Rock Castle Gorge hike, Virginia
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Hitting the Wall: Life Lessons

This past week, I hit the wall. I pushed my body to the maximum and could go no further.

Yet I did go on. I had to. I was about two or more miles from my car and night was rapidly approaching. Here’s what I learned from moving beyond my body’s self-imposed physical limitations.

waterfall

What is hitting the wall or bonking in endurance sports?

“Bonking,” also called “hitting the wall” in endurance sports such as marathon running, long distance cycling, and hiking is an actual term. Physiologically, the human body relies upon glycogen for fuel. It taps into glycogen stored in the liver first, then, when that is depleted, it uses up muscle stores of glycogen. If the glycogen is not replaced by food, the body begins to shut down. You’ve hit the wall. You’ve bonked.

It’s not a feeling of tiredness. It’s more than that. I knew as soon as it happened that I was in trouble, but I didn’t realize how much trouble I was in until I came home, rested, and started researching why I still felt awful the next day.

It took me three days to recover.

Rock Castle Gorge Trail, Virginia
Typical “easy” part of the trail crossed the stream, steep down and up. My husband is hiking ahead.

 

Hiking Rock Castle Gorge, Virginia

The Rock Castle Gorge Trail in Virginia is part of Blue Ridge National Park. It’s an 11-mile loop trail that is marked “moderate to strenuous” on the trail maps.

We began our hike at the 12 o’clock Knob parking lot. The trail takes you across meadows and over stiles, into the woods, and across boulder fields. A steep ascent over rocks and jagged boulders, too many stream crossings to count, and many ups and downs on the rugged, sometimes razor-thin trail (with a steep drop to the side) left me tired by mile six. By mile seven, we began taking longer breaks. By mile nine, I knew I was in trouble and started to falter. I “bonked” around mile nine. Here’s what it felt like.

What Hitting the Wall (Bonking in Sports) Feels Like

A true bonk (glycogen depletion) is more than feeling tired. I did not know what was happening while it was happening. I just knew that something was very wrong with my body.

We were ascending another steep portion of the trail and the trail leveled off. I noticed I wasn’t walking straight. I was starting to stagger. I felt dizzy a few times, and my feet weren’t going where I wanted them to go. I called out to my husband that I had to sit for a while. I drank about a pint of water and sat on a rock, putting my head on my knees to quell the dizziness. John said he’d hike on ahead to see if the trail arrived at the promised meadow near where our car was parked.

As I sat, the quietness of the trail, the heat of the day, and my exhaustion made my eyes droop. Suddenly I was more than dizzy. I was slipping into sleep. My mind began a sweet, rational dialogue that went something like this.

Mind: You could just lay down on the trail. Sleep here tonight. When you wake up in the morning, you’ll be able to hike back to the car.

Me: (From far away) That’s not a good idea. I might be really close to the car. I should press on.

Mind: Just sleep here for a little bit. It’s so soothing and calm. Just…sleep.

Me:  It’s getting dark soon. I can’t fall asleep on the trail. This is bear country. I have no food. I can’t walk this trail in the dark even with the flashlight in my pack. The path has really steep drops and lots of rocks – I’ll get hurt.

Mind: Mmm…warm. Cocoon. Of. Sleepy. Goodness.

I was started to drift off. I heard my husband calling frantically from far away. I roused myself to cry back, “I’m here! I’m okay.” My voice sounded peculiar – hoarse and weak as if it was not I who spoke. I realized I was in serious trouble if I sat any longer.
I staggered to my feet and began walking, coaching myself through the steps.

Me: Come on. One foot in front of the other. Come on, Girl. Show them what you’re made of. You’re tougher than you look! Keep going. You can do it.

Mind: Cut through the woods to the left. The parkway is there. Maybe you can hitch a ride back to the car.

Me:  Or maybe I’ll get lost. Shut up.

Rock Castle Gorge hike, Virginia
I’ll just take a nice, soothing nap. And die.

That’s how I left my inner dialogue. I staggered 20 or 30 steps, rested, and forced myself to stagger more. Once we were walking through the meadow and on level ground, I was much better but still not myself. Back at the car (we really were about 2 miles from the car, most likely passing mile 9 when this all happened), John had a can of Coke in the cooler. I took a few sips and the cobwebs cleared. Now I just felt all the aches, pains, and pulled muscles from the falls and scrapes I had taken during the hike.

An hour later, we pulled into McDonald’s, and I drank water and fruit punch, then ate my dinner. I felt better. But for the next two days, I felt exhausted and cloudy, not 100%. It took until day three before I realized “something” had happened on the hike.

I started my research and realized I had hit the wall. Scary as it sounds, I had survived. Marathon runners stagger to the finish line. Hikers, if hiking alone, can get disoriented and lost. I know how that can happen. My mind was really trying to convince me to try a shortcut through the woods or to lay down right there on the trail and take a nap.

