Growing up watching the Tour de France on TV I was mesmerised by two opposite events: the solo breakaway to victory on a mountain stage, and ‘The Bonk’. Commentators would react with voyeuristic horror as a cyclist who’d shown limitless endurance and impeccable rhythm for hours would suddenly slow down and start wobbling on the bike, head lolling, mouth open. They might be only a couple of miles from the finish but talk would be of how many minutes, not seconds, they were about to lose to the leaders. They had ‘bonked’.
To ‘hit the wall’, or to ‘bonk’ is the worst-case scenario for endurance non-athletes and athletes alike. It describes a physiological event whereby the body runs out of fuel (glycogen), refuses to do what you’re telling it to do and then gets all annoyed with you about it. It typically follows a lengthy period of general tiredness during which your mind – with increasing forcefulness – has been recommending that you stop doing what you’re doing.
All of which is a less-than-promising way to begin a blog post chronicling some of my last few miles in the NYC Marathon.
A look at my splits betrays the problems I was having maintaining my pace/energy output balance:
Miles 2-14: ranged from 9:15 to 8:50/mile at an average of 9:02 – perfect pacing, with that 10:19 mile 1 leaving me precisely on target for 4 hours, just over half-way through the race. Mile 15 is when, without realising it at the time, it was becoming a little harder than it was supposed to be.
Mile 15: 9:26; Mile 16: 9:20
After mile 15 I assumed it was a blip and that mile 16 would be better but after mile 16 I could see that it wasn’t, and that I needed to put more effort in.
Mile 17: 9:02
I clawed back a little of my time here and figured I could keep this up…
Mile 18: 9:29
…except I couldn’t. At least, not without trying harder than I wanted to. At this point however I had no choice. Having been convinced for about 10 miles that I was looking good for a 4hour finish, everything I was doing in terms of managing my pace was with that goal in mind. So for the second time in three miles I was going to have to put in a slightly quicker mile than my body seemed to want to, although overall I was still very happy with how my race was developing.
Mile 19: 9:11
My quicker mile…could I hold it without pushing?
Mile 20: 9:22
Er, no. This was infuriating. I wasn’t posting 10-minute miles, I was close to my time, but there was a nagging feeling that my body was good for a 9:20-9:25 pace, and not my target of 9:08. I wasn’t going to be able to pull out a couple of 7:30’s to finish, so I needed to get a few seconds back now – even if it was just a few. Again, I was trying to pull back time cautiously, but I did need to get it back.
Mile 21: 9:13
This was the first time since mile 1 that I worried about the 4 hour target. Mile 21 was definitely a ‘push’ mile and I hadn’t even been able to get it back to overall race pace, far less claw back time. I had another chat with myself: “If someone had told you they’d put you at the end of mile 21 – just over 5 miles to go, a few minutes off the pace but you can get it back, you’d have bitten their hand off…but it needs to start NOW. 45 minutes of pain and outrageous effort and you’re going to feel so darned incredible about breaking 4 hours you’ll NEVER forget it. It would be amazing to do that and you can absolutely do it”.
So I put my head down and did as I was told.
Mile 22: 9:04
Back in Manhattan and onto Fifth Avenue. Four seconds under race pace, but I was working really hard now and was four minutes behind schedule with four miles to go and the next mile uphill. I couldn’t simply hold race
pace for a mile and then pull out a couple of 7:00’s – I would struggle to break 7:00 in a 2 mile race, never mind two miles at the end of the marathon. So I needed to get some time going up Fifth Avenue.
Having made that calculation I realised the game was probably up – nobody gains time up Fifth unless they’ve been running way within themselves for the first 22 miles. But whilst no longer confident, I knew that regret at missing my goal would be nothing compared to the regret at giving up on it.
I revisited my provisional ‘Plan B’ – 4:09:59. Then I looked at the numbers in my head: FOUR…no, sorry, I can’t get excited about a target time that starts with that number. What’s the next relevant target time if I miss 3:59:59…no idea, I thought to myself…and I don’t really care. If I can’t get 3:59:59…then…just keep running until you’re done and forget the time.
Sound advice when, shortly before the ascent up Mount Fifth Avenue began, a massive brick wall jumped out of the road in front of me and I slammed into it. I looked down at my legs in puzzlement, half-expecting to find a small child hanging on to each of them. Maybe I haven’t bonked, I can’t bonk, I mustn’t…maybe I’m being tired and a wuss. “Legs…faster”…no response…”FASTER! NOW!” Nothing.
I knew what had happened and I wanted to cry. Not now, not after all this time, all this effort, and worst of all, all this hope – why bonk now? Except of course that’s pretty much the thing with The Bonk.
In fact, that predatory lurking of The Bonk in every stride of the last 10K is part of what makes the Marathon so great and so completely nuts.