How This 50-Year-Old Back-of-the-Pack Runner Finds the Joy in Racing

The pace too fast? Possibly finishing last? Nora Haefele doesn't let any of it stress her out.


Taylor Dutch |

Nora Haefele was 54 years old when she started running in 2011. After years of dedicating her life to her daughter, the single mom was ready to set her own goals, and she was inspired to lace up once her daughter was older and more independent.

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“[My daughter] was driving, she was getting ready to go out on her own, and so it was finally time to focus on myself,” Haefele told Runner’s World. “It was finally my time.”

Since making that decision, Haefele has run in more than 250 races, including 101 half marathons, and fully adopted a new lifestyle.

“Something about turning 50 makes you realize that now is the time to do all the things you’ve ever wanted to do because you don’t know how much time you have left,” she said. “No more putting things off. You have to go and do it.”

Now 62, Haefele is a retired accountant and who is dedicated to living healthfully and pursuing her fitness goals, which include training for her first 50K race in June.

As a back-of-the-pack runner, Haefele has gained an appreciation for the sport that goes beyond finishing times. And she wants to raise awareness for runners of all ages and body types. Here are five ways that she has found joy in racing and you can too.

Find your community

When Haefele signed up for her first 5K, she was intimidated. Aside from the occasional pilates class, she hadn’t tested her fitness before the race, and she wasn’t sure if she would be welcomed in a competitive running environment. She imagined the start line would be filled with younger, fitter athletes, and she worried she would be the only person her age. But Haefele was pleasantly surprised to find runners of varying ages and ability levels.

“I was afraid that they were all going to turn their heads and say, ‘What is this fat old lady doing here?’ And it wasn’t like that at all,” Haefele said. “It was much more welcoming than I thought and much more diverse.”

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After enjoying her first 5K, Haefele took running a step further by competing in her first half marathon in 2012. In the same year, she also took part in her first seven-day kayak sojourn along the Schuylkill River.

Over the years, Haefele has made true friends in the running community who have contributed to her life in unexpected ways. For example, when she injured her knee in the middle of a 5K and was unable to continue running, a competitor she didn’t know helped her reach the finish line. “She gave up her own race to help me. That’s always stayed with me,” Haefele said.

“I’ve just made so many connections in the running world and they’re the kind of people that want to lift you up,” she said. “And I needed that. I searched for that my whole life and I finally found it in running.”

Know that the process is an accomplishment

After completing nearly 300 races, Haefele is now training for her first 50K in 2020. By following the training programme in the book Running Your First Ultra by Krissy Moehl, she’s already discovered a sense of accomplishment in the preparation.

“The training is a challenge in itself so it feels good to look at each week’s training, plan it out around my part-time job and babysitting my grandkids,” she said.

Haefele has created a spreadsheet to track her training, which includes three weeks of build-up and a down week for six months. Every workout has a box that she colors in. Green means that she completed the workout and red indicates that she was unable to finish it. Most of the spreadsheet is green.

“If I do the training, I’m going to be more fit than I’ve ever been and that’s kind of a cool goal in itself,” she said.

Define what success means to you

In most of Haefele’s races, she finishes last or close to last, but position doesn’t matter to her. All she wants to do is continue running. For Haefele, success is rooted in effort.

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“It means just being able to do it,” she said. “Just being able to show up, that is a success as far as I’m concerned. Finishing is even better, but just being able to keep showing up—that’s all I want.”

While a common goal for most runners is to lower times, Haefele focuses on a different objective. When she trained to get faster, she would become injured, so she decided to celebrate the accomplishment of finishing at a pace that feels comfortable. And the results have surprised her.

By slowing down, “I can go longer and I can do more, like I can run 23 half marathons in a year,” she said. “I can do two in one weekend. I can do four in seven days, but I can’t do them any faster.”

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Don’t stress over your finish

Finishing last is a fear for many runners, but Haefele doesn’t think that should stop anyone from giving running a shot.

“I’ve been last many times,” she said. “First of all, hardly anybody cares or notices and the people that do are super supportive. Sometimes the last person gets the loudest cheer!”

Use your voice

The biggest challenge that Haefele faces in races is finishing within the event time limit, before the race shuts down and the roads are reopened. Most marathons are cut off around seven hours. The 2020 London Marathon mass start begins at 9:30 a.m., and the cutoff time is 7:00 p.m.

Because Haefele is usually one of the last runners to finish, she has to make sure that the time limit gives her enough wiggle room to complete the distance.

While she’s been unable to compete in certain events due to the time limit, Haefele is speaking up about pace inclusion. Before signing up for a race, she contacts the race directors to discuss the event’s time limit policy to know what she’s in for. While she hasn’t persuaded any race directors to extend their time limits yet, she believes starting conversations about pace helps give a voice to other runners who are also in the back of the pack.

“I respect their reasons for time limits,” she said. Still, “I talk about my experiences and I think race directors are starting to listen to that sort of thing. They realise we’re out there.”

This article originally appeared on runnersworld.com

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