The Cajun Road Runner Club named Robert “Bob” Sonnier as its Living Legend Aug. 17 for his contribution to running in Acadiana. Sonnier remembers as a boy asking his dad to let him out of the car so he could run the rest of the way home. He started organized running as a senior at Northside High School. In 1978, it was hard to find the time for organized sports while working on his master’s thesis in computer science at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. For exercise, he would go for a one mile jog — and so it began.
Two guys in his office, Sam Bullard and Steve Landry, ran with Sonnier in his early days. One brought in a May 1978 Runner’s World Magazine with an article on how to train for a marathon. Sonnier had never run a race before but jumped right into training for his first marathon. His first race and marathon was the infamous Crowley Rice Festival Marathon that ran from Lafayette to Crowley. Due to foggy weather, organizers questioned if the race would commence. Mixed signals with the National Guard who were supposed to tend the water stops, left unexpectedly. As a result, people were drinking out of garden hoses, not unusual at the time, but also not planned. Many of the 1,500 registered runners ran off course, including Sonnier completing the race in just over 5 hours. Only 735 finished.
Sonnier was so unhappy with his results that he kept running marathons always trying to do better than before. At the time, it was one of the largest marathons in the country and approximately the size of the Boston Marathon.
A friend of Sonnier’s, Linwood Broussard, ran the Boston Marathon around 1979, paving his way. In 1981, Sonnier qualified to run the Boston Marathon with a time of 2 hours 45 minutes. It was so congested at the start that Sonnier’s first mile pace was only 9m 40s. It took 51 seconds to get to the starting line after the gun went off. Sonnier finished the race with a time of 2h 56m.
On Sonnier’s Facebook page, he has a picture of Gary Maurin, himself, and Lasse Artturi Virén, born 22 July 1949. Virén, a Finnish former long-distance runner, won two gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics and repeated this feat in 1976. Sonnier tells the story of the first time he broke the 40 minute 10k at the Schlitz Lite race in New Orleans in 1979. Maurin worked at Finish Line Sports in Lafayette and was helping at the New Orleans 10k. Race promoters somehow got this Finnish Olympian runner to run the race to help with the promotions. Sonnier saw that Maurin was getting ready to take a picture with Lasse and photo bombed by jumping alongside them.
The picture was framed and hung on the wall at Finish Line Sports but later the sports store packed up and moved to Canada. When Sonnier was at the Boston Marathon Race Expo in 1981, Finish Line Sports was there with the picture hanging in their booth. Someone saw Sonnier walking around and said, “Hey! You’re in that picture, you’re the famous runner from Lafayette!”
The Cajun Road Runners had a newsletter that was sent out called the Bayou Bull. Sonnier would put these together. He remembers that the guy who started the Bayou Bull was Courtney Hackney, who also started CRRC.
Sonnier literally runs on a Ketogenic diet and has for years basically using fats as the main fuel source for distance running. He eats a lot of avocados and bacon, drinks a concoction called bullet coffee — coffee with butter and coconut oil. He does not use many of the nutrition packets, called gels, in marathon running and does most of his training runs after having fasted or without eating just before or during a run.
Back in the 80s, he was running 60 to 80 miles per week. Highlighting one of his toughest training runs, Sonnier recalls a track workout at the peak of his training just before a marathon. The workout consisted of 13 by one mile repeats at a pace of 5m 45s per mile. The track was closed, so this was done on the street in a neighborhood with a hill. He only did 11 by one mile repeats at the target pace. That takes grit and conditioning to run one mile at a full sprint eleven times.
Today he is running 5 to 6 days a week, about 20 miles per week and likes to ramp it up during marathon season to 50-60 miles per week. He has a long standing goal to run a sub 2h 40m marathon. When asked why he was still running, Bob thought for a few seconds and said, “I’m still chasing being better. I’m still running against my younger self with an age-adjusted time. If you are doing it right, running forces you to learn.”