How Paying off Debt is Like Running a Marathon

laurieI read a great post the other day over at The Broke and Beautiful Life.  I almost blew it off, as the title was “My First NYC Marathon: 2013”.  I spent a year or so as a runner, and although it was a great year of challenging myself, I got bored and burnt out quickly with it.  Walking is much more fun, IMHO.  I’m your typical girl, and I like to talk, so my cardiovascular workouts these days consist often of a long and fast(er) paced walk with a friend, where we can both blab to our hearts’ content.

I was intrigued, however, that someone would actually a) want to, and b) succeed at running 26.2 miles, so I read the post anyway.  Aside from being thoroughly amazed by Stefanie’s perseverance, I found within the post a striking similarity between running a marathon and paying off debt.  This really resonated with me, as we are working fervently on paying off a marathon amount of debt in The Frugal Farmer family. 



The post thoroughly inspired me, so I thought I’d show readers today who are also working on paying off debt, how marathons mimic debt payoff journeys.

1. Paying off debt is often a long, tedious journey.

I loved Stefanie’s line about this regarding marathons.  She said:

Watching the marathon is incredibly inspiring, running it is more like a four hour haze of pain and mental struggle punctuated by moments of overwhelming emotion and joy.

Isn’t this what it’s like with debt?  When you watch, hear or read of someone who’s paid off massive amounts of debt, you can’t help but be inspired to reach goals of your own, whether monetary or other goals.  However, actually running the race?  A journey to pay off debt is sprinkled with all kinds of emotions; joy, pain, excitement, anger and frustration.

How to deal: Take it one day at a time, give yourself a pat on the back for each victory, and document your successes.

2.  There are days when you feel so swamped with “I-give-upness” that you’re not sure you can, or want to, go on.

Stefanie said it this way about her first marathon:

The proverbial mile 20 “wall” was still ahead.  As I reached that point I realized that I had already hit mine four miles back.  I was crossing yet another bridge into the Bronx and people all around me were dropping- walking, clutching themselves in pain, stretching out cramps and aches.  I wanted to stop so badly.  My feet were somewhere in between throbbing and numb.

This too, is true in a journey to pay off debt.  I’ve been a part of this amazing personal finance blogging world for nearly a year now.  Bloggers and their journeys to pay off debt come and go.  They drop from the pain and the hard work of paying off debt, never to be heard from again, and many days, I can’t blame them.  Sometimes I even envy them.  When you are climbing a mountain, and you’re dog-tired after reaching only 10,000 feet of a 25,000 foot climb, it’s extremely difficult to keep pressing forward.

How to deal: Look back at how very far you’ve come, and how much your stress level has dropped from what debt you’ve paid off so far. Re-commit to completing the race, and look again at your motivational list of “whys”.

3.  The further in you get, the more you feel you can’t finish/win.

Here’s how Stefanie put it:

One last bridge later I was back in Manhattan for the final stretch.  For a brief moment I enjoyed the peace of Harlem and the beauty of the brownstones and the sliver of sunshine finally breaking through the overcast skies.  And then I saw it, ANOTHER long and gradual incline.

Tears began welling in my eyes.  I couldn’t possibly push through another.  My mind was racing, searching for a motivator, something to grab onto and push for.

Often, when we reach that point in a long, difficult journey when we’re heading closer to the finish line, we convince ourselves that we’ve done “good enough” and it’s okay to stop here.

We tell ourselves lies, such as

“I’ve paid off most of the debt.  That’s better than where I was at.”

Or

“I’m in a better situation than most people now.  Let’s stop all of this nonsense and start living again.”

How to deal: This is the point in your journey to pay off debt where you have to fight extra hard not to quit.  It’s easy to focus on what you’ve accomplished and convince yourself that it’s “good enough”.  Instead, look at how little you have to go, and how much you’ve accomplished in the previous months/years.  Tell yourself that now’s not the time to give up or quit early, it’s the time to step up the pace and kick that debt burden to the curb!

4.  You’re SO close!  Don’t give up now!!

When working to pay off debt, that last mile or two is often the most difficult:

I felt like a zombie.  Even with the crowds, cheers from friends, and the finish line approaching there was nothing for me but the next step.  My GPS watch was already past the 26.2 mile mark but the finish line was nowhere to be found.  Where was it?  Over one last hill of course!  I know now that all that swerving around people on the course adds a couple tenths of a mile to an already eternal race.

This is the part of the debt payoff journey where there’s nothing for you but the next step.  You’ve been eating that elephant one bite at a time, and you’re exhausted and stuffed silly.

How to deal: Remind yourself that you’ve only got just a few more bites to go.  Yes, you’re stuffed.  Yes, you’re beyond tired.  But you’re almost there!!!  Focus on taking things one step at a time, and the finish line will be there before you know it.

5.  You’ve made it!!!

You committed to crossing that finish line, and now you’re there!  How does it feel? Let’s ask Stephanie.

