Respect for the Bonk

10.11.2005 | 9:19 pm

Last Saturday, when I did the Issaquah Alps, it didn’t occur to me that the hardest climb of the day would come after the event was over. I had used all my food and all my energy in finishing the ride itself, and hadn’t left anything in reserve for the eight-mile ride home.

The extent of my mistake, of course, didn’t occur to me until I reached the base of SE 43rd Way. This is a fairly moderate climb, one that I do without any difficulty a couple times per week as part of my commute.

As I started to climb, though, I realized: I was cooked. My clock was cleaned. I was out of gas. I had cracked.

I had, in short, bonked.

Now, I don’t know if anyone who doesn’t do endurance sports really knows what a true bonk feels like. It’s actually kind of interesting. First of all, you have only the slightest amount of power. You can turn the cranks over, but just barely. Next, you stop caring. You know that you must look ridiculous, riding your bike at three miles per hour (yes, really), but you just don’t have the energy to care about appearances. You completely lack the ability to rally — it doesn’t matter how bracing a pep talk your friends give you, you aren’t going to be able to buck up and go faster. In a really good bonk, I’ve experienced a disconnectedness between my mind and body: this can’t be my body inching along, right? Surely, if this were my body, I’d be able to tell my legs to go faster. Sometimes — not always — I’ll feel cold.

All of these sensations, though, are pretty much secondary to the main emotion: misery. It’s a self-pitying, helpless, weak, beyond-tiredness, beyond-hunger, beyond-thirsty, miserable misery.

And the thing is, as far as bonks go, the one I had last Saturday was pretty minor. I had, after all, a mobile phone; I could quit any moment and call for help. And I knew I wasn’t far from home; Once I got to the top of the hill, I knew I’d be fine.

A bonk underscored by lack of options, though, is something special. It’s something to behold if you’re with the guy who’s bonking, and something you never forget if you’re the guy who bonked.

Here are a few of my favorite — if you can call them that — bonks.


Rocky at the Kokopelli

The first time Rocky and I tried the Kokopelli Trail, I believe it was the longest ride either of us had ever attempted. Also, neither of us had ever been on that trail and were just following the map and signposts.

We were, in short, all kinds of stupid.

Early in the day we missed a turn — the only non-obvious turn in the whole route, really — and didn’t realize our mistake until it made more sense to continue than to turn around. This added several miles of deep sand to our ride, as well as a few miles of paved climbing.

And it was hot outside. Right around 100 degrees.

And Rocky’s a sweater (by which I mean he sweats a lot, not that he’s a woolen pullover you wear when it’s nippy outside). It’s his most obvious trait, really. By the time we got to within ten miles of where we’d be getting supplies, Rocky had gone through all his food, all his water, and some of my water.

Rocky bonked. Hard. He got clammy, his voice slurred, he could no longer ride his bike. Luckily, we spied a ranch and made our way toward it, taking little baby steps because that was truly all Rocky had in him.

Once at the ranch, Rocky drank all the water he could and we left. We passed an irrigation ditch; Rocky stripped and layed down in it about ten minutes.

Yeah, it sounds like heat exhaustion, but it was a heat-exhaustion-induced bonk.


Brad at the Kokopelli

Brad does not look like someone who would bonk. Ever. This is because Brad is, to all appearances, the perfect specimen of a man. He bikes, he runs, he does Muay Thai, he eats very much fish.

And yet, a couple of years ago, Brad bonked hard.

A good-sized group of us were doing the Kokopelli Trail — many years had elapsed, and I now had considerable endurance riding experience — and Brad was, as usual, riding off the front. Or at least he was riding up in front until over the course of just a few minutes, he imploded and became a husk of a man. I don’t know why it happened, I don’t think he knows why. But Brad was fully bonked. Everyone in the group slowed way down — you don’t want to leave a bonked rider out in the desert on his own — but Brad still kept dropping behind. He hung his head, he wouldn’t talk, a lot of the time he didn’t even seem to hear us.

The thing is, Brad didn’t have an option about whether to keep going. We were out in the middle of nowhere, and he had to somehow turn the cranks for 30 miles before we next met up with the sag wagon. I’m pretty sure Brad started crying when he finally saw the car and knew he could quit.

