What a Half Ironman Taught Me About Investing

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This summer, I raced in a half-ironman competition. If you're uninitiated to the world of triathlon, the half-ironman event involves a 1.2 mile open-water swim and a 56-mile bike ride, finished with a half-marathon (13.1 miles).

I invested time, energy, and money training for and competing in this event, both to test myself and earn bragging rights. This experience reinforced what I knew about investing, and offered new insights that surprised me.

Here's what doing a half ironman taught me about investing:

  • Being unsure shouldn't stop me from trying.

    In the beginning, when I registered for the race, I felt reasonably certain that I could train well enough to finish.In the intervening days, as I also trained to participate in RAGBRAI (a bike trip across Iowa) and recovered from foot surgery, I began to feel frustrated at my lack of progress in running. Fatigued from swimming and cycling, my workouts were discouraging. And, even though I acclimated to the heat, running sessions in high humidity conditions zapped my energy and gnawed at my confidence.

    Added to my concerns was the fact that I had competed in just two triathlons, both sprint distances. Officially, my lack of experience made me a novice though I elected to race in an age-group category.

    I could have opted out at any time or transferred to the shorter Olympic distance race held on the same day in the same venue. But I stuck with the longer distance, more out of stubbornness and resolve, not genuine confidence in my endurance capacity and racing ability.

    In short, I was scared. And the more I thought about traveling 70.3 miles under human power, the more I worried.

    Minutes before the race started, when I was setting up my bike and running gear in the transition area, a male triathlete — one who looked lean, strong, and fast — half-jokingly posed the question “Is it too late to change to the Olympic distance?” He echoed my thoughts and broke the fierce tension between my trepidation and desire.

    After realizing that nearly everyone is scared (or should be, IMHO), I began to notice that many of the competitors in this race weren't strong swimmers. Even though I'm noticeably slower than my teenage self, I'm still a talented swimmer. At this point, I started to worry less about specific results and concentrate more on the race.

    Similarly in investing, I often focus on my failings first rather than my strengths, mistakenly believing that I'm the only investor who has doubts, fears, or reservations.

    I realized that questioning my capabilities doesn't mean I'm incompetent, but imperfect. Being imperfect doesn't mean that I should abandon my efforts. It simply means that certain tasks are challenging and require great effort.

  • Simple steps today (and when I was younger) benefit me later.

    When I was a kid, I spent most of my summers at a neighborhood pool. I went to swim team practices in the mornings and afternoons, and swam for fun at other times. When I became a teenager, I joined a YMCA swim team and began practicing and competing year round. In addition, I rode my bike to school and my summer job, took a long-distance cycling trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and ran the two-miler on the track team in high school.

    I had an inkling that my swimming background could be useful for long-distance triathlons. Even though the swim portion of the race takes just 30-60 minutes, compared to hours for the bike and run phases, this section can be the most difficult and scariest part. Many great athletes don't swim well despite lessons in adulthood. In addition, many won't compete if a race isn't wetsuit legal.

    My event was held at the end of summer so the water was warm and wetsuits weren't allowed. Due partly to these factors — a long open-water swim without the benefit of wetsuit buoyancy — the competition in my age group wasn't massive (there were just four of us). In addition, I was able to swim fast enough to position myself to do well in the second phase of the race.

    Similarly, the money I set aside as a kid in savings account and later as a young adult in retirement and investment accounts has helped me tremendously as I've gotten older. Not only did this money serve as a financial foundation upon which compound growth could build, it also got me accustomed to the benefits of saving and investing early in life.

  • Just because I can learn from others doesn't mean I should copy them.

    Before the race, I vowed not to play cat and mouse with other competitors, particularly in the cycling phase. I'd either stay behind a fellow racer at an appropriate distance (even if that meant slowing for several miles) or I'd pass at a pace that I could hold until I was miles ahead.

    For the first part of the race, this strategy worked well. As I became fatigued and once, when I stopped to retrieve nutrition, the process of passing and being passed by another triathlete began. And not only did this pattern persist on the bike, it also continued throughout the run.

    This person, let's call him “Mr. M(ouse)” seemed smart and sturdy. Based on his markings (indicating his age and category), he was likely younger than me and enjoyed a headstart. For safety reasons, swimmers are released in waves with younger and more elite competitors starting first and older ones, up to 20 minutes later.

    In regard to the run, I imagined that it would either go reasonably well or horribly wrong. The good news is that my muscles and joints seemed to be functioning with no pain. But in 95-degree heat and high humidity with little shade, I began to feel overheated and my right hand began swelling. In all my years of endurance training, I had never experienced this combination of symptoms. I wasn't sure what to do. But I was reasonably confident that pushing myself at this point could lead to unclear thinking and cause myself harm.

