The 18th Mile: It’s Not the Finish Line Leaders Should Focus On

Most people know that a marathon is 26.2 miles long.  Successful runners also know that it’s a mistake to focus solely on that distance.  Smart leaders can benefit from similar thinking.  Whatever marathon we are running with our teams, to get to that distant goal, it’s not the finish line we should focus on, it’s the 18th mile.  Here’s why.

The 18th Mile - Its Not the Finish Line Leaders Should Focus On

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At the Starting Line

I recently bought a Road iD – it’s a little metal wrap for my watch band that has emergency contact information.  It will be useful in case I happen to pass out during a run somewhere, and a hiker wants to know what to do with me.  The ID includes my name, emergency contact information, and a space for an inspirational saying.  I paused for a while, thinking about what should go there.  I finally settled on this:


Racing Starts at Mile 18Given the limited number of characters allowed, that was the best way to fit the thought I wanted to keep in mind.  It may seem odd for someone training to do marathons to have it say something like this, but here’s the thinking.

Bright Beginnings

Like any great undertaking, the first miles of a marathon are all hope and possibility.  Waiting in the starting area, we chatter excitedly with fellow runners about goals, race strategy, and our dreams of setting new Personal-Bests.  When the gun goes off, we gush across the line, floating along on currents of hope and enthusiasm. 

The first miles are easy.  Our feet barely seem to touch the ground.  On-lookers line the route cheering, clanging cow bells, and waving posters.  Runners smile and wave, savoring the beginning of a great thing.  It’s a beautiful day.

But it doesn’t last.

From Grins to Grimaces

Hours into the run, the tides that bore us along so easily have ebbed.  Our feet reach the pavement now and we discover that it is hard.  No one is boasting about much of anything.  Gazes become fixed:  there’s no energy to waste.  The crowds of encouragers have thinned; even our most avid supporters are getting tired, and they aren’t even running!

Environmental conditions change, too.  A friend of mine has run Boston several years now and his stories and pictures always seem epic:  the cold, the wind, the heat, the hail.  It’s never easy.

Meanwhile, even as the chorus of encouragers from the sidelines recedes, the internal voices of vacillation grow louder.  Our legs tell us that they are getting tired, muscles under strain threaten to cramp, hot spots in our shoes signal the onset of blisters. 

Our minds join the doubters, and pose difficult questions:  Can we hold this pace?  Is there enough gas in the tank to reach the finish line?  Why are we doing this?

Welcome to the 18th mile.

Preparing for the 18th Mile

The purpose of the little band on my wristwatch is to remind me of this moment.  It’s where unvarnished reality presents itself, and challenges our will to keep going.  Whether it’s a running race, or a long, difficult task of some other kind, to get to the finish line, we have to make it through the 18th mile.  It’s the moment the preparation of the runner, and the quality of the leader become clear.  Here are seven ways to prepare to meet the 18th mile.

1.  Expect it.  Expecting the challenging times to come is part of being prepared to meet them.  That doesn’t mean we encourage difficulty, or become pessimistic, just that we recognize the reality that things may become difficult. 

Expecting and preparing for things to become difficult is the first step to overcoming them. Click To Tweet

With that team project we’re leading, optimism is good, but an optimism grounded in reality is far better.  False cheer rings hollow, and signals a leader who is out of touch.  It’s best to be honest with the team about future challenges even as we prepare to meet them.

2.  Put in the miles.  Good marathon training plans include a healthy dose of weekly long runs extending out to 18 or more miles.  The experience teaches runners what shoes work best, how to manage their energy, what pace is sustainable, and it toughens them mentally and physically to endure.

On our teams, this amounts to quality preparation, too.  We enable future success by investing the time to clearly define the problem, doing the research, developing the necessary skills on our team, and making the effort to develop a team culture that will endure the pounding of the hard miles ahead.

3.  Recognize it when it comes.  On the run, a little blister or a leg cramp won’t force us out of the race unless we turn it into an excuse and let it.  Adjust the sock, slap a band aid on it, rub out the cramp.  Even if we have to walk, we can always keep moving.   

