Today is Memorial Day in the U.S., a day when we remember the sacrifice of those who’ve died on behalf of our country. We’re reflecting on that today, and sending out a big thank you to those of you who have served or who currently serve. We are grateful for you!
When I ran my marathon, my last mile was my fastest. Physiologically, this makes no sense — I was in pain, I was well past the “wall,” my stride had long since fallen apart, and I had actual salt flaking off of my face because I had sweat so much. And it’s not like I was doing much better mentally. The toll of getting passed by grandma after grandma was no small thing. (I’m a slow runner.) Still, I kept a steady eye on my GPS watch, forcing myself to maintain a steady rhythm, knowing the importance of pacing myself.
But something amazing happened when I got to that final mile.
I could hear the music at the finish line. I saw runners who’d finished ahead of me walking back to their cars, admiring their medals. I could practically taste the beer they were handing out to finishers. And all of a sudden, pacing myself didn’t feel important anymore.
My legs hurt, sure, especially the left IT band that would never be the same after, but I knew they could still kick a little harder. And I was running on fumes, but fuel and rest were just up ahead, and I knew I’d soon be off my feet for as long as I needed to be.
I sped up.
I ran that last mile two minutes faster than any of my other splits, and passed a bunch of the grandmas who had passed me miles back (sorry ladies!). I even recovered my stride, and things didn’t hurt as much as I crossed the line.
Looking back, I don’t regret sprinting that last mile, or at least coming as close as I could possibly come to a sprint after having already run 25.2 miles (and having been running for five hours). Everything hurt afterward, especially the next day, but I don’t think anything hurt more because I’d picked up the pace at the end. If anything, I felt prouder for having finished strong, instead of collapsing at the end.
You already know this is a big metaphor, right?
As we near that final mile of the ultramarathon that is the journey to early retirement, we’re noticing a familiar feeling…
That Familiar Sprint
I realized it last week, as I was waiting to board my second flight of that day, sitting in the gate area responding to work emails, listening in on a conference call and keeping an eye on my blog inbox, while also mentally mapping out a new post. After having gotten up earlier than I needed to for the flight to work on a different side project I’m excited about.
I’ve hit that final mile sprint mentality.
I am not even pretending to pace myself anymore. Like at all.
The Year of No has turned into the Year of Saying No to a Few Things While Saying “Bring It On!” to a Bunch More.
So here I am: in a full-out sprint to December, when we’ll leave our careers and full-time work for good. Which, if you’ve been reading here for any period of time, you know breaks my First Rule of Early Retirement: Pace yourself. (And also, You Do Not Talk About Early Retirement, which is the second rule, too. At least don’t talk about it to those who control your paycheck.)
I am not remotely taking my own advice anymore. On some level, it’s not a surprise. I’m a jump-in-with-both-feet kind of person. I’m bad at doing things in moderation. But we just wrapped up maybe the toughest work year of my life, a year that left me at what felt like a breaking point, and all of that still feels fresh. Last year is why I worked so hard to set boundaries this year.
Here’s the thing, though: it feels totally different now.
Summertime, and the Sprinting Is Easy
Rationally, I know I should feel exhausted. I’m doing a lot more than I could sustain for a long time. But doing too much has never felt easier.
For one thing, the stuff I’m spending all of this time on – even going so far as to proclaim to Mr. ONL that I will not be watching any TV this summer – is all stuff I want to be doing, not stuff I have to be doing for work.
And, though I can’t know if this motivation will last the whole year, the closeness of our end date (less than seven months!) and – perhaps more importantly – our give-notice date (four-ish!) changes how I feel about pretty much everything. Not only do I appreciate work more, but I feel like I have five times as much energy to keep going, even when I should feel worn out and road weary. Exactly like that last mile of my marathon.
Even that normally exhausting work travel feels totally different to me now. I’m appreciating the flying and travel more than I ever have. I’m spending more of my time on flights looking out the window, trying hard to imprint those scenes onto my memory. When things on a human scale look tiny down below, or they disappear altogether, it’s easier to remind myself how unimportant most of our petty human stuff is. I’ll miss having that perspective in my life on a weekly basis. Those minutes between take-off and reaching 10,000 feet, when I pop the laptop open, are some of my best times for reflection. I’ll miss those too.
