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The Big Bonk!

Sat, Feb  23, 2002 - By Mike Muha

Many years ago, back in the pre-skating days, back when the Michigan Marathon was a 30K interval-start classic race at Hanson Hills, I made a serious mistake. And I saw the same mistake made in this year's Michigan Marathon by a couple of younger skiers.

Way back when. My mistake started when I assumed the group of college and grad students I was with was going to have time to stop for breakfast on the way to the race start. I failed to bring food for breakfast in case of emergency. Well, we got up late and barely made it to the start in time, little lone stopping for breakfast. I had just enough time to put on my bib, rub kick wax on, step into the starting gate, hear my stomach rumble, and take off.

The first 15K were great - I was flying! 10K into the second lap, however, I hit the wall. Hard. 

That year, it was very cold. The ski patrol were checking racers for frostbite at feed stations, and there were several bonfires along the race course manned by the patrol. I had to stop at the last fire before the finish - I had no energy to continue and I was getting cold. The fire was nice and warm for a while, but as I watched skiers passing by, I was starting to get colder and colder. Suddenly, Kevin O'Sullivan came into view. 

"Kevin, do you have any food? I'm desperate!"

Kevin reaches into his fanny pack - "Here. Try this" - and tosses me a whole wheat roll! He continues on his way.

I devour the roll and feel much better, and actually have a little energy again. "OK," I think, "I can wait here and get colder and colder and hope a patroller on a snowmobile comes by and picks me up, or I can hop back on the trail, grit it out, and get to the finish..."

I decide on the latter course of action. I put on my skis and poles, and take off. 

Instant freeze. I had stood around long enough that my body had cooled down, but my suit was still wet; I was only warm because of heat from the fire. When the cold air hit my wet suit, it was like being slammed into a wall.

I could not afford to stop. I skied as fast as I possibly could, crossed the finish line, continued skiing past the ski patrollers who were checking everyone for frostbite, skied right across the parking lot to the lodge door, took off my skis and walked inside with my ski poles still looped around my hands. My skis were still laying on the ground in the parking lot.

As I shivered uncontrollably, my colleagues pushed me over to a warm area, started feeding me and grabbed my skis from the parking lot. I took most of the day before I felt warm again...

After I finished this year's Michigan Marathon, I skied back out on the course to take pictures of skiers still coming. As I clicked away, a racer in a blue suit came to a stop a couple hundred feet away, and simply collapsed into the snow bank. I initially thought it was someone who had finished who was just clowning around. But he wasn't moving. I decide I better check him out, skied over, and said, "You alright?"

Looking up from the snow bank, he whispered, "You got any food? I need food."

I knew exactly what he was going through. I had some food along. I had him sit up, tore open a PowerGel packet and shoved it into his hands. With effort, he devoured it. Still looking like death warmed over, I pulled out a Harvest Bar, opened it and had him eat that, too. 

After a few minutes, he started to recover a bit. "I assumed they'd have bananas or oranges out on the course," he said.  I knew he was going to get cold soon so I had to get him up an on the move. I had him take off his skis and start walking the last half K to the lodge. 

Seconds after that, I saw a skier in a Ski Patrol jacket begin passed by other skiers. I also saw a race bib peeking out from the jacket. "Not another one..."

"Do you have any food?" he begged as I skied up to him. Fortunately, I had a PowerBar left - hard as rock in the cold. I opened the package and he started gnawing away, thanked me profusely, and continued ski-shuffling the rest of the way in...

Lessons to remember. It's tough to learn it the hard way, like the three of us did, but here's a few rules to live by - especially for longer races:

  • Always eat breakfast. ALWAYS bring your own food for breakfast just in case, even if it's a PowerBar or the like. I routinely stock a couple oatmeal cups and a spoon in my bag - I just need hot water.
  • Always have food on the course with you, unless you're very sure there's food on the course. It's very easy to stick a PowerGel or Gu in your waistband or duct-taped to the inside of your bib or carried in a fanny pack. Even if there is food on the course, I always carry my own.
  • Never simply assume there's food on the course. Always check with a race official first. Don't assume that because there was food last year that there will be food this year.

Far better to carry a few grams of food with you than experience The Big Bonk...