Reflections From the Trail

Many of you know that I like to run and that my event of choice is the ultramarathon. Whether it’s in the Sierras or our local hills and valleys, I’ve been running ultras for five years or so and have seen some beautiful scenery and had lots of time for reflection along the way. This past weekend was no exception.

On Saturday I ran the Napa Valley 50k, a 31-mile race beginning in Calistoga. The course wound its way up through the wild flowers and rock spires of the Palisades Trail before eventually turning around at the top of Mount St Helena and heading back to town. The race exemplified the rugged beauty and difficult terrain I’ve come to associate with ultras.

This was my third time running the race. I keep coming back for several reasons, but primarily it’s a time to appreciate my surroundings, be grateful for the good health that carried me through, and the periods of solitude. While the race is run with hundreds of other people, the nature of the terrain often means long stretches by yourself. It’s a good time to think.

It may seem strange, but I often think about my clients during these times. I think about their plans, the markets and the economy. I also reflect on how similar ultrarunning is to planning for retirement.

We’ve all heard about the importance of pacing ourselves. Maybe it’s working too hard for too long or eating and drinking too much. We tend to know intuitively how much we can handle, but it can be difficult to reset and slow down before we run into trouble. This week I thought I’d expand on this a bit with some reflections on the art of pacing, both in a long race and when planning for, and living in, retirement.

Having an Appropriate Plan – While it’s probably obvious you should have a plan before attempting an ultra, the plan needs to be appropriate to your goals for race day. It’s not good enough to follow someone else’s plan you found online or in a book, for example. You need to craft one for yourself.

But first you have to answer some questions to determine what your goals are. Are you just trying to finish? Maybe you have a time goal, or perhaps you’re even trying to win your age group? What’s your fitness level and how has your training been going? Are you healthy, or maybe you’re feeling overworked and stressed? These and other factors matter more than what shirt and shoes you’ll be wearing on race day. Just like everyone else, runners tend to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about less essential items, forgetting that ultras have a way of beating you up mercilessly for poor planning.

The questions are similar when planning for retirement. Have you thought about what’s most important to you during retirement? Why do you even want to retire in the first place? Are you simply looking for a long vacation, or are you really ready to start the next chapter of your life? What’s that likely to look like? These kinds of questions should be addressed first but instead folks sometimes focus more on the minutiae of the Social Security system, stock market performance, or even who’s in the White House as indicators of whether they’re ready to retire.

I sometimes think of this as finding your “Why”, and it’s critically important to have a good one, or even several good ones, before attempting a long race or taking the plunge and retiring.  

Running Your Own Race – A big part of race planning for most runners is determining what their “race pace” should be. This is typically a per-mile average that can vary widely based on different factors (how rugged the trails are, how hilly the course is, the weather, etc). Race plans also tend to have a range of “acceptable” paces. The runner may have a goal pace of, say, ten minutes per mile over rocky terrain but needs to stay under an 18-minute mile average in order to finish the race within “cutoffs” (beyond which the race director won’t let the runner continue). Somewhere in between is the most likely average pace and this can be tough for some runners to swallow. Too often runners set a goal pace that simply isn’t sustainable due to a lack of training or simply an underestimation of the course they’ll be running. The inexperienced runner can see they’re getting behind their target pace, try to speed up to compensate and cause early burnout from sheer exhaustion.

It’s also important to not get dragged into running faster just because others are. For example, some local ultra races have different distances running at the same time. It could be that you’re toeing the line next to someone running a 10K. Should you run as fast as they are from the start because your competitive juices are flowing, even though you’ll be running five times the distance that day? Or, maybe it’s someone who’s just more prepared than you. You have to make a quick decision (often repeated throughout the event) if you’re going to run your own race or someone else’s. This happens a lot and your humble financial planner has fallen into this trap before, always leading to a long day.

Planning for retirement is similar. It can be hard coming up with a plan for the rest of your life, but you still need to do it. Others around you may be retiring earlier, having more fun, travelling more, deciding to work part-time, or maybe not even retiring at all. What others are doing is interesting and can help inform your plan, but you shouldn’t simply copy them. Your retirement plan should be reflective of who you are and what you hope to accomplish in this next phase of your life. And your plan can serve as a touchstone when things get hard, when you have big decisions to make, or even when markets get bumpy.

Your goal should be to finish the race, even if it’s just a metaphor, while enjoying yourself as much as possible along the way.

Have questions? Ask me. I can help.

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