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Richard Rayman, a professor of dentistry at the University of Toronto, runs on campus, has been running every day for 44 years.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Rick Rayman, 75, ran when he had COVID-19 and he ran when there was 55 centimetres of snow on the ground. At 5-foot-4 and 110 pounds, Rayman, a Toronto dentist, has run every day since Dec. 10, 1978, making his streak of running 15,995 days in a row (as of Sept. 23), the 21st-longest active run streak in the world. (Just four people currently have run every day for more than 50 years, a goal Rayman thinks about, but isn’t losing sleep over). Picking at a cheese and tomato sandwich at his local Druxy’s, Rayman says that losing his ego is the secret to his long-term success.

“We all think we’re probably a little more important than we are,” says Rayman, who has never run on a treadmill and whose minimum run length is 30 minutes. “I’m sometimes almost embarrassed to let people on the street who are walking their dogs see how slow I’m running, but then I think to myself: ‘They’re not even looking at me and they couldn’t care less – you have today to yourself.’ ”

Rayman is an extreme example of character traits we can all exemplify in the pursuit of any of our difficult goals. Be it running a 10-kilometre race, roasting a turkey or teaching your nine-year-old multiplication, pursuing a dream is an act of faith, and Rayman credits his success to five major, replicable actions: sharing his journey; practising gratitude; enjoying the process; prioritizing, but not obsessing over, his endeavour; and recruiting support from his community. Rayman says running became easier, not harder, the further he went. It was only when it became unconscious that it started to get fun.

“Back when I was running well in the 80s, it used to be like a business to me, like work, and now I don’t care,” he says. “Maybe if I did care a little more I’d be running better, it’s possible, but it’s also possible that I would’ve quit. I just don’t think you can sustain over the long term with that level of intensity.”

Greg Wells is the senior scientist in translational medicine at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and the doctor has helped train more than 200 Olympic athletes at the Canadian Sport Institute. Wells, whose fifth book, on health and peak performance, comes out next year, says success over time subverts preconceived notions of effort and intensity.

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Rome wasn’t built on short bursts of ferocity, he says. Really hard things require measured dedication over extended periods of time. “We are what we consistently do,” says Wells, currently practising what he preaches as he trains, slowly, for a December half marathon, his first race in three years. “When we add healthy practices to our daily routines, success becomes inevitable – it’s a habit.”

So how do you form a habit that sticks? Wells argues that the path to big new finish lines is laden with “ridiculously small goals.”

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Malindi Elmore has raced for Canada at two Olympic Games.Jon Adrian/Saucony

“A lot of people think they’re going to get motivated and then start something new, but it’s the opposite. You start with micro-actions and eventually, the motivation comes,” Wells says. “What happens is a really hard task becomes achievable over time, becomes fun, because you build a practice and your new daily actions gradually give you energy. Motivation is not something we find, but something created.”

There’s another paradoxical twist to creating lasting, rewarding behaviours, and that’s best expressed in a hockey metaphor: It’s hard to shoot when you’re holding your stick too tightly.

Malindi Elmore is Canada’s second-fastest female marathon runner and she’s twice raced for Canada in the Olympic Games. At the Tokyo Olympics, she finished ninth in the marathon, which means in the entire world, only eight women ran faster than the 42-year-old mom with two kids. Elmore, who lives in Kelowna, B.C., says it was only after failing to qualify for the Olympics in 2008 and 2012 (then, by less than one second), and stepping away from the sport for seven years, that she found the groove that would make her one of the greatest female marathon runners in Canadian history.

“If you only focus on any one thing it becomes overwhelming and you put too much pressure on yourself and, unfortunately, quit,” says Elmore, an avid skier, which most professional athletes would describe as a risky pastime when you’re rewriting the record book on the balls of your feet. “If you think of pursuing your goal as a sacrifice, you’re framing it the wrong way. I now think of running as something I do among many other things and that’s helped me achieve longevity and long-term joy in the sport.”