Why did Brad bonk? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s because he didn’t have an ounce of fat on his body, so had no reserves. Maybe it’s because he had been training more for shorter races, and the long ride went beyond what he was ready for. Maybe he was just too darn handsome to be riding with the rest of us.


Fatty at Leadville

Three years ago, I was about as fit as I’ve ever been. I was fit, light, and had been training like crazy. I thought I had a good chance at finishing under nine hours in the Leadville 100. And for the first 65 miles, my split times seemed to show that I was going to do it.

But then, two-thirds of the way through the race, I just couldn’t drink Gatorade anymore. The taste of it sickened me. And that’s too bad, because Gatorade was all I had to drink.

Before long, I would gag whenever I tried to take a drink. And then, right around mile 78, I lost all power. I rode slowly, frustrated that people were passing me so fast, yet completely unable to do anything about it. I pulled over to the side of the road and vomited. I felt better and was able to ride again — for about two minutes. Then I was weaker than ever. Worse, the final 25 miles of the Leadville 100 have two big climbs.

I had plenty of food, plenty to drink, but every time I tried to eat or drink, the gag reflex kicked in. My world became very small: just me, the bike, and the next turn of the crank (or the next step, since there were big stretches I could not ride).

Eventually, it occurred to me that if I took small sips, maybe I could get something down. It worked. Eventually, I could ride again, and even finished with a respectable time — although not the sub-9 I was hoping for.

The thought of Gatorade still creeps me out, though. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to drink it again.


Bonk Recovery

If there’s a silver lining to the bonk, it’s the feeling of recovering from a bonk. Eating everything in sight, as if it were a contest, as if you have a capacity for an infinite amount of food, as if every kind of food really does go with every other kind of food (ketchup and whipped cream on rye? Excellent!)

And then laying down, knowing that you really are as tired as you can possibly be. And that you survived a bonk.


Today’s weight: 162.4


Bonus Search Engine Wonderfulness: I am happy to report that if you do a Google or MSN search on "best cake in the world" the top result is right here. So, I guess that settles it: it really is the best cake in the world.


  1. Comment by Unknown | 10.11.2005 | 9:28 pm

    brad is like captain america. but he’s the best bonker in the world. he does everything all out, including muy thai (is that spanish for lots of thai food?). so brad is either off the front (which is most of the time), or he turns green, shrivels up, and does a full on impression of a banana left out in the sun. but he does this so rarely (like a cicada)and so well, that when he does it, the "brad bonk" becomes legend.

  2. Comment by Unknown | 10.11.2005 | 9:42 pm

    Why, cycling sounds fun! I wonder what size cycling blouse Fat Cyclist wears these days. Hmmmm. He should tell me. I really couldn’t hazard a guess because he may like his blouse billowy or he may like it clinging to whatever shape he happens to be sporting at the moment. Hmmmm.

  3. Comment by Kevin | 10.11.2005 | 9:52 pm

    Congrats on the google-icious best cake. However, I’ll remind you that a google search on "fat middle-aged cyclist" also returns you on top.

  4. Comment by Kevin | 10.11.2005 | 9:52 pm

    And what are you doing blogging here in the middle of the word day?

  5. Comment by BIg Mike In Oz | 10.11.2005 | 9:55 pm

    Aaah yes, the BONK. Or is it THE bonk? No-one truly knows. And no-one suffering through it really cares. If you know someone with deep clinical depression, the stay in bed past lunch-time, stay in your pyjamas until after dessert kind. Bonk is the physical equivalent. Not an ounce of glucose left in the blood stream and the enzymes that convert fat to energy (if you are fortunate enough to have fat stores) have to drag that fat through solid rock to get it into the blood stream.BIG Mike in ToowoombaSummer bonks can be caused by dehydration but the worst bonk is the high winter bonk. I was away and would not be able to race one weekend. I got home a few days early and as it was too late to enter I decided to reserve a seat in a friends car for the trip home and then ride to the race venue. 118 miles, with several nasty little 10 percent 2 mile climbs enroute and a final climb of 8 miles that takes you 1000 feet straight up. I didn’t want to miss any of the racing but leaving home at 3am in July (southern hemisphere) was the first mistake. I then added probably 50-60 minutes to the ride by not being able to see anything on the descents of roads I only vaguely knew. At sun rise I stopped at a gas station for a sugar fill up before the serious climbing. I don’t know what brought it on, but the bonk got me but right at the bottom of the last climb. I got THAT feeling. I lost contact with my body, my bike, my rational thought processes. Only 8 miles of narrow switchback to go. 7.9 7.8 7.7 Stop and lean on a tree while I tried to find non-existant food in my bidon. People I knew started driving past heading for the race. I gestured feebly. They waved back enthusiastically, obviously impressed with my solo effort. 7.6 7.5 7.4 7.3 Stop again and check again for food. Drain the last of the water. Wave more. Friends are whistling and cheering out the windows. Go Stop Go Stop 8 miles took an hour and a quarter. The steak sandwich and 3 hour sleep while the racing went on around me was glorious. The cramps in the back seat of the car on the trip home are a whole different story.cheersBIG Mike (skinny on the inside)

