Financial Planning

Life Isn’t a Marathon, It’s an Ultra

Early this year, I signed up for my first two ultramarathons, a 50k (31miles) and a 50-mile race. An ultramarathon (ultra) is any race over the traditional marathon distance of 26.2 miles. In the process of training, I’ve discovered that these longer races are the perfect length of time to let my mind wander.

This morning, I was thinking about a conversation I had with my wife last weekend. I told her I skipped a training run the previous week and was feeling guilty about it. She assured me it wouldn’t matter if I got back on track Monday. I was feeling guilty because I rationalized my decision to skip the run by saying exactly the same thing to myself: “The race is months away, skipping today won’t matter.”

While that’s likely true, I drew a parallel to my profession during the run. If I put too much thought into how far away the race is, it’ll be too easy to deviate from the plan. A repeat of what I did last week. The same can be said for retirement planning. Thinking about putting money away for something 40+ years from now may seem absurd.

I’ve always liked the quote “Life is a marathon and not a sprint.” But this morning during my run, I decided life is an ultra, not a marathon. For most ultramarathon runners, the 100-mile race is the pinnacle of ultras. As my mind continued to wander, I started to think about life and financial planning as different race distances. 

If you aren’t a runner, the thought of running 100 miles is overwhelming and seemingly impossible. I don’t think this is much different for someone in their 20s planning for a retirement at 65. They’re a 5k into their adult life and their financial planning professional is talking to them about running an ultramarathon. At the start of a marathon, planning for mile 23 is a fool’s errand. There are too many variables to consider between those distances. Financial planning is the same.

Research shows breaking down long-term goals into short-term action steps significantly increases your likelihood of success. During a marathon, I may be running 26.2 miles, but I’m breaking the race into multiple 5ks. Your goal may be retirement, but you’re more likely to achieve that goal by focusing on 5-kilometer races (3- to 5-year increments) rather than the whole marathon (20-25 years).