The Great Bonk Hunt

Everyone has a breaking point. Lance on the Plateau in 2000. Greg LeMond in 1992. Indurain riding into his hometown in 1996. Botched in the last hundred feet of his first crit. You’ve seen it happen. They crack. Their legs shut down. They stand on the pedals, they shift around on the seat, prodding, probing for more power. They suck the air out of water bottles that have been empty for hours. They see BigMike riding past with tinkerbell on his shoulders, stealing their happy thoughts—are we still talking about cycling?

The Bonk is a strange creature. It prefers warm climates, and cold. It creeps up on the confident, unsuspecting victim and pounces without warning. That’s part of the trouble. In order to break the Bonk, one must first find the Bonk. Does it come after a certain distance? How do you know when to expect it? Well, the plain truth is that you don’t. The Bonk outsmarts you. Otherwise you wouldn’t bonk. One second, you feel great, the next you want to trade places with the run-over skunk you just passed on the side of the road. But the challenge is finding that point and pushing it back.

I’ve bonked a few times. For those reading this from the Commonwealth, I must clarify that we’re not talking about the bonk that involves social interaction; we’re talking about the Bonk (capitalized to show respect), the one were you’re riding a bike normally and then you hit an invisible wall of Jello, holding you back. During one bonk, I worried I wouldn’t be able to survive the last mile to make it home so I took a side road, pulled up to a friend’s house, knocked on the door and asked for some cool-aid or some kind of nourishment to finish the trip. She didn’t have anything handy, so she mixed some sugar in a glass of water—yes, just like the badguy in Men In Black—and I drank it and rode home. Pathetic. And that’s the result of a good Bonk: pathetic-ness.

Tracking and trapping the evasive Bonk isn’t an easy task. We’re talking about an animal that’s known for its ability to strike at any moment. But I’ve narrowed it down a little. I know the mileage needs to be more than 45, and it comes only after riding a high-strung pace for most of the ride. However, I’ve done more mileage than that over a similar period of time without dealing with it. The difficulty in locating and eliminating the Bonk stems from the inability of Bonk victims to function enough to actually record any information. It isn’t until an hour or more later that the Bonk victim realizes what has happened.

It may sound kinda twisted, but I’d really like to hit the wall again. I almost feel like I’m just not putting in the distance if I’m not occasionally falling to pieces. And I don’t mean just coming home tired. We’re talking all out beat-to-the-ground slammed-senseless endurance bonking here. We’re talking about the needle pointing well past the ‘E’, and your legs showing the results to all those people you passed who are now passing you.

So that’s the plan—put in enough distance to actually flirt with the Bonk a little and maybe start to develop that aerobic base all you Friel folk are always talking about. To tell you the truth, it’s probably just a matter of eating right beforehand. Most Bonks only hit six hours after the most recent meal. So maybe I’ll eat the Clif Bar a little early, or pack some serious nourishment for the trip, just in case a Bonk leaps out of the crowds and punches me in the kidney on my way to winning the Tour de France … We’ll see.


29 thoughts on “The Great Bonk Hunt

  1. Amber

    The Bonk. I experienced it a couple of times when I ran cross-country and it was utter and total misery. But get used to it because you\’ll experience it MANY times as a parent. 🙂
    P.S. Are y\’all finding out what you\’re having?  That ultrasound must be coming up soon?

  2. Unknown

    If you really want to bonk, then reduce the number of carbs in your diet for a day or two, don\’t eat or drink anything before and during the ride, and then ride right at your lactate threshold.  I guarantee you\’ll bonk in a bout 1.5 hours.
    Theoreticall, at low exercise intensities you should be able to go for hours without eating and without bonking, but you\’ll get awfully hungry!
    I flirted with a bonk for about 3 hours during the E-100 last year.  I was getting sick, so I wouldn\’t eat my gels, then I\’d start getting tired and I\’d force a gel down, and I\’d feel better for a while.  Eventually I got so sick I couldn\’t keep the gels down and about 30 minutes later I turned into a spinless quivering gelatinous mass, unable to turn over the pedals or find my way to a bail-out area.
    Another time, while finishing a ride within ten minutes I went from feeling fine to riding in the small chainring on a dead flat road with a tailwind!  I actually had to walk up the little hill leading to my house.  Not fun.
    P.S.  There is a huge difference between getting home so tired your legs are quivering and bonking.  One is likely to be an indicator that you may be increasing your fitness, the other indicates that on bike nutrition is limiting your ability to increase fitness.