  6. Comment by BIg Mike In Oz | 10.11.2005 | 10:05 pm

    Boss Kevin-be nice. You didn’t take account of the time difference. It’s barely 8am here, he’s not on the clock for another 50 minutes.cheersBIG Mike (skinny on the inside)

  7. Comment by Unknown | 10.11.2005 | 11:04 pm

    Thanks for that lovely memory. I still can’t drink apple flavored cytomax, even though it was an integral part of my overnight recovery. That whole pan of chicken enchiladas and the gallon of apple cytomax that I ate (oddly enough I hate cytomax but I still love the enchiladas) and drank all night soothed the otherwise greedy wanton ache inside of me for nourishment. Maybe that is why the enchiladas are still on the list of okay foods. They were part of the solution.Yes to dispondency, lethargy, listless I-don’t-give-a-damn, please kill me now…or not, as the overriding themes of the bonk. It’s ugly, and those in it are uglier, at least at the moment. Hottie that he is, I’d wager that Brad was even ugly when he bonked. Weren’t you self-nicknamed "Elden no-bonk" at one point in time?I think that I want to have one of the brooklyner’s troubled prints silk-screened onto a jersey as an homage to my checkered cycling career. Maybe she could do a custom one entitled "ode to the bonk" featuring you in a lovely technicolor yawn, Brad in ghastly green, and me babbling incoherently in the Fisher Valley…

  8. Comment by TIMOTHY | 10.12.2005 | 12:15 am

    I was riding a training ride here in Montana with people much faster than me – a hilly 40+ miler out and back with a 3 mile descent right before the turn around. It was about 50 degrees with a 30 mile/hr headwind going out (normal for Montana). I bonked HARD with about 8 miles left. Though mostly on rural roads, the last 2 miles were through neighborhoods with mostly uncontrolled intersections (and less controlled drivers). I remember my head hanging down, and although I was turning my head left and right at each intersection, my brain didn’t register it even when there was a car coming. I’m lucky I made it home alive. And then I ate a 20 oz prime rib while wrapped up in a blanket – I shivered uncontrollably for the next 2 hours.I do everything I can to avoid the Bonk, but baby if you’re going to bonk, bonk hard!

  9. Comment by Unknown | 10.12.2005 | 12:24 am

    Perhaps one of the most disconcerting aspects of the bonk is how quickly it can come on. For me, both times I’ve really bonked went from feeling fine to wiped out in about 10 minutes. The other odd thing about it is the fact that you’re going as hard as you can, but your heart rate is like 100 bpm.

  10. Comment by BIg Mike In Oz | 10.12.2005 | 1:47 am

    Botched Experiment-the bonk is like a physiological fuse. It stops you with just enough left in the tank to keep your vital organs functional.The bonk lurks, waiting for fuel, waiting, waiting-then BANG. It just slams the door shut on your energy supply. It basically puts you into a ‘concious coma’ until you are smart enough to refuel.

  11. Comment by Unknown | 10.12.2005 | 2:14 am

    Ahh yes, the Bonk. Nothing that a 5 ounce bag of gas station peanuts, a s’more, an oatmeal cookie, an apple, a quart of gatorade, a quart of water, some M&Ms, an advil, and a Wendy’s cheeseburger can’t fix. Have you ever expierienced the related, lesser phenomenon of your legs locking up? It happens to me once in a while, usually after a long pull on a climbing straightaway, followed by a misguided attempt to attack a hill in too high a gear. Typically, my legs go so far into lactic acid shock that they simply lock up at the knees and hips. After about 10 seconds’ rest, a quick stretch of the quads off the bike, they unlock and I can go, albeit a bit slower for a while. It’s not a bonk, rather it feels more like hitting muscle exhaustion while lifting very heavy weights – probably related to the heft of my lard ass.

