A Note from Fatty: This "Best of Fatty" post, rescued from my MSN Spaces archive, was originally posted October 12, 2005.
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.
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.