Respect for the Bonk

10.12.2005 | 7:13 am

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.

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.


  1. Comment by MAJ Mike | 03.16.2008 | 8:12 am

    Nice ones!

    My bonks on a bike are not nearly so epic, but I do recall one that ended at a Wendy’s with a huge, ice cold coke. To this day I think it might be the most delicious thing I have ever consumed…

  2. Comment by System6 | 03.16.2008 | 8:28 am

    my wife and I had a regular date each saturday afternoon involving a 3 hour, 30 mile (i.e., slower’n a wounded snake) ride on a paved flat trail, followed by redemption — copious amounts of pizza and beer. One can see the universal balance achieved by these activities.

    Usually I let half the air out of the tires on my mountain bike so that I could actually get exercise at 10mph, and then only barely.

    One evening, a bonk jumped me on the way back toward the car and I found myself drafting behind my wife on her red step-through schwinn, at the aforementioned snail’s pace — and doing all I could to not get DROPPED. I felt cold and clammy but sweated profusely. My vision became tunneled, and my legs turned the pedals over but just barely.

    Fortunately, my beloved had a bag of snacks (she’s ~100 lbs and always packs gobs of carbs – go figure), and so I wolfed a snickers bar, pretzels, and god only knows what else, followed by a couple of bottles of liquids, and after 10 minutes of suffering my body seemed to get back to normal and we could ride side by side once again.

    Had I been out with the guys, the impact to our pace would have been phenomenal. In this case, only my pride was savaged.

  3. Comment by Flyin' Ute | 03.16.2008 | 10:39 am

    On my first Leadville I got it in my head that I would go for a sub 9 hour race. I ignored my HR monitor’s beep and finally turned it off completely. At the first aid station I was already over my goal by 9 minutes and (not ever seeing columbine before)cranked it up to try and close the gap. I bonked as hard as I ever have 1/3 the way up Columbine.

    I suffered for the next 5 1/2 hours like never before or since. That left a scar on me that will never heal. I can’t even imagine repeating that pain. Needless to say, I had a better plan the next year and was much better prepared.

  4. Comment by Don ( | 03.16.2008 | 10:46 am

    It’s still very hard to say what exactly happened, so I’ll tell a story and let you figure it out.
    I got off of work and wanted desperately to go out for a two-hour ride. So I threw the bike in the car and went out to where I really wanted to ride. *note: I never said I ate, or thought about it, but I did grab straight water in bottles and left. Part of the reason I was so adamant of the location was a great hill that I just KNEW I could clean. I was still a hill virgin since getting back on the bike. Anyway, I knew I had taken enough small ones that I could pull it off. I got not quite 2/3 of the way up and was screwed. I couldn’t turn, I couldn’t breath, and my vision was blurred. I remember thinking if I could make it to the top I’d b fine, even if I passed out at this point there were people in a parking lot at the top. I honestly don’t remember getting to the top from that point forward. I do remember about a half-mile to mile later reaching for my bottle, and drinking, then getting pissed and slurring out something to a woman who screamed at me in an asian dialect as I almost cleaned the clock of her son who was all over a multi-purpose path in a park. I have a strong feeling that it was asthma related but could it have just been a bonk? Who knows.

  5. Comment by cheapie | 03.16.2008 | 10:52 am

    there was this one girl that was doing this ride through alaska in the middle of winter and woke up in a snowbank. now THAT’S a bonk!

  6. Comment by trio | 03.16.2008 | 11:36 am

    Until you experience the bonk you never understand it. I remember the two miles back to where I lived the time after bonking – they are the longest and slowest two miles I’ve ever covered!

  7. Comment by Aaron | 03.16.2008 | 2:31 pm

    I remember my bike bonking one time up the hills outside Brisbane (Australia). I was riding away with this niggling feeling something wasn’t right (I knew i was due for some food soon) the pedals seemed to be going slower then as I was about 50m from the top my bike stopped and fell sideways taking me with it. My bike bonked so in sympathy I ate everything I had on me plus some of my friends food and the bike seemed to recover ok.

  8. Comment by Hoggy | 03.16.2008 | 3:16 pm

    I knew i had bonked big time when I was riding up a steep but short hill and passed the 800m mark to the summit. The realisation came when i passed the 600m mark about a minute and half later. I rested at the top of the hill (when i finally made it) and contemplated the 38 degree temp(100F)and 75k left to ride and instead rode back down the hill and called for my ride.

    We tarvelled by car to the race end and it was there i started to feel good about my first DNF when so many others pulled out mid race and the tar on the road was literally melting.