People kept asking, “Would you do it again?”  And I wanted to say no.

As thrilling as that first half of the race felt and as wonderful as the glory of the finish felt, the pain of the last ten miles was torturous.  Maybe if the weather was better or if I had an earlier start time or if any number of other factors were in play I would have a different answer, but I don’t know.  Maybe I’m meant to be a half marathoner.  Maybe I’m glutton for punishment and will push myself into more races in the future.

For now, I’m reveling in the glory.  I FINISHED THE MARATHON!!!

Your road to debt free will be like this.  There will be roadblocks, detours and derailments.  The fridge will go out, the car will breakdown, and other things will happen that require you to detour from your debt payoff journey and deal with unexpected expenses.  If you want to win, you’re going to have to choose, when those derailments happen, to pick yourself up and get back on track again.  You’re going to have to choose to win, no matter how difficult that choice is.

I remember when I finished my first 5k.  I had just come off of 9 years of crappy health.  Some serious medical problems had derailed my life, and I had turned to a life of processed, comfort foods, only adding more “horrible” to how I felt.  However, in the months prior to my first 5k finish, I had worked hard to turn things around, and this race, albeit short, was proof that I was okay.  I cried at the finish line, because I had set a huge goal, and I had made it to the top of that mountain.  And when I read Stefanie’s thoughts as she reflected on her own big win, I cried too.  And I suspect I’ll cry again when we cross the finish line of paying off our debt.

Always remember that human beings can do far more than they think they can do when they commit to pushing themselves through the roadblocks and barriers, and use this very crucial piece of information to push yourself through to a life free of the burden of debt.

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43 comments

  1. Liz says:

    Paying off debt really is a marathon. Hubby and I are a little over half way there.. Which feels so much closer but still so far away. persistence will pay off in the end!

    • Huge congrats, Liz, on beating the half-way point!! I agree too, about it feeling so close, but so far away. You guys will do it though, you’ve got that perseverance thing going on, obviously, if you’ve reached the half way point.

  2. Great analogy, Laurie! Paying off debt is definitely a marathon, and I’ve been noticing this more and more as my wife and I pay off a pretty large sum of student loans. You need to take it day-by-day and week-by-week. When I trained for my half marathon I had to realize that it would take many weeks of training to get to a point where I could physically and emotionally run 13 miles in one go. Same with debt – I need to realize that paying it down will not happen overnight.

    • SO true, DC. We’re in the same boat – we’re only a small percentage through our “run” and are working hard to stay on track, taking one step at a time. Crossing that finish line will be awesome, won’t it? :-)

  3. I’ve made this analogy as well, and as a 3 time marathon runner – and soon to be rid of 109K of credit card debt – I cannot tell you how true this is. Right now I’m focused on the finish line analogy. Marathons ARE HARD. But when you get to that mile 26 marker, and you can see that finish line….and the streets are lined with people cheering for you. All the aches and pains you accumulated over the last 26 miles disappear, and you sprint to the finish line. There is NO feeling in the world like crossing that finish line. I’m telling you…NOTHING like that feeling. I literally brings tears to my eyes.

    When I think of making that last payment to our DMP? It feels EXACTLY like that. :)

    • Travis, I thought of you guys SO much when I was writing this post. Ratio-wise, I’m guessing our paths are somewhat similar; although we don’t have as much debt as you guys once did, we have A LOT compared to our income, and I feel blessed to have you guys to look up to as we run our own marathon. Thanks so much for sharing your story like you do, Travis. You and Vonnie (and the kids) really are an inspiration to debt-ridden folks everywhere.

  4. dojo says:

    It’s clearly a marathon. You need to ‘train’ daily, to have a serious plan and be consistent in your efforts. And, when it gets tough, never give up.

  5. The Warrior says:

    DING DING DING!

    I couldn’t agree more.

    As an avid runner and one building his net worth, I completely agree that the two are tied together.

    I know this is completely self-praise but I posted a similar example where I try to get people from the fitness world and finance world to see the two being a “Ying Yang” concept. Maybe you will enjoy.

    Here’s a link: http://networthwarrior.com/2013/11/fit-personal-finance-approach/

    Well wishes

    The Warrior
    NetWorthWarrior.com

  6. Love this, Laurie! I’m a runner too, although it’s been almost a year since my last full marathon but I can relate to Stefanie’s story. It’s a great analogy to getting out of debt. Both have great highs and lows and somedays you do just want to quit. But crossing that finish line – nothing better. :)

  7. Such a great analogy Laurie. I don’t think I’d ever run a marathon, but there are many days where I feel like the debt repayment isn’t getting anything accomplished. But then, when my student loan interest paid per month goes down slightly, I know I’m doing some good!