What’s most surprising is the work stuff. Though I’m still successfully saying no to things where I could give someone junior to me the opportunity instead, I also feel more game generally to take things on. When clients ask me to get them something over the weekend, I don’t bristle like I used to. Instead I think, “This will be one of those things I look back on and say to myself, ‘Thank goodness I don’t have to do that anymore, but it kind of made me feel good and valued in a way.’”
Seizing Opportunities, Even When They’re Too Early
I used to have this vision, though it now feels naïve: We’d quit working, I’d close one (big) chapter of my life, and then we’d start living our retired life, the next (and we hope bigger) chapter. I’d have the things I do now, and the things I do in the next phase, and there’d be minimal overlap.
Now I know it won’t be that clear cut. Things I had planned to do in the next chapter are arising as opportunities in this chapter, way ahead of schedule. But I know I’d be an idiot to pass on them, even if I don’t actually have time to pursue them right now. I’m finding ways to make time.
Because life is never as tidy as we want it to be, something I’ve learned a million times over, but yet have to continually relearn. Opportunities rarely come when we’re ready for them. But we can’t let that stop us from seizing them.
The Benefit of Life Chapter Overlap
As I’ve thought more about it, I’m glad to have this overlap between the career chapter and the early retirement chapter. I think it will smooth the transition considerably. I won’t wake up in January 2018, and think, “What now?”
I’ll just keep on keeping on with the things I’ve already put into motion, and pick up new additions along the way. I’ll spend a lot less of my life on planes and conference calls, but I’ll still be doing productive, interesting work, only on my own terms, and with a lot less concern about whether that work will pay me anything.
Everyone’s journey to early retirement and beyond is different, and we’ll each experience that transition differently. While I’m wondering how I’ll get gold stars in retirement (which is really my way of saying that I still want to be valued for my contributions to important projects), Mr. ONL is stoked to never be evaluated by anyone other than himself again.
But we’d probably all benefit from putting some chapter overlap in place before we jump from one to the next. It’s easy for those of us who blog about this journey — the blog can exist in both chapters. But for the vast majority of aspiring early retirees who don’t blog about it, it’s worth thinking about what that continuity could be. Or even what new, retirement activity you could add now, well ahead of your actual exit date, to fire you up for that final sprint and give you a soft landing when you cross the finish line.
The Toll of the Race — and Self Care
Just as I paid the physical price of running that marathon (and Mr. ONL has paid the price for the four he’s run), we have always known that we’ll arrive at early retirement beat up and exhausted. We’re giving ourselves all of 2018 to sleep however much we want or need to, including spontaneous naps whenever the urge strikes. It will mean we don’t get out onto the trails or write as much as we want to in that first year, but recovering from nearly two decades of work-induced sleep deprivation is more important.
That was always going to be true, whether we kept pacing ourselves this year or not.
Work has already taken its toll on us, with the ever-increasing pressure to be more productive and more profitable that most of feel. We’ll already have to recover from the years of stress and work anxiety, on top of that lack of sleep, so pacing ourselves in the home stretch likely wouldn’t make that much of a difference.
Not that it’s not important to practice self care continually, too — that’s still crucial, and we’re still devoting time to unwinding along the way. But in between the breaks, we’re not holding back anymore.
We Can Hear the Music
January 2018, our first fully retired month, feels close now. It’s not the distant future, a date when we might imagine we’ll see flying cars whizzing around. It’s going to look mostly like right now, except that the snow will be fresh again. It’s close enough that we can schedule things, book flights, put actual plans in place. What the finish line looks like is starting to become clear to us, or at the very least, we can hear the music blasting from that direction.
And when we think about it that way, we get that tingly feeling, the heart racing, the excitement of realizing that this incredible thing is really within our reach.
And when we feel that, how could we not speed up a bit?
What’s Your Current Pace?
My good friend Maggie says very wisely that early retirement is neither sprint nor marathon, but let’s just go with the metaphor a little longer. Where are you in your race, mentally? In that early excitement when it’s easy to start out too fast and flame out? In the middle portion when you’re pacing yourself even though you’d rather be done already? Or close to the finish line when it’s hard to hold back? Anyone else relate to our sprint-to-the-finish mentality — either with financial goals or in actual running? Or just want to talk marathons? Let’s dig into all of it in the comments!
Want extra Our Next Life content? Get the e-newsletter!
Subscribe to get our periodic newsletter with tons of top secret, behind-the-scenes info we'll never share here on the blog.
Categories: the process