Hitting rock bottom can take many forms. You may lose your job, a loved one, go broke, get evicted or all of these at once.
The question after hitting rock bottom is usually not how to get up, but why. Why bother? Why start again from scratch? What’s the point?
There is no explicit answer to that question.
I’ve hit rock bottom several times in my life, but there was one that taught me some invaluable lessons and that inspired some of my friends to get up when they hit rock bottom. I’ll share this one story.
I need to go into quite some detail for you to understand the point so it’s a bit lengthy, but if you don’t have 5 minutes, feel free to scroll down to the lessons I want you to take home.
Here it goes.
There is a 100k hike in Hungary (Kinizsi 100). Come May every year, and a few thousand people attempt to walk 100 kilometers within 24 hours in the hills and forests of central-northern Hungary. About half of them usually succeed. The terrain is not extremely difficult, but 3000 meters climb and the long distance makes it a challenge even for the fittest.
There are 6 checkpoints, one is at 50k, half the distance. This is where most people give up. Only those go on from here who are determined to finish, because you walk in the dark after this point and there is no way to get back to civilization other than walk. This also happens to be the small village I grew up in. I’d watch thousands of hikers pass through my village year after year as a kid. I always wanted to be one of them.
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I actually gave it a try. I tried several times, but always gave up at 50k and just walked to my parents house who still live in the village today. I always gave up, because I felt like there was NO WAY I could walk another 50k, having just walked the first 50. I accepted that walking a 100k is just out of my league.
Until two years ago, when I decided that I had to do it at least once in my life.
I was better prepared this time. I’d run a marathon and several half marathons in the preceding months. I planned everything out to the last details or at least so I thought.
I would run the first 50k, take a good rest and recharge my batteries at my parents’, then join a group of mates to walk the second half. They knew the way and would help me not to get lost in the dark.
May is probably the most beautiful month in Hungary. It’s when nature awakes from its long winter sleep, frozen mud turns into fertile soil and everything comes alive. I was ready to face the 100k challenge.
It was a beautiful, sunny day. I joined the queue of thousands of people waiting to register and get going at 7 am. I was on my way at around 8 am.
I was running at a good speed up to checkpoint 2 at 26k and had overtaken the masses, only the pros were ahead of me. This is where the organizers never fail to put a sign up saying: “only 100 000 steps to go”. I love it. The next 10k felt like a walk in the park. It was mostly downhill and I really enjoyed running in the woods and switching my mind off completely, getting a bit of runners high.
That quickly changed in the next 5 kilometers. It’s a good 350 elevation without the protective shade of trees. By the time I made it to the top, I was exhausted and dehydrated. Knowing that there was only 9k to halfway, where I would have a good rest, kept my spirits up.
I hit halfway in 8 hours, which is not bad for a 50k on terrain. I felt pretty exhausted, but my mom’s magic lunch and a good shower put me right back in order. I was absolutely ready for the second half.
My friends walked the whole distance and were quite a bit behind me. The planned one hour break at halfway became almost two as I waited for them. Part of the plan was that I’d change my running shoes for walking shoes to accommodate the different kind of movement. That turned out to be a huge mistake.
A blister started forming on my right foot just after a few kilometers in the new shoes. At 60k I had to stop to take care of it as it made every step excruciatingly painful.
It was getting dark as we approached the next checkpoint at 73 kilometers. We had a short break and ate some lousy soup. I tried to fix my blisters as much as possible and we continued to walk.
At this stage, we’d been on the go for about 15 hours. One of our mates started to lag behind. We had to stop and wait for him all the time, which slowed the whole group down. I was thinking, poor fellow, he’s going to have a difficult last 25k…
As we walked on, my blister situation was getting really bad. The pain was unbearable in both of my feet at this stage. I realized that the friend we had to wait for passed me by and the group was way ahead. I was alone in the woods in the middle of the night.
It was scary and liberating at the same time. Scary, because I had no idea where I was and my field of vision was limited by the power of my headlights. Liberating, because I could walk as slow as I wanted at last, I didn’t have to keep up with anyone. I was happy to be left alone in my misery.
It took almost three hours to get to the next checkpoint, where my friends waited for me. It was at 83 kilometers and almost 18 hours. I looked my friend, the leader of the group, in the eye and told him I was done. And I meant it. I knew there was another 17k left and there was no way I could keep up with them and didn’t want to slow them down.
So they left.
I didn’t have much of a choice at this stage. Nobody was going to rescue me. I either made it out of the forest on my own feet or I didn’t. Having acknowledged that I started dragging myself towards the finish line. My feet were bleeding, but I had to go on.
I knew that I was going very slow, about 2-3 km/h. So I calculated that if I went on like this, it would take me at least 5 hours to finish. That notion devastated me. 5 more hours of this misery when every single step felt like a knife in my feet seemed like eternity in hell. I was so down at this stage that I forgot to eat and drink. I got dehydrated and had no energy. Being alone in the dark, hearing noises from the woods didn’t help either. But what finally crushed me was I didn’t know if I was going in the right direction.
