A Marathoner’s Guide to Getting Out of Debt

In life, it’s our experiences that shape who we are and how we handle adversity. Most lessons can be applied across the board and help us in ways we never expected. Today I wanted to highlight the similarities between training and running a marathon to the process of getting out of debt.

As most of you know — Travis is a machine — and although he faced some challenges along the way while training for his 3rd marathon, on Sunday he completed it and reached his goal.

Achieving debt freedom involves some of the same dedication, sacrifice, and intense focus as completing a marathon. No matter what your situation or circumstances, getting out of debt is possible for you as long as you make steady progress in the right direction.

Training your body for a marathon and training yourself to manage your money is a process that should not be taken lightly. You either want it or you don’t.

I thought it would be interesting if I interviewed Travis about his experience. The red text is the take away in my words.

Interview with Travis Pizel

Q1: When you are intrinsically motivated to reach a goal you’re much more likely to succeed. When you decided to run in your first marathon, what motivated you to take that step? What was your WHY?

I’ve been a runner since I joined the track team at the age of 14.  In track,  getting personal best times and placing were tangible goals.  As I moved into my twenties I continued to run, but it seemed aimless because I didn’t have a goal.  As I approached my 30th birthday, I started to have one of those “mortality awareness” phases of life and I decided that I wanted to run a marathon by the time I turned 30.  With that in mind, I wanted to run a marathon to prove to myself that while I was going to be 30, I wasn’t getting old.

No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to turn things around. You’re never too old to manage your money better. Make goals and figure out your why! Why do you want financial freedom? What are you going to do to cross that finish line?

Q2: You’ve now completed 3 marathons and are a year and a half away from debt freedom. Many people never begin either journey because of how overwhelming it can be to get started. When you started your debt free journey and signed up for your 5 year Debt Management Plan, how overwhelmed were you by each challenge? Did you procrastinate before finally deciding to commit?

I’ve run 3 marathons, but I’ve also had 2 failed attempts in which injury has caused me to abandon my goal for that year.  I actually injured myself in my first attempt.  It was my own fault, because I didn’t have a plan.  I just ran, over-trained  and ended up injuring myself.   For my second attempt, I found a marathon training program. I wasn’t overwhelmed because I was following a proven plan. I knew it would work, I just had to execute.

Overwhelmed is not the emotion I felt when we joined our debt management plan.  The right emotion is fear.  We went from, “everything is fine,” to “we can’t pay all our bills anymore,” to “Oh my God, I hope this Debt Management thing is for real” in the course of a week.   We had never heard of a debt relief program before and didn’t know if it was a scam, or if it was really going to help us.  Turns out it was the best financial decision we’ve ever made.  I can’t say I ever felt overwhelmed though.  As we became more comfortable with the program, and gained confidence that it was going to work, I actually felt relief.  Prior to enrolling, we didn’t know when or if we’d ever get out of debt.  Suddenly we had a finish line – and that felt great. I certainly wish we would have sought help earlier, but I was in denial.  I honestly thought we’d eventually fix our finances on our own.  We really needed something to force our hand, and letters from Chase stating that our minimum monthly payments were being more than doubled was the push that sent us into crisis.

Being overwhelmed by fear of the unknown can cripple us. The key is to come to terms with your reality and take action that moves you in the direction you’d like to go. If you are able to accept responsibility for your reality you’ll then be in a better position to deal with it. Travis went from denial to reality to action and once he did, the finish line, no matter how far away it appeared, was in sight. Also, failure is only a stepping stone to success. Learn from your failures and/or misfortunes and eventually success will be yours.

Q3: Running a marathon requires a good amount of physical and mental preparation. The physical training you go through is tough but isn’t the biggest obstacle often times in your head? Did you ever question yourself or experience self-doubt?

You’re right, training for a marathon is as at least as much mental as it is physical.  Someone training for a marathon will have one long run each week.  As the length of these runs increased there were times  where I wanted to quit early.  But the point of these long runs is to encounter this self-doubt on purpose, and practice talking yourself into continuing on.  

The fight in your head can sometimes stifle the best of intentions. When you experience doubt, and begin to second guess yourself, it’s precisely when you need to dig deep and see what you’re made of. Don’t quit! My wife and I experienced this feeling at first when we began paying off our debt. We were sacrificing so much and we wondered if it was worth it. We didn’t like that feeling. It made us uncomfortable. But if we would have gave into those emotions we may not have become completely debt free — at least not when we did. 

Q4: Everyone knows the most well thought out plan can fail at a moment’s notice.  Did you experience any setbacks or injuries that required a new training plan? What would you say helped you the most in dealing with the struggles you encountered?

Absolutely.  My training was going along spectacularly.  I was alternating hard and easy training days, doing my speed work and taking days off.  I was doing everything right.  At the end of March I went on a 5 mile run on a Friday night.  It was one of the best runs I’ve ever had, completing it in about 38 minutes.  I felt like I was on top of the world.  The next morning I woke up experiencing pain in my right knee which forced me to stop running for about 7 weeks.  Drawing upon previous injury experience, I knew that trying to “run through the pain” was the wrong approach.  I adapt to my temporary limits to do the best I could with non-impact exercise in order to let the knee heal. 

Budgeting is hard. It takes time to master. You will have setbacks. How you handle those setbacks will determine success or failure. Emergencies come up. It is not uncommon to have to revamp an entire budget because of one unplanned expense. Life happens. Make the best out of the worst situation and don’t let obstacles deter you from reaching your goals. 

Q5: Marathoner’s are familiar with “The Wall”. The Wall is when glycogen runs low and the body begins burning fat for fuel, causing the runner to experience fatigue. At this point it seems the remainder of the race would take place in the mind. In the 3 marathon’s you’ve completed what has your experience with “The Wall” been like and how did you overcome it?