  3. Zed

    Amber- Not yet. I think we find out in a couple of weeks.

    Botched- you gramma no makey sensy. Sensei? Okay, you\’re right, it\’s crazy. Perhaps flirting with the Bonk is the way to go, rather than actually hitting it head-on. But I\’d like to be riding the distances where bonkage is actually possible, and maybe getting the hunger pangs that result from a good hard bike ride. It\’s really more that I\’d like an awareness of where my limits are. Ya know, that sort of thing …

  4. Unknown

    I bonked on my second group ride after getting back on the bike last summer.  It was a 55 miler, in hilly country out near West-by-God-Virginny.  I got about 40 miles in (my limit for hard riding without really eating much) and started to get wobbly.  Such was the fitness of my 40 pounds heavier self, that riding at 16 MPH for that mileage was enough to exhaust the energy stores – like most ignant moo-rons, I was riding too hard to burn fat, too slow to build any speed skills. 
    Anyhoo… The major climbs were finished.  Yet I was down to 11 miles an hour on this long flat, going into a very slight headwind.  Then I was down to 10.  Then 7.  Then I hit this half mile long, 4% grade.  It damn near killed me to get up it.  I was in the granny – 30 teeth – and the big cog – 25 – and turning it at about 50 RPM, as if I was starting from a standstill in the 53-11.  Then I went down a hill, and onto another long flat.  That\’s when I really bonked.  I was down to 6 miles an hour, with no wind, traveling on a 3 or 4 mile flat.  It took *forever* to get to the end of it.  Finally, I did get to the end.  I had to go up a hundred yard "hill" with a grade of maybe 2%.  I struggled to the top.  I coasted down a straight with a very slight drop.  And then into a 7-11. 
    Y\’know how you fix a bonk?  You drink two quarts of Gatorade for a starter.  And a couple danishes.  And a four ounce bag of honey roasted cashews.  And some non-descript energy bar.  And a banana.  And a frisbee-sized cookie.
    The folks filling up at the station stared as I rammed the food into my mouth between breathy grunts.  Some of the food was no doubt missing my pie hole and splatting on the wall behind me.  Other cyclists – my mentors who had lollygagged to look at some nice scenery – were rolling in shaking their heads.  They knew exactly what had happened, and they were taking pity on me.  (Rec riders, obviously.  The road racers I tend to ride with now would have been laughing their butts off and making well-deserved pithy comments…) 
    I recovered enough to ride the last 7 or 8 miles at a 17 MPH avg clip, in spite of a pretty substantial grade in the middle of it. 
    Ever since then, I either go slow and long (zone 2 or 3) and eat just a little (like a Clif bar and an apple with around 50 ounces of energy drink) which is good up to about 65-70 miles, or I go fast and start pounding food after 20 miles, and ride as long as I feel like it, up to 110 (I haven\’t done longer yet).  You want to hit muscle exhaustion and feel like you are working?  Go do hill repeats on increasingly short rest.  Do 5 or six 5 to 8 minute zone 5b intervals after you have built up sufficient base to do it without causing a heart attack.  That should do it, you should feel worked out.  But a bonk?  If you are trying to bonk, you are being foolish, forsaking discipline to make yourself "feel like" you are training hard.  You don\’t need to work that hard on such low rations to increase your fitness substantially, and if I had to guess, (Botched, help me out here) I\’d guess that you can set your training back or do a lot of damage to yourself by doing it.   (Yes, I\’m a Friel disciple).  

  5. Unknown

    May i mirror botched\’s comments that you\’re crazy for desiring a bonk? I would say if you\’re pulling longer distances and doing well w/o the jello legs. That\’s a plus.

    Here\’s my minor lecture, then i\’m done with PhDin\’ on your site – when you bonk, it means you haven\’t properly eaten, hydrated or listened to the body in what stresses it can handle. Recovering from the bonk is likely to take away any gains you make….which isn\’t the point. Stress so that you can recover leads to gains. Stress that intices the bonk out of its sleepy quarters in mid-Idaho to follow the scent of sugar water is likely to leave you laid up, lethargic and having to recover too long for the ride to have been of any physical benefit to you.

