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Illustration by Drew Shannon

Running season is upon us and as the training and races get into full swing, I’m reminded of the most important life lesson I’ve learned from the activity over the years: Run at my own best pace. It’s a lesson that has stood me in good stead in navigating the joys and challenges of life in the Third Stage – that period that begins around age 60. Applying the lesson of running at my own best pace to other areas of my life has guided me in many ways and in particular, in challenging the fixed expectations of retirement and aging.

Running is a metaphor for living. I realized this firsthand while training for a marathon to celebrate my 60th birthday. I am a later in life runner, starting long distance running at age 51. Despite an extended hiatus of long runs, I decided that running the New York City Marathon would be a great way to mark the occasion of a new decade. It felt like a bold but utterly doable undertaking.

Reality hit me like a brick wall when I started the training program. I was humbled by the ease with which others – gazelles in disguise – ran. Running faster only exhausted and demoralized me. My coach cautioned me against running all out and shared some valuable advice: run at your own best pace. You’ll likely run stronger and faster. He was right.

The advice seems counterintuitive given that many of us want to improve our time in accomplishing anything. Runners certainly do. The coach, however, had found that setting a goal or target time could be a limitation. His advice? Avoid arbitrary goals. Find your rhythm. Pay attention to what your body’s telling you and run regularly at the pace that works best for you while trying to do a little bit better. I never ran as fast as those gazelles – not even close – but over time, I ran more easily and faster. I also enjoyed the experience much more.

Since that time, I have applied the principle of running at my own best pace to other areas of my life. Finding a rhythm is not about efficiency or how many things I can get done in a day. It has more to do with what I decide to do at this stage in my life. It’s about moving to the beat of my own drum when others are playing a different tune.

Not always easy to do.

Running carries its own set of expectations, including assumptions about the kinds of people who typically run and what it means to be a strong runner. But as we all know, expectations and firmly entrenched assumptions extend to other areas of life, including what people at certain life stages should be doing or not doing.

I used to think it was young people who bore the brunt of peer pressure, but older adults can experience it too. Ironic, because often later in life is a time when one is less inclined to care about the good opinions of others. The messages, however subtle and unspoken, are plainly there. A common example is pressure to travel as expressed through the question: where are you planning to travel next? Are you not travelling? This can be frustrating to someone who is not averse to travel but not on the same timetable or with the same list of favoured destinations as others.

Expectations can centre on how leisure time is spent, decisions about employment, the role of grandparent, your exercise schedule, what’s the best attire to wear and the irritating one: having a bucket list. Expectations are also guided by the precept that whatever you have on that list, it needs to happen very soon before age and infirmity confine you to the home forever and ever.

All of it may sound like first world problems. I’m not suggesting we postpone dreams. Of course, we should do what matters to us, but it’s easy to view retirement as another occupation with benchmarks to be met. And yet, I find many such benchmarks completely arbitrary and unsuitable for me. It’s a comparison trap that makes what someone else does the reference point. When you think about it, why would anyone put themselves in that position?

That is the message my running coach was trying to convey. Forget what others are doing. The pace they set for themselves is not necessarily the pace to which you should be aspiring. Run in your own way. It’s not better or worse – only different.

I think about the coach’s message now and what it means to live life at my own best pace as an older adult. It’s not about cloistering myself from the world or abandoning responsibilities. Living in this way means doing things that may seem illogical or wacky regardless of raised eyebrows. For me it’s challenging traditional notions of retirement and continuing to work but in a completely different field, reimagining travel by living somewhere new instead of visiting a place or exploring more fully where I already live. It can mean taking on a dream project with improbable likelihood of success or deciding not to take on any project. No need to justify anything. As Nellie McClung once said – never retract, never explain, just get the thing done.

Running at my own best pace is living life within the rhythm of a comfortable place without getting stuck there. Sometimes that means pushing the envelope a bit, but sometimes not, knowing I need to treat myself with tenderness and care. A good runner strives to push through a little more but not at the expense of doing harm. It gets down to doing one’s best, adapting as needed in the moment and relinquishing attachment to an outcome.

What we most need may be at odds with the expectations of others, but we ultimately walk (or run) the path on our own. The direction we take may not make sense to others, but it should feel right to us. Taking that step allows space for all kinds of wild ideas (a.k.a. dreams) to emerge.

Our bodies know what they need. Our hearts know what they need. It is an act of resistance for me to run (or do anything) at my own best pace – to challenge the convention that “faster” and “more” or “the same as others” is better. I have decided older adulthood isn’t a project to be completed by a due date. How important then, to cherish those moments of being engaged and the joys right in front of us. In living life on our own terms, we will likely feel stronger in body, mind and spirit and probably enjoy ourselves more.

Audrey Danaher lives in Toronto.

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