Likewise, those initial stumbling blocks our teams face don’t signal the end, but rather challenge us to become more creative and resourceful.  So long as the vision remains valid, find ways to keep moving forward.  The bonus here is that, unlike racing a marathon, we can search for new routes that will still get us to the finish line.

The presence of an obstacle doesn't necessarily mean we're on the wrong path, just that we need to be more creative and resourceful to continue forward. Click To Tweet

4.  Pace wisely.  My next marathon is Boston, where the first six miles trend downhill.  With the rush of runners behind, and the temptation of fast miles ahead, it’s a common mistake to start far too quickly.  The Boston course is also famous for climbs like “Heartbreak Hill” that appear late in the race.  Where do they begin?  The 18th mile.  Those who started too fast pay the price in those hills.  The smart runner controls the speed and keeps something in reserve for the difficult miles ahead.

With our teams, pacing is important as well.  We can help by managing the workload our teammates bear, setting clear priorities, and establishing a predictable rhythm that maximizes autonomy and information flow, taps individual strengths, and reduces obstacles that may impede our ablest workers.

And speaking of workhorses…

5.  Watch for the “reveal.”  Like a good scrubbing with a wire brush, by the 18th mile layers of pretense and posturing at the start line have been chipped away, and the quality of the metal underneath is exposed to the light.   Smart, disciplined, regular training will reveal itself as steel in this moment.  The seemingly mundane miles and the sweat we’ve invested will give us confidence that we can make it to the finish line.

With our teams, the scrubbing effect is the same.  This makes the 18th mile a good time to take a hard look at the team.  Who is still in the fight and who is hanging out at the water cooler?  Who is making bold claims or casting blame, and who is really making progress?  Who is supporting the team, and who is looking out for themselves?  The true team players emerge at the 18th mile.  Pay attention to who they are, value them, encourage them, support them; they are not always who we thought they were, but they’re worth their weight in gold.

6.  Go mental.  In the marathon, the deeper into the run, the more important it is to remember the mental side of the effort.  Many runners will repeat mantras, sing songs in their heads, calculate their running pace, or even simply count steps.  In the 53 hours it took Diana Nyad to swim 110 miles from Cuba to Florida, she had whole playlists of memorized songs she went through one by one to help her make it through the long dark nights.

On our teams, the mental game is important too.  As fatigue sets in and doubts arise, it’s good to revisit the vision and purpose.  We can re-charge by reminding ourselves of our “why.”  One powerful way to do this is to connect teammates with the customers who benefit.  In one study of fund-raisers in a call center, workers who had a 10-minute face-to-face interaction with a student doubled their persistence and nearly tripled the amount of donations they brought in to fund scholarships.  Seeing the impact of their work on a personal level dramatically increased their level of commitment.

Type 2 Fun7.  Enjoy the journey.  Pardon the platitude here, but it’s true, and I’m a subscriber.  It doesn’t mean all parts of the journey are filled with joy.  They are not.  Difficult achievements involve something called Type 2 Fun:  not necessarily a joy in the moment, but later:  “It’s fun when it’s done.”  After the marathon, you can wear the T-shirt, share the photos and tell the stories, but getting though the 18th mile is what makes the stories worth telling.

As we face challenges with our teams, an “embrace the suck” approach can be helpful.  Part of the reason it’s effective is that it comes with the implicit understanding that the condition is temporary, and there will be a time in the future when we can look back and be proud that were able to persevere as a team.  That deep-seated sense of camaraderie you hear about in veterans?  Some of it comes from going through difficult times together and learning that you can rely on each other when things are hardest.  As leaders we can emulate this by praising positive examples of teamwork, celebrating little successes along the way, and putting our own shoulders to the wheel at critical times to help the team through. 

The 18th Mile – The Takeaway

At the outset of any great endeavor, we absolutely should enjoy the promise of new beginnings, and look forward to reaching that distant goal.   But between the nervous smiles at the start and the happy grins at the finish, there is always the 18th mile, and that’s where good leadership makes the difference.

If we hope to get ourselves and others through it successfully, we have to be ready for it mentally and physically, and then embrace it when it comes.

The 18th Mile - You Earned ItOf course, nobody hands out awards at the 18th mile – the true race is only beginning.

But if somebody gives us a medal and a T-shirt later on, we’ll know:  that’s where we earned it.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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