    (Ugh. Note to self. Stop lecturing Caloi.)

  6. Zed

    If I\’m with a group and I hit the bonk, I usually just turn to the person beside me and say something like, "Ummm, I think I\’m going to take it easy for a little bit." Then I fall off the back and disappear … it\’s a neat trick. I don\’t know why, but Al, your comment just reminded me of that.
    Okay, you guys have me convinced–no bonkage, no adenosine inhibitor (but it was double fudge-flavored!), no more riding stupid. But those hill intervals sound fun. I think I\’ve already been doing those without calling them hill intervals. Usually it\’s full steam for about 7 minutes, coasting back to the bottom and then going full steam for 7 minutes again. I\’m trying to lengthen out my uphill acceleration, though.

  7. Zed

    Erica- you\’re absolutely right, it is due to bad nutrition. I\’ll usually hit the bonk when I\’ve skipped dinner to get to the group ride on time or when I\’ve substituted a Tiger\’s Milk bar for breakfast.
    Okay, you guys, I\’m done bonk-riding. I really do appreciate your concern, hope you know. And don\’t worry, I\’m not all masochist. I promise.

  8. Unknown

    I\’m not saying you shouldn\’t do it, I\’m just saying your crazy.  Actually, I\’d kind of like to see it.  Some people get incoherant and start talking about \’mokies climbing on the ceiling\’ and stuff.  I once saw a guy bonk so bad, he couldn\’t life his bike up onto the roof rack. 
    So all I\’m saying is if you\’re going to do it, at least invite me, so I can see it!  Also, this is my plan for future stories about how I \’crushed\’ Caloi on a climb.

  9. Zed

    You may not even need me to bonk for that to happen, Botched. I have no clue how I\’d compare to the Utah crowd. After all, you were a pretty decent mtb\’er back in the day, right? You might be able to kill me anyway.
    But, yes, if I go on a bonk-specific training ride, you\’re invited. No flash or video cameras, recording devices or the like allowed, however. I need to be able to claim one of those \’tainted glory\’ situations if you do.
    I guess I\’d better get in shape before I go for a ride with you, eh?

  10. Zed

    I\’ve got to ask about the mokies, though. Wasn\’t Mokey a character on Fraggle Rock? People who imagine that stuff may be suffering from a little more than a bonk, eh?

  11. Unknown

    I see we\’ve all sufficiently applied guilt to make you recant the desire for a bonk. I\’m very qualified in the guilt-inducing department, I was raised Catholic.

  12. Tom Stormcrowe

    Botched, isn\’t the Bonk when you\’ve pushed hard and far enough that you\’ve exhausted the stored glycogen in your muscles and not only out of the Kreb cycle, but getting near the end of the anaerobic metabolisms rope and deep in lactosis, or would that state be more representated as BONK!?

  13. Sue

    WARNING: this post was not reviewed for spelling, grammar, or sytax.  Read with a flexible mind.
    Tom, yep.  Muscle glycogen only lasts about 20 minutes.  Liver glycogen will keep your blood sugar normal for about another 30 minutes (depending on exercise intensity).  Since muscles (and your heart and brain) have to burn glucose to to make ATP to work, your body makes glucose (by a process called gluconeogenisis)and ATP  (and similar sugars that can enter glycolysis or Citric Acid Cycle at points different than glucose) from energy derived from beta-oxidation of fatty acids and from protein.  That, of course is if you aren\’t ingesting carbs.  If you\’re exercising at too high an intensity, your body can\’t make glucose as fast as you\’re burning it and your blood sugar gets low and your muscles go on strike.  Co-incidentally, your brain can ONLY use glucose for energy and so funny things start happening to people\’s cognative function when they\’re on a world class bonk, hence, the Mokies, or as I like to call them Mokies (I mean Monkeys).

  14. Sue

    OK, I got 4 hours of sleep night-before-last, and I got up at 4:30 am this morning because I had a big talk to prepare for work.  I guess I\’m a little more tired than I feel, because even my horrible spelling usually allows for a few correctly spelled words!

  15. Unknown

    flirt with the bonk, drink in its beauty, unite with it to form one body and mind, lose all your worldly posessions and become its slave. lose your mind and become a part of the never ending circle of the bonk. spend a night on the kerb with your bike over you, drool oozing out of your mouth and vagabonds staring at\’d be pretty sweetactually if you spend a night unconscious in 0 fahrenheit in bicycle tights you\’d be stone cold dead!

