When you are in elementary Science classes, you learn that there are certain distances that are standardized, so that everyone has the same understanding. Instead of saying “not too far away,” you might say half a mile. Usually, this is fine. Unfortunately, what Mrs. Brown (your 4th grade Science teacher) didn’t teach you is that miles are *usually* equally metered; unless you happen to be running them. In that case, some miles might be just a little different. Like the last mile. It is certainly not the same distance as the first.
Any seasoned runner can confirm this very scientific fact. In all reality, every mile in any given run is slightly different than all the miles before and all the miles after. There are however, two unique miles that are specifically different from all the others. The first mile is the liar mile, the one that tries to trick you and convince you to turn around and go home. It may be the same distance as all the other miles, but it is absolutely much more difficult to complete. The last mile is the longest mile. It is the one that requires every drop of your willpower, and somehow extends 30-200% further than any mile before it.
The distance of the last mile will depend greatly on your level of fitness, and how far you have been running. A seasoned runner finishing up an easy 4 mile run might just get a true mile. If, however, you are finishing your first 10 miler in preparation for your first half-marathon, that last mile will be closer to the 200% longer number. But it’s not important that you set out to measure your miles to figure things out.
What is important is to know that how you feel during a long run can swing rapidly. One mile you feel amazing, and think you could hold this pace for all of eternity, while two miles later you physically feel every ounce of humanity leave your body. Be prepared for these changes, and don’t go into panic mode once you start to realize you unknowingly entered the pain cave.
During the last mile, you may run for what you estimate to be about 7 minutes at a 9 min pace, and look down at your watch to see it tell you that you’ve covered .15 miles since you last looked. That watch is a deceiver during the last mile. So don’t depend on it to tell you how far you’ve come, or how far you will be able to go. Remember that if you were able to get through the first miles, one more will not break you. Even if it doesn’t feel that way.
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Because unfortunately, for a lot of us runners, the moment our brains realizes we’re only one mile away from done, it acts out. It evacuates your body and all your memory of endurance training goes right along with it. It tells us that instead of covering 8 miles, we’ve really covered the distance of the great state of Texas. We’re sure we passed Houston hours ago. And it will tell us that we’re done. We can’t possibly squeak out 10 more steps, let alone this last mile that could actually stretch out who knows how far?
After all, most of us aren’t using to figuring out weird things like quantum physics. So how can we keep running when we have no idea how much farther this last mile is going to go in this new alternate universe we somehow ran all the way into? Here’s how you know. Because you are strong, capable, and you already out-smarted the deceptive first liar mile; you have everything you need to overcome the last and longest mile as well. And even if you’re now missing brain tells you otherwise, I’ve got a few tips to help you cover those last 10,000 or so steps.
The Last Mile is the Longest
Don’t Try to Speed Up
Conventional wisdom will tell you that if you pick up the pace, you’ll finish just a little sooner. After all, that’s how paces and distance work. The faster you run, the faster you finish. But you have to remember that the last mile doesn’t submit to traditional rules of the universe. Unless you are intentionally setting out for a fast finish workout, trying to pick up the pace in your last mile will is more likely to leave you depleted and struggling even more in those last few meters.
Keep your pace even, and trust that the speed that got you through the first several miles will also get you through the last one. If you want to avoid the runners walk of shame (having to walk instead of run the last 250m), fight the urge to speed up.
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Focus on Form
If your brain needs something to focus on, let it be your running form. You can’t do anything about how far the last mile stretches. But you can try to complete it as efficiently as possible. The further you go, the more likely you are to start running inefficiently, as your body gets more fatigued. So intentionally pump your arms, make sure you are slouching or leaning, engage your glutes, and keep your hips in alignment. Improving your form over the last mile isn’t easy, but it can help you complete it without injury.
Plan Your Finish
Now you may be thinking, “You know Andrea, I planned to finish 17 minutes ago, back when I thought I’d run my last mile!” But that’s not what I mean. When I say plan your finish, I mean plan it from the start. If you’re running a loop, make sure you don’t have to pass your car to get that last quarter mile done. If you’re running an out and back, run about .05 miles further out than exactly half. Why?
Well, because if you have to physically pass your car or your home or the bus stop where you plan to collapse before you finish, you’re taking a huge risk. A risk that you’ll give in, and cut things just a little short. And even if you only have to go another tenth of a mile out beyond the place that should mark the end of your run, that last tenth of a mile isn’t the same distance as a regular tenth of a mile. It’s the last one. Who knows how far it will stretch out as you try to finish without dying? Don’t set yourself up for this cruel game of running roulette. Always plan to have to walk just a little before you get to your final destination (see what I did there?)
This won’t do anything to shorten the distance. In fact, nothing truly will. But it is a fun little game we runners like to play when we’re trying to forget the fact that we’ve been running for 17 hours. Count something. Count steps, count red minivans that you pass, count buzzards that you shoo away from circling around you. Counting random things is just one of those things that occupies your mind just long enough to let your feet cover that last little bit of a run without really knowing what they’re doing.
Make Deals with Your Watch
The absolute worst thing you can do during the last mile is check your GPS watch to see how much farther you have to go. We’ve already covered the fact that it won’t give you any real sort of information that’s reliable or useful. But if you can’t keep yourself from just waiting for the lap notification to buzz to let you know you’ve finally finished, make a few deals with that thing on your wrist.
Tell your watch that you’ll only consult it after a song ends, or after you pass 4 street lights, or after you get over that huge hill you wish you could throw yourself off of instead. And then, if you really lack discipline, turn your watch so the face is on the inside of your wrist. It prevents you from instinctively glancing at it on “accident.” Again, this won’t change the distance of your final mile, but it’s just one of those games that can help you survive it.
Remember Your Strength
The last mile is the best dress rehearsal you can ever imagine. Because believe me when I say that if you race well, you will probably feel close to hot death in that last mile. So in all your day to day runs, the last mile is a great opportunity to practice all the things that will help you get through the last mile on race day. Because who wants a picture of themselves walking across the finish line, anyway?
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And one of those things is remembering your strength. Remember all the other last miles that felt like they took 3 days to complete. Remember all the hard runs you didn’t abandon. Remember that time you made it all the way home without eating all of your fries. You have access to the same strength that got you through all those other times, you just have to remember it’s there. So tell yourself a mantra, think of all the crap runs that didn’t beat you, and remember all the things you’ve accomplished that you thought were impossible at some point. If you think about those things long enough, at some point, the last mile will come to and end.
No matter how far the last mile goes, you can go farther.
And in those hard moments, remember that every mile has an end, somewhere.