This post is the third and final part of the Holiday Lake race recap series. Get the complete story by reading parts one and two first.
Resolve, motivation, optimism were just words. My mind had quickly become a slow dark place struggling to direct my feet forward through quickly drying concrete. This is how it felt to "hit the wall" (aka "bonk") during the Holiday Lake 50K - deeply depressing and disorienting.
Ultrarunning has a way of making a person feel confident and invincible. The moment I gagged down what would be my third and final GU gel during that 50K, it felt not only reasonable, but necessary, that I finish without any more - completely foregoing the nutrition plan that's worked for me every single time before.
According to Runner's World, bonking is a bodily form of sedition, and can show itself in a few different ways. What I experienced at Holiday Lake was the "blood-glucose bonk, where the legs work fine, but the brain up and quits."
"You hit the wall when your glycogen reserves are less than 10%", according to MarathonBasics.com. The resulting feeling is of overall depletion, a "collapse of the entire system: body and form, brains and soul." (Runner's World describes this so perfectly, there's no need to re-phrase). When, 12 miles in, I couldn't stomach more GU gel and didn't replace those necessary calories with anything else, I essentially made the decision to fail. By the time my stomach started growling 10 tough miles later, it was too late to catch up - though I tried desperately with a combination of Mountain Dew and aid station snacks, without which I'm sure I'd have earned my first DNF.
When I did cross the finish, it was without typical feelings of accomplishment and elation - there was no endorphin high, just subdued acknowledgement that I was finally. done. moving.
Recovering from the bonk took time and patience. The stresses of low glycogen (compounded with hours of exertion in the extreme cold) had taken a toll - when, 24 hours after the race, a friend asked how the 50K had gone, I opened my mouth to answer but surprised us both by crying instead.
The initial post-race feelings of weakness improved with each meal and period of rest, and my typical ravenous appetite and high energy level returned with gusto three days later.
I've always thought learning by doing is the best approach to mastering new information, and my first experience of "hitting the wall" was no different. Carb loading before a long run, and calorie replacement along the way are not just nice to have, they are necessary to maintain proper body and brain function. Lesson learned!