    I began stopping at the aid stations for hydration. During one of these stops, I learned that Mr. M had specialized medical training. In an effort to avoid a medical catastrophe on the route (at this point I had abandoned the idea of finishing strong), I began following his lead. When he doused himself with cold water, I doused; when he tossed ice-cold rags around his head and neck, I tossed; when he walked, I walked.

    Presumably, he understood the medical implications of competing in a half ironman plus Mr M seemed to know many of the competitors, so following his lead made sense to me.

    The good news is that we both finished the race. But we had different results, as I'll explain later.

    Similarly, I've found that I can learn about investing by observing and talking with other people. But I've also realized that other people's situations, their approaches, and their needs may be very different from mine. Mimicking their actions may or may not give me the results I'm seeking.

  • The point isn't winning, it's starting and finishing.

    I don't want to sound like a noncompetitive athlete, but for this race, my goal was to finish. Many triathlon coaches advise new triathletes (either new to the sport or new to a certain distance) to set a goal of finishing.

    I didn't want to pressure myself so much that a) not finishing in the top three of my category would make me feel like a failure and b) trying to be a superstar could cause harm. Basically, I'd want to feel like a winner even if all I did is crawl over the finish line.

    Much of the investing advice that I read tends to focus on achieving certain results. There are typically two flavors: I'm being advised how to beat the market; or I'm being told that I could never beat the market so I should only invest in index funds.

    On the one hand, judging my returns based on market performance is appropriate. But when I started investing, I wasn't aware that comparing my returns to the S&P 500 was a thing (note that I started investing in my early twenties in the early 1980s). I simply got started. My goal was to invest, period, and do so as smartly, cheaply, and safely as possible. Certainly, I could have made more money if I had educated myself more or learned and applied more sophisticated techniques.

    But what I've learned is that just doing something can be beneficial. In that sense, I succeeded: my investments have increased in value and are still growing today.

  • Small things matter, even in long races.

    The biggest surprise for me in this race was how much small things mattered. In shorter races, such as a 5K or 10K run, I'm obsessive about small things; for example, I won't stop and get water lest I lose by a few seconds to a less thirsty competitor.

    I figured that in a 70.3-mile race over seven to eight hours, short stops here and there wouldn't matter. But they did — snippets of time eroded my race time by 15-20 minutes minimum.

    Now, I don't regret stopping to use the ladies' room (via a Portajon) between the swim and bike phases. But I should have had a better system for getting nutrition on the bike and hydration on the run. I won't beat myself up for not knowing how to breeze through a half ironman. Still, my lack of planning and attention to detail slowed me down considerably.

    Similarly, in finance and investing, there's nothing inherently wrong with paying a fee or a even premium for a valuable product or service. And decisions about the larger issues are typically more important than smaller ones. But it's a big mistake for me to dismiss the idea that small charges don't make a difference. They can easily erode my investment returns as well as my ability to set aside money for investing. I grasp more clearly how paying attention to the details is important over the long haul.

  • Conditions can affect performance.

    My basic preparations and foundational work carried me through the competition. But the heat and humidity slowed me considerably.As I contemplate the difficulty (and danger) of racing in these circumstances, I realize that investing is very similar: conditions impact performance.As an investor, I can benefit from good economic conditions. But I should learn to plan for poor conditions. Adopting a stance toward safety is one tactic. In addition, I'll address weaknesses to achieve better results in the future.

About the race, here's what happened:

The swim went as well as expected. Based on lessons from a previous open-water swim, I started near the front of my wave. This move likely saved me a few minutes and didn't impede the progress of other swimmers. In fact, I caught up with triathletes from waves that started five and ten minutes ahead of mine.

The bike portion went okay. I averaged about 16.3 mph, slower than my desired 17 mph. Before another race, I'll master pedalling against wind resistance, instead of protecting myself from its effects by drafting on training rides. I'll also refine my hydration and nutrition strategies.

The run was a near disaster, as I described earlier. When my hand started swelling, I shifted my focus to safety, not speed. In fact, I was so slow, I almost didn't finish within the allotted time frame of eight hours. A friend who raced the Olympic distance came to warn me that I need to sprint the last few meters in order to beat the clock. Happily, I was able to comply and finished barely under the official cutoff.

Me with my friend who warned me of the pending cutoff time
Here I am before the race with my friend who warned me of the pending cutoff time

In other news, Mr. M crossed the finish line ahead of me. But because I had started later, my start-to-finish time eclipsed his. In addition, he didn't finish in the designated timeframe.

My bent toward safety was rewarded: I didn't need medical attention and my swelling subsided almost immediately after I stopped moving. When I finally had the courage to view the results, I was astonished to learn that I placed first in my category.

Have you finished a half ironman or similar endurance event? What did the experience teach you?

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