Early Retirement Lessons from a 30-Mile Run

I’m 30 now, and the “29” in Retire29 is officially dead. As I enter the decade of my life in which I’ll retire, the need for renewed focus on the goal at hand is imperative. To commemorate this milestone year of my life, I decided to go on my longest run ever—30 miles. This is more than twice my previous longest run, which was the Baghdad Half Marathon I ran in 2007.

Tackling such a feat may be easy for some, nearly impossible for others. For me, this run is much like my plan for retirement at age 34: very difficult, but possible with the right planning and focus.

Chunking a Run

When faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, like writing a thesis paper, running a marathon, building a house, or retiring early, it is best to employ a tactic used by athletes called “chunking.” Chunking is breaking down a huge task into smaller, more realistic tasks. In Joshua Becker’s book Simplify, he talks about minimalizing your whole life’s existence by starting with clearing out a kitchen drawer.

When I first laid out my plan to run 30 miles, I went to MapMyRun.com and routed out a quick 30-mile path. It looked like this:

30Mile Bad Run

I look at this map and I get nervous. The little roads are so tiny. I feel like if I zoom out any more, I’ll start to see the curvature of the earth. Plus, there’s only so many places to cross I-95, and Route 1 is pretty sketchy. Our city lacks good running infrastructure, so I knew I’d be running on a lot of busy roads, narrow shoulders, and unmarked crosswalks–much of it during the dark of pre-dawn. I also noticed that I’d be traversing like six different cities. And, at my farthest point, I’d be about ten miles from home in unfamiliar territory and running conditions.

This is like many folks’ approach to retirement planning. You estimate a number that you’ll need to retire on–many people use the oft-mentioned “80% of pre-retirement income”, and then multiply by 25 to accommodate a 4% safe withdrawal rate. In that way, if my income were $100,000, then my investable nestegg would need to be a cool $2M to get me to retirement.

For many, $2 Million may as well be $200 Million, as it’s such a large number (or an awful looking run route), that no serious effort is ever put in place to achieve the end goal. You just throw money at it over the years in a fruitless effort to get close.

This is where chunking comes into play. First, rather than just throw down 30 miles on MapMyRun, I took a different approach. I chunked it up into workable segments; now, it looks like this.

30Mile Run

The Run Chunks

Neighborhood Jog: First, I decided to start with a 3.5 mile jaunt around my neighborhood. I can run 3.5 miles with relative ease, and I know every corner of our streets and sidewalks. I know where to cross and where hills are. That first 3.5 miles I’ve run a hundred times, and it will go by without much thought. If I start at 3 a.m., it’ll be dark. But, given our sidewalks, reflective belt, and most importantly, my knowledge of the area, the dark won’t be a problem.

The Treadmill: After the quick 3.5, I’ll find myself at our neighborhood gym, which opens at 3:30 a.m. Running at a gym, for me, is always easier than running on streets. I can watch TV, the iPhone isn’t hitting my leg, there are no hills, and water is close by. I know that if I can get to the gym, I can pretty easily cover 10 full miles on a treadmill at a solid, but relaxed, pace—particularly if there are other people there and I’m lookin’ to impress. Nine minute miles, for 90 minutes at the gym is not unthinkable. Meaning I should depart the gym at about 5 a.m.

Run to the Lookout Point: After the gym, I’ll go on one of my favorite go-to runs: Leesylvania State Park–which opens at dawn. The park has a nice pier and lookout point that crosses over the Maryland border, which sits about fifty feet off the shoreline. I’ve run this route a dozen times or more, and I know the route without looking is almost exactly five miles from the gym. Because it runs along a scenic swamp and creek, it doesn’t at all feel like five miles because the breeze and views are nice. Plus, there’s a water fountain at the pier. I would like to reach the pier at 5:45 a.m.

To the Train: After I hit the lookout point, I go back around Neabsco Creek en route to the train station. I’ve biked and ran to the train station many times over the years. There are lots of wide paths, and even a few porta-johns along the way. At this point, I know that if I just get to the train station, I’ll accomplish my goal (I’ll have to get home somehow, right?). I’ll probably be slowing down a bit, so this ~7 mile stretch should hopefully be completed by 7 a.m.

Back to the House: Once I get to the train station, I’m all but an injury away from success. Even if I walk it in for the last 4 miles, I’m going to succeed. The plus side is that I’ve already rehearsed this entire run many times. Not all at once or altogether, but every part of it I’ve seen before, and I know I can succeed if I simply piece it together in one go.

30-Miles, 9 minutes per mile. I can very comfortably run at a 8:30 pace, or can walk at a 12:00 pace. If I start at 3 a.m., I should finish by 7:45 a.m., which is just enough time to still shower, change and get to work.

When I broached this idea to my wife on Saturday night, while supportive, she thought it sounded like another one of my harebrained ideas. For the most part, it was, but when I broke down the steps, even she admitted, “when you say it like that, it doesn’t sound so bad.” That’s awesome, and exactly why chunking makes the impossible, possible.

