If you are a runner, a cyclist, or any type of athlete, you are probably familiar with the word “Bonk” and the terrible thing that it represents. To “Bonk” is, in essence, an athlete’s slang for hitting the proverbial wall. It’s running out of gas before you’re ready to quit. It’s stumbling through the final miles of a race that you’ve spend months training to conquer with ease. It’s something we coach ourselves to avoid, studying pacing and nutrition like a college student dedicated to acing their final exam. We do this so that when competition arrives, we don’t find ourselves floundering along, gasping for air, begging for deliverance from a moment that we dreamed would be effortless, exceptional, and noteworthy. A bonk can make even the most seasoned athlete feel like a novice, and can bring on a barrage of inner torment as one desperately attempts to grasp at any rationalization to explain the reasoning behind the perceived failure.
I truly believe that all of us who strive to achieve moments of personal greatness in our craft, must also experienced the bonk from time to time. It keeps us centered, keeps us humble, and also reminds us that we will never fully reach perfection. Instead we must continue striving onward toward continued improvement and personal growth. There is no glass ceiling, there is always room to develop into a better runner, a better athlete, a better person.
I was kindly reminded of this exact fact this past weekend.
I had been planning on running the Gasparilla Half Marathon for nearly a year, and as soon as registration opened I had eagerly signed up, excited at the opportunity to run another half. This race means a lot to me, as it was the very first half marathon I ran, having participated back in 2012. Two years ago I had nervously stepped into the starting corral with thousands of runners, at that time just 4 months into my racing career, and I was scared out of my wits to take on the task set before me. I had only just run my very first 5k a few short months before, and this race was daunting. But I was determined to prove to myself that this was a challenge I could conquer, and I completed that race having gained a pride in myself that was indescribable. I vowed at that moment that this would not be my only half marathon, but that many more would follow; unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to run another until this past fall when a last minute registration to the Women’s Half Marathon came my way. Although I had been training regularly, and running in many races, I had not been specifically training for the distance of a half, and approached this race with the mentality that I’d simply run to finish, not for time. But despite my lack of proper preparation, I happily finished that race feeling great, with gas in the tank, and a shiny new PR (albeit only by 9 seconds, but hey, a PR is a PR right?!?). I felt invincible! With a greater focus on distance training, I was convinced that I really could blow that time out of the water!
As the Gasparilla race approached, I felt good. This time around I had been given more of an opportunity to properly train and prepare, and with two more years of running under my belt, I couldn’t fathom the thought of not gaining improved results. And just weeks prior to the race I embarked on a 10 mile training run, cruising along at a 9 minute per mile pace (which for me, is a pretty fast pace to sustain for that distance); I finished the run feeling comfortable, with energy left to take on more mileage had I so desired. I was going to shatter my previous two half marathon times and run strong, fierce, and fast this time. I just knew it!
So when race day finally arrived, I was confident in my ability to run a quality race. I was eager to run. I lined up behind the 2:05 pace runner, confident that I could maintain a 9:30 pace for the majority of the race and then push forward to finish just under the 2:05 mark. I envisioned crossing the finish line, ecstatic with how amazing I felt, thrilled with how well my training had paid off.
Well…This was not the case.
For starters, I made a rookie mistake. I started way too fast. I admit, I get really excited on race day. Anyone who knows me, knows that race day is like Christmas, rolled in with a trip to Disney, and mixed with a dash of Vegas to me. It makes my heart happy. Crossing that start line, knowing that the clock has officially started, makes me want to fill my lungs with air and fly forward, conquering each passing mile with eager legs. So.. that is exactly what I did. I cruised through the crowds, passing runner after runner, loving every second of the journey forth. But then my brain started having a conversation with me that I didn’t want to hear. Maybe, just maybe, I was going a bit too fast. But, I had trained so hard! Surely I could sustain my pace. So onward I pushed, ignoring my pesky brain and encouraging my legs to keep going.
By mile 5, I knew that I may be in trouble. The intense humidity of the morning lay thick in my lungs, and my movements began to feel sluggish, as though each step took increased effort to complete. I kept reminding myself that I had recently run a couple of long runs in which I’d sustained this pace with ease, I just had to settle into a good pace and stick to it. I just had to find my runners high.
That high never came, and each mile that passed became more and more labored. Granted, I’m stubborn (as most runners are), so I pushed on, becoming increasingly frustrated with myself as each mile grew progressively slower.
It’s at this point, when your body begins to break down and beg for deliverance from the onslaught that you are forcing upon it, your brain begins playing games with you. From then on, till you cross the finish line, you experience an epic battle within yourself. One side of your brain pleads with you to give up, tells you that you cannot finish, that you are a failure; while the other side gently reminds you that, PR or not, you are still accomplishing something fantastic. As each step progresses, you shift from emotion to emotion, in one moment mentally abusing yourself to the point of self-hatred, and in the next mustering all of the inner-inspiration you can bear just to keep you going.
It was this yo-yo of emotions that I battled as I traveled on, determined to finish with a respectable time. I was disheartened as the 2:05 pace runner passed me around mile 7, and I fell slowly fell behind, unable to keep up, yet unwilling to relent. Along I plodded, mile after mile, grasping desperately for Gatorade at each aid station, thinking this miracle juice may revive my waning energy. The last mile was torturous, as my lungs pleaded with me to stop running, and my body ached with the weariness that had overtaken me. So when I finally crossed the finish line, it was not with the victorious celebration that I had envisioned, but instead I felt a relief wash over me. I had finished, and although I had not finished with the results that I had hoped for, I had not given up. As much as my body had wanted me to walk, I would not yield and ran the entire race. As much as my limbs ached, and my lungs burned, I did not quit. I ran 13.1 miles, I accepted my medal, and although it was not done with the glorious feeling of a new PR, it was with the satisfaction that I had endured a difficult race, and conquered mind over matter. So despite having moments where it felt like a failure, in all honesty, it still was a great success.
So many of us have experienced moments like this. And I truly believe that it is not the struggle that defines us, but it is how we deal with that struggle while in the moment that will dictate our ultimate success or failure. Although I finished slower than my previous two half marathons, I still finished. I did not let my self doubt, my fatigue, or my physical battle defeat me, instead I pushed through the pain and finished, proud that I had overcome an unforeseen obstacle. It’s also an experience that I can now reflect on and learn from. This race taught me so much about proper pacing (especially in crazy humidity!), about how to maintain a positive mental attitude through discomfort, and was a good lesson in looking at the bright side of moments by not letting a struggle detract from a major accomplishment!
So what now? Well, I’m going to keep training! I have to say that I don’t regret my bonk, I appreciate what I learned from it, and I take it as a circumstance meant to happen as a means to make me a better runner, and a better racer. With that said, I cannot wait to get my hands on another half marathon!
And I can guarantee you this…next time I won’t bonk.