  12. Comment by Unknown | 10.12.2005 | 2:18 am

    What a great description! I remember (when I was still actually cycling) the last 3 miles of a 50 mile ride around baltimore in 95 degree weather thinking "I am young but I can still die" — didn’t know it at the time, but maybe that was a little bonk action. Don’t want to go there again.As always, really enjoy your blog!

  13. Comment by Unknown | 10.12.2005 | 2:30 am

    I know what you all are saying, but there is a point where the bonk is kind of nice. You know you can make it home and the bonk starts to set in – and this out of body thing starts to happen. And it is kind nice – I know, I should go back to using recreational drugs, I have to find my highs where I can, but there is a limit to the amount of coffee I can drink. We are talking about a serious situation, but …..John

  14. Comment by Unknown | 10.12.2005 | 2:31 am

    Several entries back, someone suggested that the Cyclist of Size should give the South Beach Diet a try. If you’re an endurance cyclist, stay away from SBD — the Silent But Deadly Super Bonk Diet. Sadly, I know this from experience. On the upside, when the usual bananas and bars and chewies and drinks didn’t stop me from bonking on longer rides while SBDing, I did discover the great utility of all those fancy chips made from root veggies. Eat them the night before, and you’re good to go — provided you eat the entire ten-serving bag in one sitting. Ah, the joys of the medically necessary cascading snarf!

  15. Comment by Fat Cyclist | 10.12.2005 | 4:29 am

    first of all, i’d like to say that this may be my favorite batch of comments in the long, storied history of this blog (it’s been going for a whopping 5 months now). dug – i am forced to agree. for brad, bonking is performance art. brooklyner – large. and in charge.boss kevin – have i told you today that you are the very best manager EVER? also, can i start calling you "boss kevin" in real life?big mike – man, you’ve lived the life.rocky – in retrospect, apple cytomax was just a bad idea. now that you bring it up, though, i remember: nothing in the world tastes quite as nasty as warm apple cytomax. i had forgotten all about that flavor; i expect it’s pretty firmly etched in your memory, though. in fairness, i probably should have finished the story by saying that you pulled yourself together and did the second half of the ride the next day. props to the rockster.taocat – i found myself nodding in agreement when you talked about looking across the street but not registering anything. scary to be that far gone. and the weird thing is you totally realize you’re that far gone. you’re an accident waiting to happen, but you’ve got to keep moving because it’s not going to get better until you EAT.botchedexperiment – yep, you’re just motoring along, feeling great, and then suddenly you’re out of gas. it’d be funny, if it weren’t so – i wonder what the convenience store clerks think when they see cyclists buying huge amounts of food, with desperation in their eyes, then eating as if their lives depended on it. "wow. some serious drugs going on, there."spinecho – a good litmus test of whether you’ve bonked is the consideration that you may die of it. sounds like you’ve looked into the abyss that is the bonk.john – the kind of bonk you’re describing is exactly what i went through last saturday. i was only 8 miles from home, i knew i would make it, and i was fantasizing about everything i would eat when i got there. so yeah, bonking with a safety net can be fun in a weird way — you know for sure you’ve reached your limit for the day. bonking far away from anything, on the other hand, is pretty terrifiying.philly jen – i don’t know much about diets, but i do know what fuels a cyclist — carbos — so I’m not one for any diet that doesn’t let me eat lots and lots of bread and pasta.

  16. Comment by EricGu | 10.12.2005 | 4:36 am

    I was the one who suggested South Beach. I think it’s a reasonable choice, and it will put you on the road to eating better. But – and this is the important part – it is not a diet for training, or for riding. When you ride, you need a constant supply of sugar, and to do that you need exactly the kind of stuff that you shouldn’t eat normally for south beach. So, I’m pretty close to south beach on normal days, and not like it at all on riding days.Oh, and as an aside, the Bonk happens when you run out of glucose. Your body can synthesize a bit of glucose, but it’s only enough to run your brain, so there’s none left over.

