You might think after a half a dozen times at the same race that things would get easier. Sure, it helps to have some familiarity with the course and to be clued in to what lies ahead, but even with that and years of experience, you can never be certain that things will go smoothly at these trail ultras.
In any long event it’s good to periodically run through a little checklist in your head, to assess how everything’s working. Feet, joints, muscles, stomach, your head and mental state. How’s everything faring? Feel any blisters? How are the knees? Are you eating/drinking/peeing? Do you need to make any adjustments to keep something from becoming a bigger issue if left unaddressed? I’ve always felt that if I keep close tabs on myself I can stay ahead of potential problems and have a good day. An ounce of prevention….
But that still doesn’t guarantee anything. Somewhere around mile 23 at last weekend’s San Juan Solstice 50 miler, as we were climbing up to the high point of the course, things started to feel a little off. My stomach was suddenly in a knot, crampy as opposed to nauseous. At that same time my legs got real heavy, they didn’t want to move uphill. As I tried to push through what I hoped to be a brief low-point, I could feel my heart rate elevated, and despite being pretty well acclimated to the altitude, deep breaths weren’t seeming to alleviate anything. I was dizzy, if not cross-eyed, and I slowed to a crawl.
I felt like I had to lay down for a moment. I looked at my watch and it was barely 6 hours into the race— how could I be so tired only having been out for a relatively short amount of time? It wasn’t even 11AM. I had been eating, drinking, peeing, etc.— everything seemed to be going according to plan, a plan that has worked so well for me all these years. Yet everything on my internal dashboard was flashing red.
I was unbelievably tired. I thought I could actually go to sleep if I laid down. Runners passed by in high gear as I hiked in 4-LO. I began to realize that I had become “that guy”, the racer who didn’t manage things right and self destructed, the type I love to pick off in these races right around now.
I downed a gel and some more drink, but uncertainty and a little confusion dominated my thoughts. What if this didn’t pass, could I still finish? Should lay down and take a nap? Maybe I should take a rest and hook up with Christy who would catch up soon and I could try to finish with her. If I spent 30 minutes in this state it felt like three hours, and even though my time goal for the day had slipped out of reach, I tried to keep things together. After what seemed like an eternity, and after swearing off this event and others (and ultras as a whole), the knot in my stomach untied, and my breathing and heart rate fell back into line. The sleepiness lifted and my legs started to move again. And then the final indicator— that of my mental status— went from flashing red to green, and I was back and running.
And that’s what you call a bonk, and it was one of the more dramatic ones I can recall. I kind of laugh now as I look back on it, because it was too easy to view that relatively brief low point as insurmountable. I’m still not sure why it came on like it did., sometimes they just happen. But as quickly as things can take an unanticipated turn for the worse, they can boomerang back just as fast. It’s the ups-and-downs— not just of the terrain, but of your physical and mental self— that I love so much about these races.
Suffice to say, it wasn’t a PR for me. Instead, what I took away from the day (once again) was that you should always stick with what you set out to do, even if things aren’t going as planned. First and foremost try to prevent a brief low from becoming a full-on bonk, but if you find yourself down there, don’t throw in the towel. Low points happen, and even if you feel the wheels starting to come off, try to keep your cool, take things down a notch, and you most likely will recover.
Since this is a fairly rare occurrence for me, I’m hoping I got it out of my system and I’ll be all clear for a smooth day at Hardrock on July 11th. We’ll see.