Elmore has her sights set on the 2024 Paris Olympics, which might be her last crack at a medal, though that’s something that she’d never say. Still, while she’s competing on an objectively limited timeline, Elmore says she’s not going to run more, leave her garden untended or shortchange her time with her husband or kids. If we want something badly – a phone number, a promotion, a change in our relationships – it’s best to chart a careful course, and then patiently let the plan breathe.

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Rayman's streak of running 15,995 days in a row (as of Sept. 23), the 21st-longest active run streak in the world.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

“I wouldn’t trade a gold medal for what I have in my life now. I’d rather be ninth in the Olympics and live the life I want to lead,” Elmore says. “It’s great to have a goal to get you out the door, but you also have to park those goals and enjoy what you’re doing. Success or failure are binary concepts that are unhelpful, at least for me, because single mindedness removes joy.”

Joy isn’t the first thing you’ll feel as you embark on any new path. Wells says learning can be painful because it rewires our brains. “Beginnings require new neural connections and sequences and that, by definition, is inefficient and challenging,” he says. “Over time, however, the exact same movements that were hard become like clockwork and the neurological sequences become unconscious, like how Malindi Elmore runs a marathon like the rest of us brush our teeth. Thankfully, with consistency, hard things get easier over time.”

Every day for Rick Rayman begins the same way. Before making coffee, he puts on his running clothes the moment he steps out of bed. There’s nothing he needs to decide. When the running is hard, he says, such as the day his father died, or when he tore his meniscus or the morning after an eight-hour marathon in which he came last, those are the days he feels most thankful for his nearly 44-year daily routine.

“No matter how bad mentally or physically I feel, I know I’ll feel better after I’ve gone for my run,” says Rayman, who completed his 387th marathon three days after we spoke and is taking 100 of his 400 dental students to the TCS Toronto Waterfront Marathon next month to raise money for Make-A-Wish Foundation. “Feeling good about yourself and your surroundings, being happy, that alone is a joy and the opposite of being depressed, upset or down. If you pursue any goal in that manner, I think anybody can do pretty well anything.”

Motivational tool kit

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Elmore has her sights set on the 2024 Paris Olympics, which might be her last crack at a medal.Jon Adrian/Saucony

All the things Malindi Elmore, Canada’s greatest female marathon runner, relies on to get up and go.

  • Podcast: The Shakeout Podcast. “I love the Canadian content, and hosts Kate Van Buskirk and Maddy Kelly are just great.”
  • Album: U2, The Joshua Tree. “I’m going to date myself here, but what can I say?”
  • Book: Perdita Felicien, My Mother’s Daughter. “I love her story and what she’s done.”
  • Vitamins/supplements: “I don’t believe in supplements, just healthy, nutritious food.”
  • Coffee shop: Bright Jenny Coffee, Kelowna, B.C. “I love that Dave named his store after his wife.”
  • Meal the night before a big race: “Salmon, grilled eggplant, avocado, corn on the cob, fresh tomatoes – the Okanagan harvest is amazing this time of year.”
  • Breakfast: “Steel-cut oats.”
  • Sports bra: “I’m sponsored by Saucony and I do love their shoes and gear.”
  • Sports bra (if she wasn’t sponsored by Saucony): “Moving Comfort is great, especially for women who have children or might need more support.”
  • Specific Saucony shoes: “The Triumph is a great training shoe and the Endorphin Pro is a great race shoe.”
  • How much should a run shoe cost? “Around $200. Go to a local independent shoe store and get fitted.”
  • Watch: “I use my Garmin. I don’t know which one.”
  • Favourite 10K in Canada: “A toss up between the Sun Run and the Eastside 10K.”
  • Favourite international running location: “Melbourne, Australia.”
  • Postrace celebration go-to: “Burger. Fries. Beer.”
  • Mantra: “Sport not only builds character, it reveals it.”

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