Why We Slow Down at the Finish Line

My dad was a sprinter and from him, I inherited a love of going all out for a short time. Digging deep into a project, working incredibly hard and racing to complete it, out of breath and spent. When I lace up my sneakers and head out the door, I usually walk. But sometimes, I run. On those days, I will jog for a bit before I feel the itch to run fast. I’ll set a finish line in my mind — I will sprint to that driveway — and off I go, running as fast as I can.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that I tend to slow down before I get to the driveway that marks the end of my sprint. With the finish line in sight, I throttle back the intensity and slow down before I get there.

And I’m not alone. This phenomenon of slowing down as you approach the finish line of a project or have your goal is sight is oddly typical.

Why? Why do we slow down as we approach the finish line?

Sometimes it’s because we think “I’ve got this” and it is time to throttle back. This can happen with Olympic runners who, once they feel that they’ve secured the win, slow down and cruise past the finish line. The only problem? Once in a while, the guy in second sneaks up beside and steals the win.

Sometimes, it’s simply fatigue. It takes a lot of energy to maintain your intensity over a long period of time and it takes a tremendous amount of work to crush a big goal. It’s hard to keep it up. It’s hard to keep going especially when, as is often the case, the final push is the most difficult.

Both of these are valid, but sometimes the reason is more insidious.

In The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level, author Gay Hendricks theorizes that we all face what he calls an “upper limit problem.” He believes that each of us has a level of success that feels comfortable and that when we reach that upper limit, we will subconsciously self-sabotage to stay there. We will do this without even realizing we are doing it. That seems crazy, right? We get close to a goal, or we finally begin to make progress and then we lose momentum. We backslide. We give up. We regain five pounds, turn a project in late, or take our foot off the gas at work.

Yet, I believe there is truth to this. Each of us has developed an identity. It is both what we show the world and what we tell ourselves. Most of us are not conscious of what this identity is and few recognize the internal stories we tell ourselves that support that identity. Most of all, we have become comfortable with that identity. Even if we want to change it, improve it or “level up,” changing the status quo involves risk and, on some deep and likely unconscious level, there is a part of you that is afraid -- or at the very least reluctant -- to push through to effectuate real change.

What’s the solution? It’s not easy, but it is possible. First, we need to recognize the identity we have embraced. I have a friend who says “I’m the funny fat girl.” She has claimed that identity.

Second, we need to acknowledge the ways in which that identity doesn’t align with our goals and dreams. If you don’t want to be the funny fat girl, then you need to tell yourself -- and the world -- a different story. “I’m the funny girl on a wellness journey.”

Third, we need to do the work. Change is hard and comes only as a result of a whole lot of work. There are very few shortcuts and no substitution for doing the work. Accept the fact that, as you approach the finish line, your legs will feel like they weigh a thousand pounds and your lungs will be burning. Remember, the last part of any race is the hardest.

Finally, when we approach the precipice of change or growth, we need to look squarely in the face of what our life will look like when we achieve those goals and realize that dream, acknowledge any fear and then accelerate past the finish line.

“I will not quit until I get there” and do not slow down.