Of Money and Marathons


This article is a guest contribution by Michael Henry.


Is there a more tired analogy used in the personal finance community than the “building wealth is a marathon, not a sprint” cliché?  And like most annoying clichés, this one happens to be pretty true.

Reading Baker’s decision to attack his level of fitness with the same gusto as his personal finance situation caused me to reflect on my own parallel journey with finances and fitness.  As I write this, I’m preparing for Washington D.C.’s Marine Corps Marathon this Sunday (October 25th).  And by preparing, I obviously mean freaking out and obsessing.

I might be running participating in a marathon, but I’d hardly be mistaken for a runner. I’m 6’3”, 225lbs and I just polished off a single with cheese from Wendy’s (plus a large root beer – let’s compound our mistakes!).  I enjoy a good scotch on the rocks and exotic-sounding cigars… not exactly the prototypical runner.

But a couple of months ago I got pulled into a conversation between a co-worker and our boss where they were discussing how they were going to train for the marathon.  Some gentle prodding mixed in with some ego-baiting convinced me that I should also sign up.  I mean, I ran Cross-Country in High School… I could do this right?

And thus, I began my training.

I started out running short distances to get my legs underneath me in May before moving on to an actual training program that began on Tuesday, June 23rd with a three mile run and finally ended this past Thursday with a light two-miler.  That’s almost exactly four months of running at least four times a week, up to 20 miles at a time.

For those who haven’t already established a regular exercise routine, going from nothing to an intense four month long training regimen can be quite hard.  And it hasn’t always been smooth.  I’ve had to maintain my training despite:

  • Three out-of-state trips for work and the long days these business trips tend to bring.
  • Two illnesses that rendered me bed-ridden, including one just two weeks ago!
  • A foot injury that forced me to take a week and half off on the account that it hurt just to walk!

Of course, this doesn’t even take into consideration how out of shape I started and my continuing lack of commitment to any reasonable diet!

Although I’m nervous, I know that Sunday I’ll show up to race, and at some point I’ll cross the finish line.  It won’t be pretty, and God-willing, there won’t be pictures taken (my wife feels otherwise, just wait until she sees me, she’ll change her mind), but I think I can do it.

So how does this have anything to do with personal finance?

Looking back, I can draw a lot of parallels between what I went through in order to get to this point as far as marathon training is concerned, and where I am financially.  Specifically, these five points come to mind:

  • Starting is easy, continuing is hard. I must have “started” my pre-June training regime at least a dozen times.  I’d run a day or two, and then just take a week or two off out of pure laziness.  The same is true with managing money.  It’s easy to say you’re going to cut off your spending and then not go shopping on the weekend.  Maybe you entertain yourself at home and start to feel pretty good about things.  But then it’s so easy to “reward” yourself with a shopping trip the following weekend, and the next thing you know you’re back in your old habits.  I know it has happened to me, both with my exercising and with my money management.  But after a while it “clicks”, and you start developing newer, better habits.  And that’s a great feeling.
  • Be equally cognizant of short-term and long-term goals. Both training for a marathon and saving for retirement (or any other money-related goal for that matter) involves making short-term sacrifices in order to satisfy a long-term goal.  And delayed gratification is hard!  But it can be helpful to remember that you told yourself that you wanted to save an extra $200 this month, and not buying that video game that you’ll just be bored of in a month will help you reach that $200 goal.  Saving that extra $200 is step towards an early retirement.  Same with running.  A 12 mile run isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs but you have to focus on being in the moment and finishing, all while understanding how much it’s going to help you reach your larger goal of 26.2 miles.  When you’re able to put the pieces together and see the whole picture, it can sure help through the rough times.
  • Having a setback is not equivalent to failing. This is probably the hardest lesson to learn, but the most important if you want to be successful.  About mid-summer, I went through a period of time where the perfect storm of laziness, illness and out-of-state travel converged and I got off track.  I seriously considered dropping out of the event entirely.  After all, what was the point?  I had lost a couple weeks of good training time and was significantly behind.  Plus I had a Master’s thesis to work on, and work was getting kind of busy, and I like spending time with my wife, etc…  Fortunately, and for reasons to this day I’m not entirely sure of, I decided to get back on the horse, and work extra hard to get back on track.  And I did.  It took me about a month but I was back on schedule and ready for the race.  The same thing can be applied towards how we approach our spending.  I swear I have been out shopping, saw something I liked and thought to myself, “hell, I’ve already spent a bunch of money today, why stop now?”  It’s a pitiful, yet very effective justification.  And again, it’s so easy to fall back into old, bad habits.  The hardest thing for me to realize was that it is ok to have setbacks, in fact, expect them.  But you can get past them, and come out the other side better because of it.
  • Understand why you are doing what you’re doing. This goes back to having goals.  You need both the stick and the carrot to succeed.  I’m running a marathon because it’s a personal challenge; it’s something that I wasn’t convinced I could do but I need to stretch my limits a bit.  Plus I’m horribly out of shape and I was hoping having a goal with a date would help me maintain my focus.  With my finances, I have three main goals:  save for retirement, save for a house, and save enough money to start a business with my best friend.  Those are three disjoint goals but they’re constantly on my mind whenever I make financial decisions that could affect them.  Having them helps keep me on track.
  • Enjoy the finish line but know that your work is never truly done. I can’t expect to finish the race on Sunday and be in shape for the rest of my life.  Likewise, saving for a house takes effort and energy and diligent planning, but after accomplishing that goal how about boosting your retirement savings?  Or perhaps creating accounts that will allow you to save for your child’s education?  Or maybe you’ve always wanted to retire early or take trips oversea.  The goals may change, but the process stays the same.

