Mile 18 is widely known as the toughest mile of a 26.2 mile marathon, but let's face it, miles 16-20 are no walk in the park either. It's that dark, lonely point in a race when the jitters have worn off, the "runners high" has dissipated and both your body and mind have grown weary of "comfortably cruising" for a couple hours.
Runners call it "the wall" because, well, it feels like you've run headlong into an immovable brick wall. Your breathing is labored and your heart rate is fast. Your legs feel like jelly attached to cinder blocks and your energy reserves are depleted. The finish line isn't anywhere in sight and in most marathons, the crowds have thinned. It's a dark ugly place where you begin to question why you paid $150 for all this misery that comes with a free banana, t-shirt and a gaudy medal that you can't even wear to work.
It's the place where the voices in your head will tell you to stop. To walk. To quit. Those creeping voices will tell you that your goals aren't that important anyway and that you won't be able to finish what you set out to do.
Marathon training, including proper race fueling, is about training your body, but it's as much about training your mind. It's learning about how to acknowledge the voices of doubt and then dismiss them. It's about understanding that it won't feel like this forever. It's about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. It's finding a way to draw strength from the others around you - sometimes with a simple smile and a wave. It's about imagining that glorious finish line and remembering that pain is temporary, but victory is forever.
I'm a few months into treatment for Stage 3B colorectal cancer and after 27 rounds of chemo and radiation, I've just finished my sixth of eight bi-weekly triple-drug chemo infusions.
I'm at mile 18.
Chemo side effects are often cumulative in nature and each infusion comes with more nausea, fatigue and neuropathy in my hands and feet. But I've been tired before, and god knows I've vomited more than once during a marathon only to wipe the puke off my face and keep running, During races when I lost toenails, I often wished my feet would go numb if only for a moment to relieve the pain.
In the meantime, I'm drawing strength from my friends and loved ones, dismissing the demonic voices suggesting that "enough is enough" and busting through the wall, all the while remembering that while chemo sucks, it beats the hell out of cancer.
That's all that matters.
See you at the finish line.