‘Hitting the Wall’ or ‘Bonking’

The Trauma of Trawden

Having been inspired by Greg Lemond's wonderfully exciting 1989 Tour de France victory, I decided to get back into cycling after a break of nearly 20 years. I bought myself a shiny red Specialized Sirrus racing bike, a lightweight machine vastly superior to the clunky bicycles I'd ridden as a child.

At first, I felt so self-conscious riding the bike that I used to peek out from behind the curtains to check that there was nobody about before setting off. I found the traffic very intimidating, although it was nowhere near as bad as it gets these days. Slowly, I got used to it and felt more confident riding on the lovely hills round where I live – Hebden Bridge, in West Yorkshire, England.

Eventually my weight started to drop, and my fitness began to develop. My range had increased to, oh, 7 or 8 miles. I could ride half way up the climb of the Keighley Road, do a little tour of the local hilltop villages of Pecket Well, Old Town and Midgley and ride back WITHOUT STOPPING! Clearly I was now ready for greater things…

Old Town

I bought a map of the local area and looked for a nice circular route. Hmm, I could do an anti-clockwise circuit of the local hills taking me to the top of the Keighley Road, down the other side to Oxenhope village and then heading off left to Laneshaw Bridge, Trawden… Widdop, Slack and eventually home to Hebden Bridge. My diary entry that Saturday evening read:

Have found a nice looking circuit which I will ride tomorrow – The Trawden Loop

I didn't know much about fitness, nor commonsense apparently! I had come to the entirely erroneous conclusion that if I could climb a few hundred feet and ride 8 miles then I was perfectly ready to climb a few thousand feet and ride 29 miles.

I spent the remainder of Saturday evening carbo-loading. Well, strictly speaking, I had a quick greasy fish ‘n chip supper before dashing out to spend a night at the pub with some mates knocking back more beer than I should have. I wandered home at about midnight and collapsed into bed in a semi-drunken heap.

Sunday morning arrived, and there I was, bleary-eyed and hungover. I had a couple of mugs of strong tea and tried to face up to some breakfast, but couldn't bring myself to eat — yuck!

Well, at least the sun was shining; It was going to be a fine day out on the bike — my first big ride. I thought about taking something to eat or drink, but that would only be extra weight to carry on the bike. I could always buy something from the shops in Trawden…

So off I set, unhindered by heavy bottles or food. The climb of the Keighley road went remarkably well — it only took me about 45 minutes to ascend 4.5 miles to the old weather station at the summit.

Keighley road climb

Gosh, it was getting warm — perhaps I should have brought a drink with me after all? Never mind, there was now an easy freewheeling downhill 2 miles to Oxenhope.

Shortly after entering the village, I took my left turn and followed a nice little country lane to the foot of Penistone Hill which looked… rather steep, actually! I hadn't yet learned to check the contour lines on the map when planning a new route.

Penistone hill climb

I attacked the hill with as much enthusiasm as an intimidated novice cyclist could muster and zigzagged my way as far as the crossroads half-way up, before my jelly-legs forced me to perform an emergency dismount. I continued on foot, a somewhat tricky undertaking given that I was wearing old-fashioned cycling shoes with slotted plastic plates bolted to the soles…

Anyway, hopefully that would be the worst of the day's hill climbing over with?

I crested the hill, remounted, and plunged recklessly down towards the reservoir far below. My bike-handling skills, or lack thereof, led to an interesting ‘close-encounter-of-the-dry-stone-wall-kind' at the bottom of the hill. “Damn, take it easy man…” thought I, “or you'll not survive this ride!”

Penistone hill descent

On I plodded through Stanbury, past Ponden reservoir. This sure was one lumpy ride. I was getting tired, and hungry, and very, very thirsty. I was looking forward to getting a nice cold drink in Trawden…

Onwards. I arrived at the foot of Scar Top, or should I say I was about to arrive ON foot at Scar Top. “Come on man, you cannot be serious!” I was not going to attempt that thing on my bike. And so there followed another slithery near-vertical stroll with my bicycle. My feet were sliding all over the place. Mental note — bring a spare pair of shoes in future for the walking bits.

The worst part of the hill was over, I remounted my bicycle and wearily checked the reading on my bike computer. Oh Lord, I'd only done about 1/3 of the total distance! I thought about going back the way I'd come, but couldn't contemplate having to climb those monster hills I'd just plunged down…

Somehow, I slogged on up the long drag past Watersheddies Reservoir and eventually to The Herders Inn. I didn't really feel up to savouring the lovely view over Wycoller country park to the brooding bulk of Pendle Hill in the distance, for the sun was high in the sky and I was slowly cooking. This was not looking at all good. I had been riding for nearly two hours and was not yet halfway round. I rode the descent past Wycoller with great care, my concentration being shot to pieces. I was starting to fantasise about ice cold Coca Cola and chocolate bars.

I turned left towards Trawden just before the main road at Laneshaw Bridge. Oh no, there was even MORE steep climbing and descending! I was completely spent. Thump. Thump. Trawden approached. Thump. Thump.

I did a painstakingly slow descent into the village. Thump. Thump. What was that noise? Where were the shops? Thump. Thump.

I was riding so slowly that I was overtaken by an elderly woman pedestrian. I must have looked very odd, a big salt-encrusted man clad in lycra weaving across the road on a bicycle. She kept glancing anxiously over her shoulder at me as she scuttled off down the street. Thump. Thump.