  16. Tom Stormcrowe

    Yep, sho\’ \’nuff, that do be the case, Botched! Believe me, with the shape I was in when I first restarted riding, I truly experienced bonking, Bonk x10(15th)!

  17. BIg Mike In Oz

    To tell you the truth, it’s probably just a matter of eating right beforehand.
    The true truth is that the Bonk will attack you even if you did eat right beforehand.  It\’s the during that is critical.  You said after 75 miles is the danger zone.  Correct in my experience.  But it\’s not the mileage.  It\’s the effort over time.  It could be 45 miles if it was all climbing and you were at or over the 4 hour mark.  All the blood sugar is gone.  All the carbs have been used from the digestive tract.  If you aren\’t tipping something in the top, you are a prime candidate for the Bonk.
    The Bonk is a living breathing beast that must be feared and respected.  The perfect ride involves falling into the clutches of the Bonk after you get off the bike but before the you get to the fridge.  Weight loss is inevitable because you don\’t need to control the hunger.  If you time your Bonk right you should have trouble pulling open the pantry door.

  18. Zed

    BigMike- That\’s what I was getting at. See, and I think you\’re respected enough to where they\’ll listen to what you say.
    Tom- Thanks for that refresher. Believe it or not, I really do remember what the Krebs Cycle is from basic biology. Fascinating.
    Tayfur- Hey, if you come over to Idaho, you could see it in person. Just no recording devices, like I told Botched.
    Erica- You and your husband are good with these make-me-laugh-aloud comments. You two ought to quit your dayjobs and go into full-time internet humor.
    Botched- It was cooler when it was Mokies. It fit in with the bigmike and tinkerbell analogy I had going.

  19. Unknown

    Being a type 2 diabetic allows me to experience bonk without trying. With the 3 medications I take, my blood sugar level sometimes drops below 70 – then I feel very light, below 60, very weak, below 50, incoherent.
    No fun. A couple of glucose tablets perks me right up, faster than anything else I\’ve tried. I keep \’em in my underseat bag since they don\’t take up much room and last along time. Try \’em some time, they could save your ride.

  20. Unknown

    Shorter Al Maviva from yesterday:
    1) If you bonk, you weren\’t training right, it means you were training wrong.  It\’s like running your car out of gas, and then convincing yourself "I must have been driving really fast, because I\’m out of gas."  That\’s not what it means at all, but your energy-deficit brain makes you think that\’s true.  Drug addicts use a similar thought process to convince themselves of anything they need to convince themselves of at any given point. 
    2)  Eat complex carbs while you ride, 4-600+ calories per hour.  Force yourself if you have to.  Get used to it.  Maybe eat some nuts or proteins too.  Drink plenty.  Don\’t bonk. That simple. 
    3) If you want to feel like you are really working out… buy Joe Friel\’s Cyclist\’s Training Bible.  Read it until you understand it.  Follow it.  Structure your workouts using its principles.  Live it.  I assure you, your bad self will feel like it is getting properly worked out.  Even if your legs feel really good, your times for various objective feats will drop as surely as night follows the day, and you will *know* you are getting worked out.  The only thing the bonk lets you know is you didn\’t eat enough for what you are trying to do, dummy. 

  21. Zed

    All right, you guys win: bonking for sport is stupid. Thanks for the advice, Al. I may just have to check out that book since I\’ve gotten so many recommendations for it.
    Boz- That\’s got to really kill your lengthy riding. Can you name a brand for the glucose tablets, or would that be shameless advertising?
    Jord/Botched- I know, holy cow! I was going to write a blog entry entitled "Winter\’s Last Stand" Maybe I\’ll have to save that one for tomorrow.

  22. Tom Stormcrowe

    Caloi, I carry\’em too! BD Glucose tabs is what I use, you get them from the Pharmacy, with the diabetic supplies. Excellent pick me up! Glucose is a monosaccharide your body can immediately utilize and it quickly helps you get your head together if you are bonking to the point you can\’t even think straight!

  23. Zed

    Thanks for the tip, Tom. I\’ll have to look into those. Though I\’m thinking I might like JellyBelly Sport Beans even more. Mmmm …

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