Going the Distance

Published on August 7, 2020

“What’s the halfway point in a marathon? No, no, no! It’s not 13.1 miles. It’s 20 miles! Slow down!”

— Unknown runner, October 28, 2012, 37th Marine Corps Marathon, around mile two

I had trained for nearly six months, through the oppressive heat and humidity of the Washington D.C. summer and into the coolness of early fall. A longstanding “bucket list” item was finally within reach as I arrived at the starting corral of the pace group aiming for a three hour and thirty minute marathon time. That is the pace I had trained for all summer and, as the cooler fall weather arrived, I found it progressively easier to hit that pace on my long twenty mile training runs. I had this race in the bag, I was sure of it. And looking at many of the other runners aiming for that time, I felt that I was in far better shape.

The Marine Corps Marathon is one of the most popular road races in the United States for good reasons. The scenery of the course is hard to beat, the military organization of the event is meticulous, and it is hard not to be inspired by the soldiers participating in the event, including many disabled veterans. The anticipation of the race plus the adrenaline of waiting at the starting point for well over an hour must have affected everyone. As soon as the starting gun fired, it was off to the races, quite literally.

To run a marathon at a three hour and thirty minute pace implies an average speed of about eight minutes per mile. This was the approximate pace that I had trained for all summer but as the cooler fall weather arrived, I was able to speed up my pace to well under eight minutes per mile on several runs. The adrenaline of the start caused me to speed up and, to my surprise, I crossed the first mile marker in around seven minutes and thirty seconds. The same was true for the second mile, and suddenly I found myself in the midst of the group pacing for a three hour and fifteen minute finish! I was on fire.

But I was out of breath. And I had 24.2 miles to go.

To keep up a pace for a long run like a marathon, you are supposed to be able to hold a conversation while running, not be nearly out of breath. An older runner in the faster pace group asked a question: “What’s the halfway point in a marathon?” I was too out of breath to answer but one of the other runners said, “about thirteen miles”, to which the older guy laughed and said, “Nope, it’s twenty miles! And then you leave it all on the course for the last 10K! You guys need to slow down! You can’t put it in the bank!”

Western culture strongly encourages immediate gratification and this trend has only intensified in recent years as social media makes it nearly impossible to avoid comparing yourself to others. Whether you are looking at a Facebook post of your high school buddy’s around-the-world vacation, your former co-worker’s new $110,000 Tesla Model X with “full self-driving” and ludicrous mode, or admiring photos of your in-laws’ summer home, there is no escape from making comparisons other than to disengage. The irony, of course, is that all of the displays of consumption we see around us are not examples of wealth, but rather the extinguishment of wealth, in most cases with the added assist of debt.

Human beings vary in their competitive nature, but suffice it to say that anyone running in a road race has a healthy sense of the competitive spirit. The adrenaline at the start of a race acts as a supercharger and propels most runners at a faster pace than they intend to run. They are fresh at the starting line and full of energy plus they see other runners, many of whom seem to be in worse shape, passing them. It’s nearly irresistible to try to keep up! The same instinct applies to the manner in which most people make consumption decisions. If you see your peers driving certain types of cars, moving to better neighborhoods, and taking amazing vacations, you will feel an urge ratchet up your lifestyle and do the same. The fleeting pleasure you get from the actual consumption of these items might be less than the sense of self-worth you obtain from “keeping up with the Joneses”.

The race for financial independence is similar to a marathon effort rather than a sprint. By saving money aggressively over the years and investing reasonably well, most people earning the median income or above should be able to retire in comfort. But doing so requires a rejection of the prevailing sprint that most people are running. It requires watching as your peers “pass you” in the race for consuming more and more. That consumption is visible but their lack of savings is not. And lack of savings will never be visible as long as your peers have current income available to continue spending. Having little or no net worth will not limit the consumption of someone who has regular income and the willingness to use debt.

At an annual return of seven percent, your savings would double in roughly one decade. So, what’s the halfway point to retirement for the worker who is 25 years old and intends to retire at 65? In terms of years, the halfway point is at age 45. But in terms of accumulation of assets, it is closer to age 55. Even if the individual stops saving entirely at 55, his savings will double by retirement at age 65 if the annual return is around seven percent.

As Warren Buffett says, you can only tell who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out. All of those peers who have been overspending their income during their working years will eventually end up having to make a massive adjustment to their lifestyles because they will be unable to replicate their working income when they retire. Few jobs include pension plans anymore and social security was never designed to fully replace a worker’s income. Being in a position where you are losing the lifestyle to which you have become accustomed is more painful than never having lived that lifestyle to begin with.

The twenty mile marker was in sight, finally. I had foolishly kept up a much faster than planned pace for the first half of the marathon before I started to feel a little tired and slowed down somewhat. As I passed the U.S. Capitol building and headed back down the mall toward the Washington Monument, my legs began to feel like they weighed several pounds more and this sensation persisted as I ran across the 14th Street bridge back into Virginia. By the twenty mile marker, my pace had slowed to nine minutes per mile, below the average pace I needed to hit my goal. The detour into Crystal City temporarily took me in the opposite direction of the finish line which was mentally difficult and my pace slowed further.

I was in trouble.

Completing the final three miles of the marathon was a surreal experience. Many other runners were in a similar state, with some throwing up by the side of the road and others slowed to a limp. As I shuffled by, barely faster than walking, it occurred to me that the older runner at mile two was right. You can’t “get ahead” when it comes to a marathon. Whatever advantage you gain by running faster than the pace you train for early in the race will be more than offset by the slowdown once you hit “the wall” toward the end. When you run a race at a pace faster than what you trained for, the stored glycogen in your muscles will be prematurely depleted making it physically impossible to keep up the requisite pace, and you’ll be lucky to finish at all.

As I ran uphill toward the finish line at the famous Marine Corps War Memorial, with encouragement from the spectators and the Marines along the final stretch, I somehow tapped a reserve of adrenaline and was able to avoid stumbling into the finish, but just barely. My time came in at three hours and forty minutes, ten minutes slower than my planned time. All of the advantage of running faster than my capabilities allowed at the beginning of the race was more than offset by the disadvantage at the end, to say nothing of the needless discomfort the decision created!

When it comes to making consumption decisions or selecting investments, there is a temptation to want to see results right now. Most people are driven to see quick results and their self-esteem depends on it, but more importantly, they care deeply about comparing themselves to others. Whether you are running a marathon, investing, or deciding on how much to consume versus save, the only way to succeed is to ignore the crowd and stick to your plan. Taking shortcuts will make it harder to reach your ultimate goal.

I have raced in six additional marathons since that day in the fall of 2012 and I achieved a personal record of 3:27:36 in the spring of 2014. When I was invariably passed by many runners early in the race, I just thought to myself, “I’ll see you later”, and in many cases I ended up passing people who had started out too quickly.

A runner can compete in dozens of marathons in his or her life. Mistakes in financial planning can be less forgiving. The person who awakens to a lack of financial security at age 50 or 55 simply has very little time to correct course. To go the full distance, starting early is a major advantage. Don’t let people passing you on the consumption train bother you. You will likely be passing them later.

Going the Distance
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