  17. Comment by Fat Cyclist | 10.12.2005 | 4:55 am

    lowfat e – since you’re lowfat and i’m hifat, i’m not in much of a position to argue south beach diet effectiveness. i just use any excuse i can to justify continuing to eat lots of bread and pasta.

  18. Comment by Unknown | 10.12.2005 | 12:00 pm

    The weirder part about that search engine result is that there are news items for "best cake in the world":News results for best cake in the world – View today’s top stories The World’s Best-Dressed Billionaires – – Oct 10, 2005

  19. Comment by kris | 10.12.2005 | 12:16 pm

    Powerline on a bonk!? UGH!!!

  20. Comment by Unknown | 10.12.2005 | 3:14 pm

    FattyBeing Type 2 diabetic, I always have Reli glucose tablets handy. The orange taste great, act quick, have a long shelf life, and don’t take up much space in your seat bag. Very fast acting cure for low blood sugar. Glad your blood pressure/ cholestoral situation is not as bad as you first imagined. I just experianced diabetic retnopathy in my left eye, was sure I would be riding w/ a white cane and curb feelers, but the exam showed it was not nearly so serious, would probably heal itself with good glucose management. Funny how the mind works to ruin your day for no good reason.

  21. Comment by Harry | 10.12.2005 | 3:31 pm

    Theres nothing quite like a bonk.A few months back I had been riding for a good 80km when the dreaded hit me. Now this usually wouldn’t be much of a problem though, I would stop off at a servo and get all the food I would need to make it home. But on this occasion, as I drooled over which chocolate I would get, a realisation hit me: I had less than a dollar. All I could afford was a freddo frog, and the only thing this achieved was stirring my hunger even more! Thankfully it was completely flat on the way home, and I managed to limp the 30km back only driven on by the thought of the feast I would have when I got there.

  22. Comment by tayfuryagci | 10.12.2005 | 4:21 pm

    bonk? it’s the first time I’ve ever heard the word but I can pretty darn say that it’s my middle name. I’m famous among my friends for having copmplete shut downs. once they -literally had to drag me 3,5 kilometers up a hill with an elevation of 350 meters. dreadful days.

  23. Comment by Zed | 10.12.2005 | 4:40 pm

    Tayfur Bonk Yagci – Your parents were that ashamed of your middle name?On one of my first bonks, I recall stopping off at a friend’s house only a mile from my apartment and begging for Cool-Aid (TM), and when they said they had none, I asked for some sugar stirred into a glass of water. I don’t remember having much on my shelves when I finally got home, either, but you can bet I went to the grocery store ASAP!My most recent bonk was a little more embarrassing. My riding partner had been marveling at my climbing abilities the entire ride, at least until he turned into a little red speck on the horizon while I churned at 6 mph.

  24. Comment by kris | 10.12.2005 | 5:51 pm

    This is great!!! I’m glad to see that there is other riders out there that make complete gluttons of themselves after bonking. This summer after bonking heavily during a 5 hour road ride in 100 degree heat I ate a large meat lover’s pizza, two HUGE bowls of ice cream, a half of a box of Triscuits with cream cheese on them (it was actually pretty good), and some 7 layer dip with Tostitos Gold chips. Add about a gallon of water interspersed with that. That’s a feat in itself, but consider that it took place in a two hour span! I hereby submit myself for service in the circus. The amazing thing was that I was four pounds lighter the next day, and it stayed off. Fatty, you could have stumbled upon your next diet empire. The Massive Bonk Plan.

  25. Comment by James | 10.12.2005 | 6:05 pm

    OK – so with you discussing your worst bonks, I have to give a shout out to my good riding friend (good friend riding? – whatever) Joel who is to bonking what George Clinton is to Parliament Funkadelic. We’re talking speaking in tongues, gut problems, wandering around aimlessly, trying to find shade… the whole nine yards. Problem is – the guy is genuinely big (like 215 or so, but not fatty), and seems to have a relatively rapid metabolism – consequently, any ride of longer than 2 hours, and the bonk is imminent, if not damned likely.So we rode the MS150 last week from San Antonio, TX to Corpus Christi, TX – 92 miles the first day, in 105 degree heat, 30 mph headwind and rolling hills and Joel did not bonk. He should get props for enduring that grind fest and he is a big fat cyclist fan, so here it is. Keep it up fatty!


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