How Not to Bonk

“You’re alright, right?”

an older man pauses to ask as I stand, hands on my knees, not really panting, just doubled over completely gassed. Two miles left to the car and I’m deep within a “bonk.” Legs are gone, head’s slightly dizzy and my tank is totally empty.

It’s January 28th.

11 weeks till the 2017 Boston Marathon.

“The Wall” is probably the most well known part of The Marathon. People who couldn’t tell you how many miles make a Marathon will warn you, “Watch out for that Wall!” The elusive barrier lurking past 20 miles, waiting to pounce and take the runner down. Whether it’s muscle fatigue, cardiovascular exhaustion or complete glycogen depletion — it’ll bring you to your knees.

But not all marathoners bonk on race day. Many runners find a way to escape its painful grasp.

My 5 Ways to race a marathon without Bonking*

(*I fully reserve the right to bonk in the future, but as of today I’ve avoided it on race day)

#1 — Don’t bullshit your marathon goal

Breaking 2:30 sounds cool, but not long ago I was focused intently on cracking 2:50. Then it was 2:45. Then 2:37:19 (6min pace). Then 2:35, and finally 2:30. They’re all numbers and it’s all arbitrary. I ran hard on each occasion.

Boston 2014 I ran 2:41 and people wouldn’t stop congratulating me. Myself included. I was PROUD of that performance. I finished in a delirious state. By Boylston the cheering fans blurred together and I burst into tears.

I see many people select their goals seemingly out of thin air. They sound nice, but they’re founded more on mental desire than physical ability. I believe there is beauty in finding meaning in a reasonable goal, then allowing yourself to become inspired by the chance to perform at YOUR level on race day.

But what’s realistic?

When people tell me their time goal my first question is, “Have your long runs reflected that that’s realistic?”

To me “Marathon Pace” is bullshit. I only run it on race day. To have confidence that I can run a pace for 26 miles I need to have tested myself repeatedly at faster paces over many miles. Miles in the 5:30s give me confidence that I can roll in the 5:40s without impossible duress.

Example runs are:

  • 10 miles easy, 10 miles “at pace or faster”
  • 16 miles slightly faster than pace.
  • 4 by 4 miles 15–20 seconds per mile faster than pace.

Each of these help you find your “line,” that nebulous barrier beyond which trouble beckons, but within which only great pain and suffering will ensue. A Marathoner can endure pain and suffering. It’s the trick of the trade.

If you do it right you’ll find a pace where you think to yourself, “wow, this sucks, but I’m not dying, I’m strong enough to keep going!”

That’s your line.

#2 — Bonk on your own terms

I’ve avoided bonking on race day by not being afraid to bonk hard on other days. Like police officers who are subjected to tear gas in training so that they’re prepared under pressure, I’ve pushed past the fear of bonking by crashing and burning on random weekends when no one but my training partners are around.

You can’t be afraid to run hard when it doesn’t matter.

If you want to see me bonk come out to the Leif Ericsson Trail in January, 22 miles of rolling hills without taking gels. Training without gel forces your body to become more energy efficient and I have a seeming tradition of running out of gas and stumbling home. “Go on ahead” I gesture sheepishly to my friends. But it doesn’t matter. I’ll make it home eventually.

This feels kind of like Michael Jordan’s “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, and that’s why I succeed.”

But they’re not actually the same.

Yes, “practice makes perfect,” but Jordan played basketball, I’m a Marathoner.

I get to set the success standard for myself. Where he had to hit improbable shots in impossible situations, I get to arrive at my goals on my own terms.

#3 — Eat your heart out (within the race)

I love candy. I’ve got a sweet tooth that the caloric burn of marathon training barely overcomes.

I use it to my advantage on race day by taking down a ton of calories.

There is a great deal of science detailing the exact glycogen requirements of covering 26.2 miles. But for me the plan is simple:

  • Eat additional breads the three days before the race to “top off.”
  • Then take a gel at the start and every 10k along the course: 10k, 20k, 30k

4 gels plus electrolyte drink at nearly every aid station is quite a few calories. I sympathize for those who suffer from stomach pains, but once I realized GU essentially felt like cake frosting (which I sometimes consume straight) I knew I could take it down frequently at pace without concern.

I didn’t eat like this in my first marathon over a decade ago and I felt horrible: dizzy, itchy and weak. Today I don’t have a “nutrition strategy” so much as a commitment to finishing the marathon with that sicky-sweet feeling familiar from Halloween.

By the end of the race the thought of any more sugar should make you queasy.

This year at Boston my teammate Patrick finished and promptly puked nothing but gel and Gatorade everywhere, cause that’s what he’d been force feeding himself for over 2 hours. But he beat me by 26 seconds, worth it!

#4 — Lift legs

To me, if you’re not lifting weights you’re not really trying to be a Marathoner. By the last 10k of a marathon your stride always feels like shit and you’re only as fast as your worst running form.

Lifting improves your stride in 4 ways:

  • Economy — you do more with less oxygen
  • Speed — a longer stride at the same rate is faster
  • Consistency — your stride remains the same longer, breaking down slower throughout the race.
  • Health — lifting is one of the best ways I’ve found to avoid injury, dynamically stretching my muscles in opposite directions from how they are beaten up during running. This health allows me to build consecutive months and years of running.

At some point in Boston 2017 I looked down at my quads and thought, “I have no idea how you’re able to do what you’re doing, but keep it up!”

#5 — Trust the process, and friends

A lot of people have written about this and it’s true. I’ve been steadily training for marathons for 4 years now. The key to that success has been mostly injury free years of training stacked on top of each other. Healthy running leads to improvement in painstakingly gradual gains. Racing the marathon requires a commitment to this steady process. If all you want are quick outcomes you’re not a Marathoner.

And find people who can fight along with you through highs and lows. Social camaraderie helps not only to pass the time, but also to gauge relative effort and preparation. Some days you’re ahead, some days behind, but by enduring together you’re able to truthfully identify your threshold. Training partners keep you accountable to the plan and hold you back from running too hard before race day arrives.

That’s it, that’s what’s worked for me in avoiding the marathon “Bonk” over the past 4 years as I’ve cut my marathon PR from 2:56 to 2:28.

Oh, and one more thing,

Bonus: #6 — Buy these shoes

It’s not my place to say more, but trust me, these shoes are incredible.