Anatomy of a Bonk

I’ve wrote about bonks before, when a cyclist’s energy reserves are gone and they find themselves having a conversation with their body.  The body says, sit down under that tree, and the cyclist says, nahh I got to keep going.  For me the conversation usually becomes a negotiation, “OK body, as soon as I get to that tree up there I’ll take a 30 second break, I promise.”

Today I met up with some folks for a mountain bike ride.  I did a similar ride last week, and felt awesome.  Last week I had unending stores of energy.  I could push myself seemingly without consequence.  Today was different.  I didn’t feel great from the start but  I didn’t feel bad either, and I was having no problem with the pace.  We were riding One Horse Gap benchcut trail and it was perfect, dry trails meaning no giant bike swallowing mud holes.  But these are still far from groomed trails, 7 mph here is a good average.

matt dead

At 7.5 miles, the halfway point, I realized I was really hot, but still feeling good.  It was about 12:30, I had been up since 5AM and had consumed about 600 calories for the day so I ate some cookies.  Earlier in the ride I had experimented with a protein bar, probably the worst thing I could eat on a super hot day.   With about a mile to go I was feeling kind of weak and just a bit dizzy.  I announced I was taking a short cut because I am a TRAIL MASTER.  Me and a pal turned left and the other 5 riders went right.  I rode right past the short cut trail and started climbing the dreaded SIX SISTERS, a series of stupidly steep gravel climbs.

After the third sister I realized I had missed the trail.  At this point I was getting delirious.  I was unable to climb anything and was walking, well nearly crawling.  Bonks can be brought on by lack of calories, lack of water, lack of electrolytes, or even excessive heat, I think this bonk was caused by all four, it was a SUPER BONK.   This is how it felt:

  • Thoughts become slow, like they are butterflies and you have to catch them with a net before they can get away
  • The smallest exertion will take your breath away.
  • Your consciousness recedes deeper into your head, as if you are looking through another person’s eyes.
  • In many cases my stomach feels as if it has tied itself into a knot, especially in a heat bonk.  Drinking water seems like a necessity but it is ejected from your gut the moment it gets there.
  • You feel an exaggerated sense of doom, you may only be a quarter mile from the end of the ride, but it might as well be a 100 miles, you begin to wonder if you can be airlifted out.

My buddy who was with me, being the good pal that he is left me to ride ahead and tell the others I was on my way.  I pushed my bike up the final hill with the vehicles in sight at an excruciatingly slow pace.  When I arrived I collapsed unable to even rack my bike.  A girl who weighs half of me picked my bike off the ground and lifted it on the rack.  I put my head in my hands and simultaneously thanked God for getting me safely back, and cursed God for the massive weakness and embarrassment of becoming a giant human pile of mush.

The weekend before had been 15 degrees cooler so that probably explains how I was able to ride much faster, I also took in many more calories and fluids last week.  Also last week the calories I took in were all pure sugar based.  I think the protein bar was a bad move. This bonk was easily preventable with better nutrition, like all bonks, and I’ve had a lot, yet I never learn.

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About Matt Gholson

Cycling, school teaching, husband.
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