How Does Competitive Eater Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas Do It?

The 44 year-old is vying to win this weekend's chili-eating contest at the Taste of DC festival. All 105 pounds of her.

Sonya Thomas is ready to shovel down some chili.

Major League Eating comes to Washington this weekend with the World Chili Eating Competition, which will be held on Sunday at 12:35 as part of the Taste of DC festival. Ben’s Chili Bowl is cooking up more than 30 gallons of its spicy beef chili, which the top competitors will have six minutes to devour by the gallon. The person that downs the most gets a $1,250 prize.  

We checked in with Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, the International Federation of Competitive Eating’s highest ranked female, and fifth best eater overall. You wouldn’t guess by looking at Thomas that the 105 pound 44 year-old could take down 11 pounds of cheesecake in nine minutes, but she has garnered some of the most prized titles in competitive eating, including winning the female division of the most recent Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Championship. She chatted with us about her job at Burger King, Rocky Mountain oysters, and her goal to eat 15 pounds of Ben’s chili.

Yesterday, we interviewed her toughest competition, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, currently the highest ranked Major League Eater.

You’ve been in Washington since 1997. What are some of your favorite restaurants in the area?
“I have to eat a lot, so normally I don’t go to regular restaurants. I go to all-you-can-eat buffets. There’s a Chinese buffet near my house, or I go to American or Korean buffet restaurants on my day off.”

I heard you often only eat one large meal a day. What is it?
“I work at Andrew’s Air Force Base as a manager at Burger King, but I don’t eat hamburgers. I’d rather eat chicken. I love hot French fries—they’re my favorite food. I usually have a grilled chicken sandwich, two large nice and hot fries, 16 pieces of chicken tenders, and about three large Diet Cokes every day I work [about five days a week]. I like to sit down and enjoy my meal slowly and taste it. At first my co-workers couldn’t believe it. Now they all know me and say ‘I wish I could eat like you!’”

Do you exercise?
“I only do the treadmill—no weight lifting. It makes my mind feel good, and afterwards your body is light. If you want to lose weight from your stomach, the treadmill is the best way. I can’t run because I have a problem with my ankle, so I walk very fast—about 4½ miles per hour at 10½ incline—for about an hour and a half. I do it about three times a week.”

Are there any foods you don’t like to eat?
“I don’t want to do a competition with weird food, like frogs’ legs or Rocky Mountain oysters. They had an eating contest for that last year. I registered, and then was like, ‘nooo…I don’t think so.’ Mentally it made me feel sick.”

So what’s your favorite?
“I’m good at seafood. Sandwich foods are okay, because I’m eating one or two sandwiches regularly. But those contests are so difficult—it’s hard swallowing the bun. I’m still the number one female in the world, but I cannot beat Joey Chestnut for hot dogs. He ate 68 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. If they gave me two million dollars I couldn’t swallow fast enough! My record is 41. I beat Joey for chicken wings the past two years, but the shoveling foods? Joey is number one. The chicken wings he can’t eat fast, because he has to work to take the meat off the bone. His mouth is fast, but his hands are not.”

What special challenge does chili pose—as opposed to say, wings or hot dogs?
“Buffalo wings aren’t really huge. I ate only 6½ pounds of meat in 12 minutes. But with hot dogs and all the liquid, I had over 20 pounds of food. Think about that! Even Joey Chestnut, when he eats chicken wings, it’s like an appetizer. Chili is going to be about who has more stomach capacity.”

How many pounds will you have to eat to beat Joey?
“Over 15 pounds. One time I had a similar contest with grits. I ate 18½ pounds in eight minutes, but I finished only fourth place. The contest was ten minutes. I was eating fast, but after eight minutes, I couldn’t go any more. If I ate anymore I’d have a reverse of fortune and be disqualified. The winner ate 21 pounds. The chili competition is only six minutes, so maybe I have a chance.”

How much of competitive eating is mental?
“Eating competitions are about 70 percent mental, and 30 percent physical. Physical meaning stomach capacity. Sometimes when you’re eating a lot of food you think ‘oh, I’m getting full’ or ‘I’m getting sick,’ but you have to get over that. You push yourself and control it. Sometimes when I swallow one food I feel like throwing up, but then I have to control that feeling. Maybe I drink some liquid, try to get the air out by burping, and then  there’s more stomach room so you can eat more. Some people who can’t handle that throw up during the contest. That’s mental. Speed eating is like running: if you have a little mistake, mentally you lose.”

After you’re in a competition, how long does it take you to go back to normal?
“It depends on what kind of food. For example, if you have chicken wings, that doesn’t make me full. It’s not a big quantity of food. But chili, after six minutes, it’s going to be a lot of food—way over ten pounds. I walk around a little bit, take some Pepto Bismol if my stomach is bothering me, and then maybe eight to 12 hours later I’ll digest it and feel fine. The next day, I’ll eat salad, fruit, or light food. If my weight is heavier then I have to watch out what I’m eating, and exercise more than before. One or two weeks later my weight is back to normal.”

Of all the dishes you’ve eaten in competition—hard boiled eggs, turducken—can you still eat them afterwards?
“I love hard boiled eggs! Sometimes when I’m at home I boil about two dozen and eat them all in one sitting. But most contest food is not normally what I eat.”

Who are your role models?
“The swimmer from Baltimore, Michael Phelps. I also love to watch Redskins football. Darrell Green is another, I have his jersey.”

I read that eating is your favorite hobby. What’s your second favorite?
“Driving. I have a burgundy Mustang.”

What’s your competitive eating goal before you retire?
“Man, I’m not going to retire! Really, I won’t until I have trouble with my health or my body changes. I love doing these competitions, and my only goal is to stay healthy. That’s my hope: be healthy for my whole life.”

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.