The Last Mile is the Hardest

All endeavor calls for the ability to tramp the last mile, shape the last plan, endure the last hours toil. The fight to the finish spirit is the one characteristic we must posses if we are to face the future as finishers.

Henry David Thoreau

Two years ago, my wife and I walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a 500 hundred mile journey across the north of Spain. During the 36 day adventure, we averaged almost 14 miles per day as we moved from town to town. Each morning, we’d rise with the goal of a destination for that day and set out upon the Way with that end in mind. Late in the day, we’d crest a hill and see the village in the distance, thinking, “we’re almost there.” Without fail, it was always further than we thought and by the time we reached the final sign indicating about a mile left to go, we were so ready to be done walking. Particularly on the 18-20 mile days.

Since those days, the expression “the last mile is the hardest,” has become a bit of a mantra for us whenever we’re struggling to get somewhere. There is always such energy at the beginning of the journey. Anticipation pulls us out of our chairs and we begin with high expectations and great enthusiasm. Along the way, we are worn down by obstacles, distance, and our own fatigue. As we near our destination, we work to muster the energy to finish and finally arrive, often limping across the finish line, thinking, “Thank God we made it.”

Over the last few weeks, I was reminded of the last mile as we traveled coast-to-coast in a combination of flying and driving. Even with the miracle of flight, the end never seemed to arrive soon enough.

One might argue that we are arrival-driven, that it’s all about getting where we want to go. We’re impatient for completion. Give me my destination so I can begin to enjoy it. I suppose that’s how it is with any goal. Whether it’s time, money, or personal sacrifice, the price we pay is along the way. The payback happens at the end, when we’ve finally arrived.

Beginnings are relatively easy. There is joy in a beginning. There is hope in a beginning. There are high expectations in a beginning. After a long journey, the ending looks more like relief. The last mile is the final obstacle, the remaining barrier to the relief, the payback, or the satisfaction.

During our Camino, we noticed that many pilgrims didn’t finish their days on foot. Many caught a bus or cab to help them get to arrival. They didn’t walk their last mile. In some cases, they would get a ride for most of the distance and get dropped off so that they could walk the last mile. I wonder how much satisfaction they felt in that arrival.

The last mile is the hardest. Pushing through the discomforts, the obstacles, the excuses, and even the pain to finish is what makes finishing worth it. Over time, most of us lose sight of the beauty that surrounds us. Why? Because it’s always there. However, leave it for a time, then return, and you’ll see it again. Returning home this week after days away and hours driving, home was beautiful and magical and so very satisfying.

Today, I see numerous destinations ahead. Toward some, I’m just starting. Toward others, I’m slogging through the last mile, fighting the impatience, the obstacles, the frustrations, and the realization that they are still further away than I realized when I crested the hill. Will I finish? Or will I get distracted, tired, bored, or pulled off the path? Is the finish worth it?

Standing before yet another last mile, i’m reminded of the other mantra that emerged from our Camino experience: just keep walking.

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