There were the shops. They were shut. Of course, it was Sunday afternoon. THEY WERE SHUT! SUNDAY AFTERNOON! It had not occurred to me for one single instant that there wouldn't be any shops open. Oh no! I should have knocked on someone's door to beg for a drink, but I was a proud cyclist, and proud cyclists do not beg.

I was mentally destroyed. I had to do what I had already done all over again, without food or drink. THUMP. THUMP. What was that damn noise? Ah — it was my heartbeat — my heart was beating so hard, it felt like it was trying to burst out of my chest.

I crawled up through the village, barely able to keep my balance on the bicycle. I was hardly moving as I turned up ANOTHER steep hill by the church.

Hitting the wall

My vision started to fail. Black speckles appeared suspended across my field of view. I was at long last offering my first greeting to ‘The Man With The Hammer'. So this is what cyclists mean by ‘bonking'! My legs were shot, my arms were shaking, my head was gone — I'd ‘hit the wall'. Lights out.

Just as I was about to keel over I spotted a bench seat at the side of the road. I dropped my bike on the grass verge and slumped on to the seat. There was an object resembling a little old bearded man at the far end of the bench. Suddenly, I was startled by the object starting to talk to me. It WAS a little old bearded man! I sat with him for a few minutes having a surreal conversation, the detail of which is now completely lost to me. Eventually, it became necessary to move, or die. I chose life.

What followed forever redefined my concept of ‘tired'. There was no question of riding the bike up the hill; even walking was agonising. I had to do it a single pace at a time. I rested a few seconds after each step. I don't think that there was a single gram of glycogen left in my body, and I sure wasn't burning my ample stores of fat very quickly. It was deeply, deeply unpleasant. I was no longer out for a Sunday ride. I was toiling in the Gulag, or the wartime jungles of Burma. I was in survival mode, with just one primitively-focussed set of objectives – Get Home, Drink, Eat, Sleep.

The nightmare continued. I staggered up the hills. I remounted and grovelled along the flatter stretches of road. I freewheeled the downhills slowly enough not to crash. Somehow, after an eternity of suffering, I'd got over The Killer Hill at Thursden pasture…

Killer Hill at Thursden;

… past Widdop reservoir…

Widdop reservoir

… past The Packhorse Inn, and down into the steep-sided scenic valley at Blake Dean. I just could not handle even walking the bike up from the bridge at the bottom.

I collapsed at the side of the road, breathing heavily. Presently, there was a gentle whirring sound. The whirring got louder. A fit young guy on a fine-looking racing bike suddenly shot past me with a cheery “hello”. I mumbled a reply and turned, expecting him to falter as he hit the impossibly steep climb by the scout hostel, but he raised himself from his saddle and sprinted up it. HE STOOD AND SPRINTED UP IT! I could not believe what I'd just seen. One day, I hoped that I'd be that fit, but for now, all I could think of was trying to get home in one piece…

Trudge. Slog. Slack. THE VILLAGE OF SLACK! Thank you. THANK YOU! There was a little village shop and, Sunday or not, it was open! I'm usually very polite and wait my turn patiently in queues, but this time I just couldn't. My blood sugar was dangerously low and my body knew what it needed even if my mind didn't. I grabbed an armful of chocolate bars and fizzy drinks, lunged past startled shoppers and dumped my booty on the shop counter. Having paid for it, I rushed outside and consumed the lot in about two minutes flat. I got an instant sugar rush, leapt back on my bike and flew back down through Lee Wood. I took a Kamikaze shortcut down the lethal 25% slopes of Moss Lane, and soon I was home.

I weighed myself and discovered that I was 6 pounds lighter than when I'd set off that morning… I drank 3 pints of water and then collapsed into bed. I was asleep within 30 seconds and slept for 13 hours. I had to take the Monday off work to recover.

On Monday evening, I took out my diary and renamed the route ‘The Trauma of Trawden'… I had taken nearly 6 hours to get round a 29 mile loop. I can do it comfortably now in just over 2 hours. It was a couple of years before I could face that one again.

How to avoid ‘hitting the wall'

The body burns mainly fat at low levels of exertion, but can't do that fast enough when the going gets tough – that's what glycogen is for. Glycogen is a glucose-based compound used in the body to power strenuous activity such as riding that Trawden loop. It is stored in the liver and muscles and there is only enough for about two hours of intense activity.

It is crucial to eat and drink sensibly when exercising vigorously for long periods of time. That helps to top up the energy stores, thus delaying their depletion. Even if you are trying to lose weight, don't skimp on the calories when working hard – ‘hitting the wall' won't help you! Eat ‘little and often' and make sure that you drink enough. I like to mix carbo-powder in my drinks on long rides.

It helps to make sure that you are fit enough for the endurance activity that you are undertaking. Build up slowly. A lot of experts recommend no more than a 10% increase in mileage per week, and make sure that you allow plenty of time for recovery. You won't do your health or fitness much good by grinding yourself down to exhaustion!

Keeping your weight under control helps a lot. Carrying a lot of body fat really isn't going to boost your fitness or endurance so if you are overweight, I strongly suggest that you read my review of this acclaimed fat loss book.

You can follow what I'm doing to keep fit and lose weight on my blog and read my progress reports. It's not that I think you should be fascinated by what I do, but I thought it might encourage you if you are struggling with your own fitness or weight.

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