This post is about running. Except that it’s not. It’s about mental toughness, the mental toughness necessary to run a marathon — and to pay off debt or to build wealth.

I rolled out of bed early yesterday morning, pulled on my shorts, strapped on my heart-rate monitor, and headed out the door. I zipped my Mini to the other side of Portland and there I joined a group of about 100 other hardy souls for a 12-mile run. We’re training for the Portland Marathon.

I tried to train for the marathon last year, but I had problems. I did the long weekend runs, and I liked them, but I didn’t do anything else to support my training. I didn’t stretch. I didn’t do the shorter mid-week runs (and if I did do them, I ran too hard). I ate poorly. By the beginning of June, I was forced to stop. I had hurt myself. I made a couple of attempts to return to running throughout the summer, but the injury always returned.

This year, I decided to do things right. Before marathon training began in early April, I spent some time in the gym, becoming accustomed to aerobic workouts. I’ve done my best to complete every mid-week run. (I run short distances on Monday and Wednesday, medium distances on Tuesday and Thursday, and I do a long group run on Saturday.) I’m even stretching — though still not as much as I should. As a result, I’m healthier and fitter than I was last year at this time — and I’m loving the experience.

Now, I know it’s cliché to compare physical fitness with fiscal fitness, but I’m going to do it again. When I’m out there on the trail, my brain has a lot of time to find connections. Here are some of the similarities I see between my current marathon training and my past effort to get out of debt:

  • My training last year was haphazard. I didn’t really have a schedule. This year, I have a plan; every day between now and October 4th has a target. Essentially, I have a budget. My initial attempts to get out of debt were haphazard, too, and it wasn’t until I developed a spending plan that I was able to make progress.
  • The number and distance of my runs increases gradually as the summer progresses, as does their intensity. As my body and mind adapt to the effort, as I become stronger, I’m able to exert more effort. This is exactly the way I paid off my debt. I started with small steps, cutting back on a few things here and there. Then I began to increase my income. By the end, I had cut things I never thought I could live without. So, too, I hope to be able to run farther and faster by the end of the summer than I once believed possible.
  • I run first thing in the morning. I get it done early so that I can spend the rest of my day on other things without the need to run hanging over my head. And having done this, I feel great. When I’m done with a 12-mile run on Saturday morning, I feel like the king of the world. I’m filled with confidence. In the same way, I felt empowered when I learned to pay myself first, to save and invest for my future before I paid my bills.
  • I’ve learned that it’s important for me to make it easy for myself to run. I try to go to bed with my running clothes on. I make sure my heart-rate monitor is on its charger. I fill my water bottle. Just as it’s important to remove passive barriers to making smart money decisions, so too I try to tear down the passive barriers to exercise.
  • If I skip a day, I don’t let it derail the entire program. I know that it’s not the end of the world. My schedule for the next day is still there, and for the day after. When I miss a run, I accept that fact, and I get out there to run again the next day. (Sometimes I look for other ways to compensate for the missed run — biking, swimming, etc.) This same skill was invaluable when I was paying off debt. There were months that I’d make no progress at all, but I learned not to let that get me down. I just tried harder the next month.
  • My running program has built-in rest days. As a novice runner, I cannot perform every day of the week; I need rest days so that my body can recover. This is very much like allowing a portion of your budget for indulgences, even when you’re struggling to repay your debt. Just as I subscribe to the balanced money formula, I’m seeking balance in my training program.
  • My training group has several pace groups. Some people are aiming to finish the marathon in three hours (or less!). Others plan to take five hours (or more!). My target is a relatively slow 4-1/2 hours. My weekday runs are generally at about 11:20 per mile, and my weekend runs are often at 12:30 per mile — or slower. Serious runners might scoff at such paces, but I don’t care. My goal is to reach that finish line. That’s the same attitude to take with debt reduction or retirement savings. Of course you should do what you can to improve your savings rate, but don’t equate slow progress with no progress. Work at your own pace, and keep your eyes on the goal.

This entire blog is based on the metaphor of running a long, slow race. There’s a reason I’ve opted to use a tortoise as the site’s mascot. Success isn’t measured in how quickly achieve your goal, but in that you actually reach the destination.

When you undertake a personal challenge — whether it’s paying off $35,000 in debt or training to run a marathon — go at your own pace. Take your time. Don’t give up. Move slowly and surely, and you can reach the finish.

Photo by Vaidy Krishnan. Title taken from the famous short story, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.

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