We’ll see how Sunday goes – by the time this is posted the race will be over.  But my running career won’t be over! I plan to keep at it after the race – after all my hometown Indianapolis Mini-Marathon is next spring and I’d love to be in better shape for that.  So wish me some ex post facto good luck, and I wish all of you luck in your own personal finance marathon!

Baker’s Note: I wanted to feature a post with a hint of fitness or health and this one was a great fit.  I just got off the treadmill after 3.0 miles…  and can’t imagine running 26.2!  For those interested, Michael DID finish the marathon, although he admitted to getting passed by two guys in hotdog costumes!  🙂  That doesn’t take a single ounce of respect away from me.  I’m in awe…  nice work Michael!

What other similarities do you find between fitness and money? I’ll admit that looking at my student loans FEELS like a marathon and I don’t even have a mortgage!  What about you?

19 thoughts on “Of Money and Marathons”

  1. Congratulations on completing the marathon. I live in D.C. now and last year tried preparing for a marathon, but after getting to 13.1, a foot injury combined with being in Boston for the winter (I tried running, but apparently it’s not so easy when there’s more than a foot of snow), I had to take a hiatus and am only now starting up again.

    In terms of personal finance, taking a long-term look sometimes seems unnecessary and useless, but breaking it down into smaller goals (5 miles today, 8 miles on Sunday — $2,000 in savings, $5,000 in a Roth IRA) can sometimes help us see things a little bit more clearly. Looking three months into the future can even seem like too far in advance, so sometimes the challenge is doing something today that will have a positive effect (getting off the couch and doing a 5K — calling up to negotiate your cell phone bill).
    .-= Daniel´s last blog ..My AT&T Savings =-.

  2. Great analogy! Thanks for the guest post. I like thinking of our finances in this way. It encourages you to just keep going even when you do not feel like it. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, or at least a finish line to keep striving for.
    .-= Michelle Traudt´s last blog ..Proper Planning =-.

  3. Any commitment requires the long haul mentality. You are right, starting anything is very easy. Continuing is difficult, but those who do will benefit, especially with finances. Whether it is to reduce debt or save for the long term, continuing will get you there.

