fitness. The biggest rides leading up to Unbound Gravel would be 130 miles at Dirty Devil and BWR. This proves how effective his plan was. I had a two or three bad days, one missed workout, zero sick days or injuries, and I got to Kansas in the best cycling shape in my life.

What advice do you have for someone up and coming in your cycling discipline?

 When I first considered the Unbound Gravel, I figured I would have to quit my job in order to have the time to train for such a long event. But that is not the case at all. You train smarter, not longer. You still have to make a few sacrifices in your life to fit it all in (mostly, more time to rest and recover), but if the goal is important enough, it is hardly a sacrifice at all. And hire a great coach!

What is your next event?

Rebecca’s Private Idaho (The Big Potato) September 3rd, and as a bit of a warm up, the Tour de Big Bear HC Gran Fondo on August 5th.