“The Wall” is a terrible, horrible thing.  During my first marathon, I remember walking by mile marker 22 thinking that it’s not a question of whether I was going to die or not, but simply a matter of what mile marker they would recover my body from.  Those were my exact thoughts.  The thing that snapped me out of it was when a medic walked over to me and asked, “Are you OK?”  I had heard that they would pull people off the course if they felt the runner’s health was in jeopardy.  I put on my biggest smile and said, “I’m fine.”  I was NOT going to run 22 miles to be pulled off the course.  My mind focused, and off I went. During the marathon this weekend, I was the most prepared for “The Wall” as I had ever been.  I had done more long runs, and had more practice making myself continue.  The two weeks leading up to the marathon I had mentally practiced hitting that wall, and pushing myself to continue.   I had visualized success over and over.   The thing is, when you hit that wall, your mental training gets thrown completely out the window.  The first thing you have to do is focus and remember that you’ve trained for this, that you know what to do.  Then you have to convince yourself that you can indeed continue.  On Sunday, it took me from about mile 21 to 24.5.  I probably looked like a crazy person during that 3.5 miles as I alternated between looking around in the sky searching for something, and talking to myself almost violently trying to get myself to keep going.  

My wife and I experienced “the wall” when getting out of debt. We had paid off everything but the student loan — our biggest and last debt. As our debt free journey seemed to come to a halt — compared to our earlier experience of paying one or sometimes two debts off a month — we became less motivated and started to struggle to stick to our plan. Our budget began to fade and we found ourselves starting to waste money again.  

We lost focus and had little motivation!

I decided to break our remaining student loans into smaller bite-size pieces so that it seemed like we had more than one debt. We also reminded ourselves of why we started our debt free journey. We made it past that and eventually became debt free just as we planned. If you find yourself feeling burnt out or old behaviors start to resurface find your strength. Don’t give up! You can do it!

Q6: Dave Ramsey often says that getting out of debt is a marathon not a sprint. Would you agree with that statement? Why?

That statement is truth.  I’m not a sprinter, so one may completely disagree with me, but to me a sprint is mostly instinct and physical ability.  Running a marathon takes a lot of planning.  You need a hydration plan, a refueling plan to intake carbohydrates to keep your energy level up.  You need to plan when you are going to take walk breaks and how fast you’re going to run as to not burn out. It requires a steady expenditure of effort  and focus for a long period of time. Getting out of debt requires a lot of planning to keep yourself on budget.  You can’t just do it for a little while and then quit.  It requires a steady expenditure of effort and focus for a long period of time.

You didn’t get into debt overnight and you won’t get out overnight either. Only purposeful, planned steps in the right direction will get you where you want to go. It’s sometimes hard and it can seem as though it is all for nothing but the effort you put in will determine where you end up. Little effort equals little progress. Constant effort equals success!

Q7: After all of your extraordinary hard work, dedication and sacrifice over the years to complete 3 marathons and to be so close to debt freedom, do you have any regrets? As hard as it can be, was it all worth it?

Training and completing three marathons has taught me that I can do anything I put my mind to.   You learn a lot about yourself, and how strong you really are when you hit that wall, and you push yourself through it.  There is nothing like the feeling of crossing that finish line.  Nothing. It’s indescribable. My journey out of debt has had such a huge influence on me becoming who I am today.  I honestly believe that everything in life happens for a reason.  I was meant to experience this journey to grow as a father, a husband, and a person.  I believe that I was also meant to experience this journey to give something positive to other people going through the same struggle. Finally, this experience has led me to form friendships that I truly treasure.  I hope and pray they continue after the completion of my debt management program.

How could I possibly have any regrets?

I asked this question to point out that even though Travis struggled at times — with injury, motivation, or any other obstacle — in the end, there was nothing to regret. Stick to your debt free plan and you will not regret a single thing once you reach your goal. Keep your eye on the prize and fight for your future because it’s well worth it.

What Are You Made Of?

Do you think you will never get out of debt?

Are you crippled by fear?

Does it feel like life is beating you up?

Have you considered giving up?

These are normal feelings and emotions we experience when something gets hard. We naturally want to follow the path of least resistance. We want to do what is easier and less painful. We forget about how we felt in the beginning. The new emotions and pain we experience as we struggle to get out of debt seem worse than the pain we experienced before we started but it’s not. Your mind is playing tricks on you!

When you decided to get out of debt you did so for a reason. Don’t forget about what that reason was. Think about how far you’ve come! You don’t want to go back to the old you or that old situation. Debt sucks and YOU KNOW THIS TO BE TRUE!

It’s going to get tough!! Count on it!

Nothing worth achieving is ever easy! This is when you find out what you’re made of. This is when you dig deeper than you ever thought possible. This is when you decide to either cross that finish line or turn around and go back to where you started. The starting line is in your past. You don’t want to go back there. You want to finish and you are capable of doing so! Cross that finish line!!

What are you made of? 

Is freedom in your future or will you remain a slave to your own fear and discomfort? The choice is yours.

About Brad Chaffee

3 Responses to “A Marathoner’s Guide to Getting Out of Debt”

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  1. Travis says:

    Thanks for interviewing me, Brad! I really enjoyed watching your correlate my marathon training to getting out of debt. I enjoyed the heck out of running the marathon, but now that it’s over I can be a little more loose with my working out. I don’t have to be so rigid with my working out….I don’t have to run a certain distance every day, I can be a little more free form. Sounds about how a spending plan or budget will change once I’m out of debt too! 🙂

  2. Kris says:

    Slowly but surely you’re helping me tip the scales towards running my first marathon. For some reason it was much easier for me to make the commitment to getting out of debt than it is to run 26.2…silly!

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