  9. Comment by Mike Roadie | 03.17.2008 | 1:54 am

    The worst feeling in athletic life–worse than losing. And sometimes, you just can’t prevent it. You may try, but……..

  10. Comment by Jared | 03.17.2008 | 7:41 am

    The worst bonk I’ve suffered wasn’t all that long ago. I was out running some errands on the cx bike and pushing fairly hard, about 50 miles total for the day. I didn’t have much to eat that day but I always throw a granola bar or something in my pack before I leave as a “just in case.” About 8 miles from home I ran out of water, and shortly there after ran out of energy. I pulled over, barely able to push my bike, found some shade and sat down for a little while…ate my crunchy granola bar which further added to my thirst…but about 10 minutes later provided enough energy to get back on the bike and head home.

    Upon arriving I’m pretty sure I emptied the fridge and spiked our water bill for the month!

  11. Comment by brokemba | 03.17.2008 | 12:04 pm

    I bonked once, but it was enough to bug me for years. I was 40 miles from home and out of everything, why you ask, because I was stupid…period.

    As everything slowed down and the energy crash happened, I was completely disconnected from the world. Seeing stars and staring at a road sign that I knew, I couldn’t put together where I was to tell my spouse how to get me. I knew the road sign, I knew where I was, but the part of the brain that connects that knowledge to anything useful was cut. Really a bad day…

  12. Comment by Grant | 03.17.2008 | 6:52 pm

    My most memorable bonk was a couple of years ago. I was doing a Polaris here in Australia (2 day orienteering type thing, done in pairs where you carry all your own equipment – tent, food, etc). On day 1 we had stuffed around a bit in the morning, and were pushing it pretty hard to get to the over night campsite within the permitted 7 hours.

    I think we were about 10km (we believed) away from the camp when I ran out of water. I remember turning my legs over ever so slowly, and my team mate was giving me “encouraging” words… “Come on mate, just a bit further, not much time left, we’ve got to make it”. My reply was a very harsh “DO YOU THINK THAT’S GOING TO MAKE ME RIDE ANY FASTER!”

    He kind of went “Ohhh…” and went out a few meters ahead to give my seething space…

    That night at the camp I must have been extremely hungry. Freeze-dried junket camp food – I actually thought it tasted great at the time!!!

    I am now preparing for a 100km mtb race. It’s in 6 weeks time. 2 days ago was my first ride in almost 3 months (babies can take up a lot of time!) so I am kind of expecting to bonk in this one…

  13. Comment by Clydesteve | 03.18.2008 | 11:15 am

    My only bike bonk. I had never ridden longer than 20 miles, that i could recall. But I ran a lot, and when a ~20 yrs younger workmate asked me if I wanted to pedal over to the coast (80 miles), camp overnight, and pedal back the next day, I said: :Sure!”. Per Jeff’s instructions, I brought only my sleeping bag, fresh socks and a water bottle.

    We took off after work, and wanted to get over the Oregon Coast Range (mountains, but not huge – maybe 2000 ft elev gain) before dark. So we moved on out at about 20 MPH. Jeff was not prone to bonking, and I had never heard of it. We had 1 water bottle each, and no food. He has a marijuana joint, but i did not imbibe. I bonked about 1/4 mile before the final pass over the Coast Range. I don’t remember anything except laying in the gravel by the side of the road, cars whooshing by, flat on my back, eyes closed, seeing whirling dark spots. I thought they would go away if I rested a while.

    Jeff was shaking me: “Steve, man, you bonked! This is not going to get better until you get food in you! You have been laying here for over 1/2 an hour! Just get up and go!” I finally did, feebly following him in the dark, for what seemed like hours. (We had about 1/2 mile until a 5-mile long downhill coast.)

    We ended up at MO’s Famous Clam Chowder House. I ate about 15 packages of saltines along with 20 glasses of water while we waited for our chowder – about a 16 minute wait.

    That revived me enought for the 6-mile slog down the coast to a park – with a twitchy ride over what seemed like a very high bridge thrown in.

  14. Comment by blinddrew | 03.19.2008 | 11:08 am

    My last bonk was actually running a marathon. I was online for a 3.5 hour time but round about the 24th mile it all sssslllloooowwwweeeeddddd down. i went from steady 8 minute miles to a 12 minute mile. The last water stop and a banana were enough to pick me up and reach the end ok but i then failed to meet up with my friend with the cash and metro ticket so had to walk all the way across paris afterwards! hot and knackered and navigating by the maps on the side of bus shelters!

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