I’ve since read other accounts of people who have had similar experiences. One marathon runner saw little purple people running with him. Another hiker became lost and only recovered when he remembered to eat a candy bar in his pack. A few wrote in their blogs very similar experiences to mine; part of the brain is trying to coax you into going to sleep.

on the trail
I suppose I could have used this fungi as a pillow.

The only other time I had a sort of weird “split mind” like that with a foggy mind voice talking to my rational mind voice was when I had a concussion in college. I rode with our school’s equestrian team. During practice, I fell off of a horse while jumping, and landed smack on my head. A helmet saved my life, but when I mounted my horse again and walked around a bit alongside my friend Cathy, the same thing happened. A voice in my head was rambling on while words were pouring from my mouth that didn’t sound like me. A few seconds later, I snapped fully to myself but didn’t know quite where I was or what I was doing. It was quite disorienting. A trip the emergency room resulted in a diagnosis of concussion and a few weeks off of riding.

 

Stupid Rookie Hiking Mistakes I Made Despite Being a Veteran Hiker

Why did I bonk? I’ve been hiking for 20 years. I have hiked through many national parks and completed hikes equivalent in distance and difficulty without trouble.

This time around, a few things were different.

  • I’m not in the same shape I was 20 years ago. My lifestyle is sedentary. I don’t commute to work anymore. I only began exercising seriously again eight weeks ago. Even that exercise has not been very strenuous until the last week or two when worked up to the 5K.
  • I did not pack sugary snacks on this trip. Eight weeks ago when I vowed to get back into condition again, I gave up anything in crinkly, colorful wrappers. I loved to snack on hard candy throughout the day, but I gave it up cold turkey in August. Generally, on a hike, I would slip a few peppermint candies into my pocket and have one every few miles. It doesn’t sound like much, but just a little extra glucose (sugar) might have staved off some of the worst bit of muscle glycogen depletion.
  • I’ve been eating higher protein and lower carb which gave me less ‘fuel’ in the energy tank from the outset. Since starting my new fitness regimen, I’ve eaten more protein and fewer carbohydrates. My typical meals throughout the day are now protein, complex carbs, plenty of vegetables and some fruit. Sounds healthy, right? Sure, but my body is still accustomed from decades of overeating sugar to burn sugar for fuel. I’ve read that you have to train your body to burn fat for fuel more efficiently. My body went into glycogen depletion and was unable to begin burning fat quickly enough to stave off the bonk. I am researching intermittent fasting as a method of helping my body burn its fat stores efficiently.
  • It was hot. We try to hike long trails in the fall. The day promised low eighties or high seventies, which would typically be quite comfortable. However, the humidity was oppressive. I was not dressed for it. I wore heavy jeans. I overheated.
  • We rested, but without snacking. When we returned to the car, we still had bags of peanuts and raisins in the pack. My husband had his lunchtime apple uneaten. We could and should have munched on more trail snacks along the way to keep our energy level high.
  • I forget that hiking differs from long walks on flat ground. I did not train on uneven terrain at all during my eight weeks. I trained on the High Bridge Trail which is very gentle. I’m going to add roadway walking to my training regimen this winter. Right now, hunting season is approaching, and it can be dangerous in my rural area to walk along the roadways. Many hunters scour the land around my farm for deer, and it’s not uncommon on a lovely autumn day to see trucks parked along the road, hunters in camo and orange leaning against the hoods of their pickup trucks balancing shotguns and waiting for their dogs to flush the quarry from the fields. They aren’t supposed to do it (shoot from the road) and most do not. They walk into the field to finish the hunt. But what if they shoot across a field and miss and the bullet exits into the roadway where I just happen to be merrily marching along? Safer to wait until hunting season is over to take advantage of our steep, rolling hills for additional training.

I’m over the bonk and nursing “hiker’s knee” now which is yet another reminder to train longer and better next time around. My quadriceps need work; they are flaccid from sitting all day. Strength training, pilates, and stretching join my daily walks and weekly cycling to improve my overall body condition.

I may be turning 50 soon, but I’m determined to keep in shape for as long as I can. This week due to my strained knee I’ve had trouble walking and sitting down. I’ve had to use the handicapped stall in the ladies’ room at church so I could use the grab bar. That’s not who I want to be, and I’m determined to get better, one day at a time, one step at a time.

Bonking was no fun, but if I had to do it again, I would. I love to hike. The trail was gorgeous, I spent a day away out with my husband, and I experienced something I can weave into a story. I actually have a short story in mind using this experience….of course, I do. I am a writer, after all!

P.S. I realized only the next day that I had hiked on the Feast of the Guardian Angels. I really feel like my Guardian Angel hoisted me by the pack straps over the end of that trail. Never underestimate the power of your Guardian Angel to assist you!

 

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