  8. As a two-time marathon finisher now I can say you absolutely nailed it with this post Laurie! And if I can extend the analogy to the post-marathon, post-debt world – when you finish with both activities, the sense of accomplishment is so great, you don’t ever want to go back to how you were in either realm of life (physically – out of shape; financially – dealing with debt). That feeling motivates you to move forward. I found the second marathon easier, just as I find saving, investing, spending, etc. easier (and more enjoyable) without debt to strangle me.

  9. Yes Laurie! This is just how it is with paying off debt! Stephanie’s reflections on her marathon and your reflection on paying back debt match perfectly in this example.

    I’ve been at step 3 before quite a few times, telling myself I’d done enough and it’s okay to stop. This time, I’m not even a quarter of the way through my marathon. But I have to get to that finish line once and for all!

  10. I can absolutely see parallels between the two. Especially the emotional side of both running and paying off debt. There are times when I’m running where I think, “I hate today. I feel like crap. I just want to crawl into bed.” And other days where I’m like, “F yeah, I’m killing it!” I think marathons are like a mini emotional cycle. It’s important to keep in your head that those bad days will pass and you will feel great and motivated again. One foot in front of the other.

    • LOVE that, Tonya!!! I’ve experienced those days both when running and in our debt payoff journey. I love what you said about focusing on the fact that those bad days will pass. That’s the key, isn’t it.

  11. Mike Collins says:

    Great analogy! I prefer to think of it as a marathon too as opposed to a sprint. With a sprint you’d make incredible progress to start but you’d quickly burn yourself out. Slow and steady wins the race!

  12. I really enjoyed that post by Stephanie, too, and like your connection to debt payment. It’s eerily similar, too. I wonder if, like with running, there’s a benefit in pacing yourself and not paying off debt as intensely as you could. I read thoughts along those lines from bloggers in debt, noting how keeping some fun money in the budget might be helpful (or necessary) to keep going through the years-long period of debt repayment.

    Cool analogy, Laurie.

    • Oh, I definitely thinks that’s true, DB40. We’ve found that, anyway. There can be lots of guilt/shame associated with debt, and having some fun along the way really helps as kind of a reward to push that guilt away.

  13. Great analogy Laurie. When I was working my way out of significant debt I had to keep reminding myself that it was all about baby steps. Doing something positive toward the goal every day is the only way I could make it happen. So difficult though as I wanted to shake a magic wand and have all my debt go away immediately. Not how it works though and the pain of the process definitely helped me not ever go back to a life of debt.

    • Kyle, we’re in that same exact spot right now, and it is a tough one. When Stefanie talked about “Oh no, not another hill!” that reminded me of how we often feel with this debt payoff stuff. This is why the baby step thing is so important, I think, as is just focusing on what’s in front of you instead of how far you have to go.

  14. anna says:

    Love this post, Laurie! I agree paying off debt is a lot like a marathon (as well as all the training prior to the marathon, since there were for sure times when I just wanted to give up or take it easy). It’s a long process, but completely worth it, for both accounts!

    • Cannot wait to get there, Anna. Right now it feels like we’re on mile 5 of that 26.2 mile journey and sick and tired of running. Perseverance is the key here, and we’re also focusing on what you and so many others have told us about it being worth the journey. I would encourage others in debt to do the same – it really helps!

  15. Brent says:

    I couldn’t agree more that paying down debt is exactly like a marathon.

    As a marathon finisher myself I know the feeling of:

    a) feeling like even though you’ve come so far there is still so much left to do (i.e. getting to mile 20)
    b) wanting to give up (it was 90+F and 90% humidity the day I ran my marathon and the race had it’s largest drop out rate in history – the thought only crossed my mind once in the race at mile 17)
    c) how painful the process can be (my legs cramped from mile 17-19 before they made a miraculous recovery to finish the race “strong”)
    d) how breaking down the race into smaller more manageable chunks to finish before moving onto the next chunk can really keep you going mentally

    These same emotions can be felt while you’re trying to pay down debt. Just know that, even though the race is long, if you keep putting one foot in front of the other you will eventually cross the finish line and reach your goal.

    Great post!

    • Brent, thanks so much for sharing that! We are definitely at step “B” right now, but working hard at focusing on the smaller, more manageable chunks, so that we’ve got the biggest chance of keeping at it. Great thoughts, and thanks for sharing. :-)

  16. Another way paying off debt is like a marathon: I dislike doing both :P. I’ve never actually run a marathon because of the 26.2 miles between the beginning and end of a marathon, but paying off debt has been a long process that I’m committed to seeing through til the end.

  17. My debt payoff journey feels more like running a marathon on a treadmill! You put so much effort in but at the end of the day you don’t make much progress because of all the interest. I’ll get to the finish line some day, it’ll just be a long marathon!

  18. Loved this article! I think especially the point about the importance of looking how far you’ve come… It’s so easy to get disheartened when you have a massive amount of debt to pay off (and it’s happening very slowly) but like you said, the most important thing is to notice how far we’ve come and that eventually we WILL get to that finish line!

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