The Big Bonk
Hard Times and Hitting a Wall
I’ve hit a wall—not a real wall but an imagined one in the form of a computer screen capable of sucking up my soul, along with all my words.
A respected agent I recently pitched encouraged me to “rework” the beginning pages of What Birds Know, which I am doing, with difficultly. Though I know he’s right, this round of revision finds me miles into the journey at a time when I am running on reserves.
After a decade of work on this project, I’m seriously fatigued and sore (hours of sitting is not good for the backs or hip). And distracted—by work on my second novel, Snag Town.
I’m not the first person to “hit” the proverbial wall. Elite athletes, marathoners in particular, face this condition frequently, usually right when they are closest to finishing a race. A deficit of glycogen, not words, is their problem.
As a reporter, I’ve covered Juan and Federico Sanchez, a brotherly pair of Badwater ultramarathoners as they ran through Death Valley in 125-degree heat. Both hit the wall; one pushed through, the other could not, try though he did.
This “Hit-the-Wall” condition is so common—and universal—it even has its own Wikipedia page. The idiom has its origins in the mid-20th century when hitting the wall or the “bonk” became accepted lingo for a sudden loss of energy.
Come to learn people hit the wall in other languages, too.
The French “frapper le mur du marathon” (hit the actual marathon wall) but can also “avoir un coup de barre” (be smacked by a bar).
The Germans don’t hit the wall but instead are hit by a man with hammer— “der Mann mit dem Hammer.”
Bar, hammer, wall, all exact the same brutal toll.
I am thinking of my friend, Alison Michaux Reynolds, who crossed 120 miles of snowy Norwegian wilderness on skis in February 2020 to raise cure-based research funding for PKU, a rare inherited genetic condition that afflicts her daughter, Tia.
In Norway to chronicle the trek, I, along with a handful of scientists, skied out to meet Alison on her final day. Standing beneath a brilliant blue sky that belied earlier blizzard conditions, I asked Alison if she ever “hit the wall” during her eight-day trek. Alison said she had—on Day 3.
“I actually contemplated stopping,” Alison told me. “We had a huge hill to climb and I’d been cold the entire time and the snow was still falling, making it very difficult to pull the pulk sled.” To combat her fatigue, Alison used “mind tricks” to push past the block, imagining all the warm places she’d visit once the trek was complete. She reflected upon her training, which included miles of running, cycling, and pulling tires the same weight her 80-pound sled. She pictured Tia and the other PKU patients who were counting on the trek-related donations and awareness that could lead to a cure.
Children born with PKU, or Phenylketonuria, lack the ability to metabolize phenylalanine or Phe, an amino acid found in almost everything we eat or drink. Before the recent introduction of enzyme therapies, one championed by Alison, PKU patients had only one way to protect themselves from brain damage: adhere to a strict and expensive low-protein diet of formulas and medically engineered food — in perpetuity.
By the next morning, on Day 4, Alison had located the reserves to push past the sub-arctic wall in her way and finish out the trek, raising one million-plus dollars in research funding in the process.
Inspirational stuff, right?
Maybe, you, like me, have hit a wall or been smacked by the bar? Perhaps you aren’t sure if or how to keep going? Federico, the ultramarathoner brother I mentioned earlier, offered these wise words about his DNF (Did Not Finish) race status at Badwater.
“It happens in a race like this, and not because you didn’t train or your crew didn’t do their homework,” he told me. “It’s because of the conditions. This is a hard race to finish.”
I’d forgotten Federico said this until I went back and reread my story, which I’m so glad I did. Because he’s right: some races are hard to finish. Conditions change, as do circumstances. There are times with this novel when I have felt like an ultramarathoner, pushing through and stumbling along, the road ahead and behind littered with the fallen bodies of would-be novelists.
Maybe that will be me one day. But not now. I can still feel a third wind stirring inside me, waiting to be summoned to battle the Bonk…
See you on the other side. I have some writing to do.