  4. Hate to say it, but I am *not* a runner, and I don’t think I ever will be. The only time I actually get out and exercise for the sole purpose of exercising is when my husband’s deployed, but that’s not terribly often. (Which is definitely a good thing!!) I do use a tiny razor scooter to get around my school’s campus, though, and that can be a tough work-out in itself! At least that’s what I claim keeps my legs in nice shape, I’m sure it doesn’t hurt. 😉

    I especially like the part about setbacks not meaning failure. I am deathly afraid of failing…. Failing at life, or even just failing a quiz. I absolutely hate failing at anything I try. Unfortunately, the fear of failing has kept me from trying many things, but I’m working to overcome that. I went snowboarding once, and though I’m not good, I’m looking forward to getting out there and doing more. Same thing with racing; I’m glad that I didn’t feel like a failure when I first tried, or I might have missed out on all the fun I’ve had to date. Or even writing a blog, feeling like nobody would ever read it, and now I’ve actually got a few subscribers, way more comments than I ever thought I’d get and even some super cool blogging friends. 🙂
    .-= Foxie | CarsxGirl´s last blog ..Car loans: Are they evil to you? =-.

  5. Heya!

    I enjoyed reading this. I like running but nothing over 10km. A marathon or even half marathon is not something I will attempt very easily.

    I admire Michaels decision to keep on training, even though he described himself as being the opposite of a stereotypical runner! Congrats man!
    .-= Diggy – Upgradereality.com´s last blog ..How To Create Your Own Blog =-.

  6. Perfect parallels. Most people stop at #1 – start and never finish. Many others #5, they finish a goal that should have been an intermediate goal and sit back and relax.

    I personally have a hard time with #3. I have an all or nothing personality, so I stick to plans very well, but if they fail I start to second guess it working, and start looking for a new method, but sometimes it’s just a setback and not a failure. At that moment it’s hard to distinguish between the two.

  7. Thanks everyone! I appreciate your support a great deal. And well, I didn’t gorge myself on hotdogs and cheeseburgers afterwards specifically, but I might have ordered a pizza the next day as a celebration. I am going to focus on my diet now (except for the whole pizza incident) so hopefully I can successfully bring those two together.

    What I liked about the marathon training was how it broke a large goal into a series of smaller goals, much like what Daniel was talking about. The overarching goal always hung in the background, but I had to focus on the smaller, more manageable daily runs if I wanted to be successful. Just like with your finances; I have lofty financial goals that can be discouraging, but forcing myself to focus on the smaller short term goals that will eventually help me reach those longer term goals has been a great help.

    Also I wanted to thank Adam for putting my post up on his site. I’ve been a big fan of his and I’m honored to write for you guys. So thanks everyone for reading!

  8. Running a marathon is a great metaphor for just about any endeavor that ends with a major goal– saving money, finding a job, losing weight. Just keep ticking off those mile markers, bit by bit, and lo and behold, before you know it you’ve run 26.2 miles or saved $3,000. I didn’t like training for marathons, initially, nor did I like the sacrifices necessary to save money, but something happened along the way and now I enjoy the processes of both! Running and saving…they just get in your blood after awhile. Great post.

  9. Congrats on finishing. I did a 10k Mud Run with no training (I play volleyball & basketball a couple of times a week, but nothing long distance) and was sore for 2 weeks. Like Adam wrote, I can’t imagine 26.2 miles.

    I really enjoyed the parallels with personal finance & running/training. I find it much easier & enjoyable to think about finance, blogging, life, etc., with comparisons to sports & exercise.
    .-= Casey´s last blog ..Backpacking: What to Bring =-.

  10. Writer’s Coin – I just read your post comparing investing and marathons and I loved it. Two points of yours that I wish I had thought of were “Break Through the Pain” and “Try Not To Compare Yourself To Others”. Not comparing myself to my fellow runners would have been sage advice when I found myself being passed by two guys in Hot Dog uniforms (sad but true).

    Cindy makes a great point about being able to compare running a marathon to a variety of long-term tasks that end in a major goal. It helps me to make those comparisons; any time I can apply what I’ve learned in one domain to a new task in a different domain, I feel like I have a bit of a head start.
    .-= Michael´s last blog ..DINKs Featured on Man Vs. Debt =-.

  11. You have made excellent comparisons between two quite unrelated things that most people would never compare or look at as having anything in common. Being able to stay committed to improving your financial situation requires as much discipline as preparing to run a marathon successfully.

    You did a great job here.

  12. Pingback: DINKs Featured on Man Vs. Debt | DINKS Finance

  13. Pingback: Buying The Right Business For Your Personal Payday Loans | coverpressed

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