There I was in the middle of nowhere at night on my own, at the verge of fainting out of exhaustion.
I hit rock bottom.
This a photo of me at different race, but it reflects the way I felt.
I collapsed by the side of the road and cried. I felt absolutely helpless. I was just lying there trying to familiarize myself with the notion of spending the night right there. There was no way I could get up and move on.
After the initial despair, a sense of relief set int. It was the relief of giving up, of letting everything go and just being there not caring about the future.
A good 20 minutes passed by. I heard voices. It was a small group. When they saw me they stopped and asked if I was OK. I told them I was, but couldn’t go on. One of them said the next checkpoint was only 15 minutes away and that I was heading in the right direction.
It was as if somebody switched the lights back on. Nothing changed physically, but my mind was able to handle a 15 minute period. I had something to eat, got up and started walking slowly.
I was getting suspicious after 30 minutes. I thought if they said 15 minutes, I should have got there at my slow speed in 30. But I didn’t. I started doubting whether I was going in the right direction again. Another 30 minutes later I knew they lied to me and they only said 15 minutes to get me off my ass. I was pissed off. This anger and desire to finally find the next station kept me going.
Suddenly I saw the light of a campfire in the distance. It was my salvation. I didn’t take my eyes off it, but it would disappear for long minutes as I followed the curvy road. I was now obsessed with the idea of getting to that checkpoint and sped my steps up despite the incredible pain.
I reached the last checkpoint before the finish line at 93 km 20 hours after I started walking.
The fact that there was only 7k left filled me with hope. I realized I’d be able to complete the hike within 24 hours even if the last 7k took me 3 hours. I also realized that I had an aspirin in my bag. It couldn’t make anything worse so I popped it.
After I started walking again, the first half an hour was the same misery as before. Then a miracle happened. Right about the same time the sun was coming up, the pain in my feet was getting better and soon disappeared completely. After 95 kilometers and 20 hours of misery, I felt energized and alive again. I ran the last 7k as if nothing happened.
I finished the first 100k hike of my life in 21 hours and a few minutes. I was ecstatic. And sore.
What I learnt from this experience:
- When you hit rock bottom, you usually get desparate first and anxious about the whole situation. Then the anxiety retreats and you just feel empty. There is nothing you care about, there is nothing that would make you move. There is no point. Strange as it sounds, you need to stay in there. Be aware of what you’re feeling and experiencing. This is the place where most spiritual disciplines want to take you to: the letting go of everything. If you stay at this place and consciously experience it, you can’t help but feel a sense of relief and peace. Savour this moment, don’t think about the future.
- When you hit rock bottom and are convinced there is no way out, and there is no point in trying, you are stuck. You feel helpless. You couldn’t go on even if you wanted to, but you don’t want to. The only thing that will get you back up on your feet again is a change of perspective. The change has to happen in your mind, not in the outside world, but it’s usually triggered by an external impulse. The trigger is different for everyone. It can be a lie as it was in my case, it can be an experience or a person. But it will only happen if you allow it. You need to be open to impulses that will trigger the shift otherwise it may never happen.
- A change of perspective may be that you start seeing that the massive challenge you’re facing is made up of small challenges that are doable. Had those people told me the next checkpoint was 2 hours away, I’d still be sitting there today. 15 minutes seemed doable even in the state of mind I was in and even if it wasn’t true.
- When you hit rock bottom, periods of peaceful emptiness and desperate anger may alternate each other. It’s okay to be angry as long as you can harness the energy of your anger and use it to propel you to the right direction. I was angry for being lied to, but that energy took me towards my goal. Just don’t let this angry energy hurt other people.
- Pain is a protective mechanism of the body that can be controlled or even shut down. I needed a combination of an aspirin and the rising sun to do that, some people can do it just with the power of their minds. If it’s pain that takes you down, find a way to alleviate it at least up to the point that you can get up again.
- When you think you’ve got nothing left in you, you’re always wrong. When I started running after 95 kilometers and 20 hours, nothing changed in my muscles or feet. The change happened in my mind.
- This experience was truly rock bottom for me. I’ve had others that lasted longer, much longer. This time I was on the floor for only 20 minutes, but it was so intense and I so let go of anything and everything that it has been by far the lowest I’ve ever been. And yet, here I am, came back from it. Remembering this gives me tremendous strength and confidence that there is nothing I can’t come back from.
A few months after this 100k hike, I completed an Iron Man race. A year later, in May 2013 I ran the 100k again. This time on my own, running the whole distance, I finished in 17 hours and had a lot of fun.
If I can do it, you can do it too. You can come back from the deepest shithole there is.
And you can achieve anything you put your mind to.