How Did It Go?

I did it! I took off at 7 a.m. Sunday morning. Here is a picture of me just before starting out, cool and confident:

image (5)

And here is the after photo, getting back to my driveway six hours later and 7.8 lbs. lighter (and looking about ten years older):

image (6)

Don’t let the smile fool you, I’m little more than a shell of a human being at this point. My hip flexors are basically fused shut and my left knee felt like Kyrie Irving’s. I got it done though. I started off strong for the 3.5 miles around the neighborhood, and the 10 miles at the gym went very fast. I ran Mile 11 in about 7 minutes flat, which was crazy.

When I left the gym at mile 14, things started to slow down, although not considerably. The legs started to stiffen around 16 or 17, and I started doing a bit of walking around mile 18—walking maybe 50 feet at a time every quarter-mile.

I hit the proverbial wall after I reached the pier (mile 18.5). I got on the phone and called my wife, who met me with some water and a banana around mile 23. I was doing a good bit of walking at this point–probably almost half and half. My legs felt like bricks. I asked myself several times if I should quit, but my inner R. Kelly kept telling me, “My mind’s tellin’ me nooooo…But my body…my bodyyyy is tellin’ me ye-e-essssss.” All the fatigue was physical; it really wasn’t all that mentally draining. The obvious lack of preparation for the endeavor shone through vividly through the mid-to-late mile 20’s.

My wife was a real trooper. She came around with the car and kept meeting me at certain points with the baby–that was some good motivation. I might still be out on the roads right now if it wasn’t for her. Somewhere in the last leg of the run I thought to myself, “hey, I just ran a marathon!” That was pretty exciting, and it was a subtle reminder that I was nearing the end. Around mile 28, I sped up a bit to finish strong(er).

Retirement Takeaways

There are a lot of parallels to be made in this little run with the prospect of early retirement:

Lesson 1: Failing Is Okay: I initially set out to run an average pace of 9 minutes per mile. Through the first half the run, I was probably well below that, maybe 8:15/mile. However, I started to slow considerably in the 20’s, and after finishing up, I was probably closer to 11 or 12 minutes per mile. I failed in this regard, but who cares!

One of the reasons why planning for very early retirement is so great is that it leaves a lot of room for error. There are two ways to retire at 35: 1.) Plan to retire at 35 and succeed, or 2.) plan to retire at 34 and fail. In both cases, the end result is the same. If I “fail” at this goal of retirement, it won’t be by much, and it’ll still be an overwhelming success in the grand scheme of things. In a way, there is no such thing as failure, only varying degrees of success.

Lesson 2: Use You Support System: This would’ve been much harder if it wasn’t for the family support. First, the wife had to fly solo for a whole Sunday morning with the baby–so that’s awesome. But, it was such a help to have both her and the baby with me for the last 7 or so miles.

In retirement, you can’t go it alone. You need buy-in from your family stakeholders. When they understand how the collective family life will be improved from financial independence and total freedom, it makes those daily decisions and lifestyle adjustments that much easier.

Also along these lines is putting yourself out there. Shamelessly making your intentions known to the world gives one greater confidence and motivation to succeed.

Lesson 3: You Can Start Right Now: The beginner’s marathon training plan at CoolRunning.com is 17 weeks long. 17 weeks?! Sheeeeit. I say, if you can knock out five miles today, you can knock out 26.2 tonight, all you gotta do is string together a handful or so of your 5-milers and, bang, that’s a marathon. Now, there are some obvious downsides to this. Yes, you’ll probably be absurdly sore (as I am now), you might run it slower than you’d like, and it might be a miserable experience. But, as long as you listen to the cues of your body, you can avoid injury and give it the old college try.

I could’ve done a number of things to make this run easier. I could’ve bought an iPhone arm band, rather than have the phone bang against my leg. I could’ve bought some spandex, rather than deal with some mild chaffing. I could’ve brought a credit card along, or strategically placed some water bottles or bananas. I could’ve done a lot of things, but that would’ve probably led to me delaying the run by a few days, or weeks, and who knows if I’d have the motivation at that point.

There’s nothing wrong with planning. Don’t get me wrong, I’m planning for my retirement, but if you’re like most folks, taking some action is probably the most effective thing you can do today. If you want to be financially independent, you likely already know a handful of things you should do right now to get started. Take an action today. Get invested in the plan before it’s written down. When you do get around to making a formal plan, you’ll already have a few things you can check off.

Lesson 4: You Don’t Need To Be Perfect: I’m like, the epitome of imperfection. I’ve made so many dreadful mistakes in my time that it pains me to recount them. On the run, there were a couple times when I even had to sit down because I was so exhausted.

In this early retirement blogging community, I often feel a little like the black sheep in the family. I look around and I feel like a lot of folks are like those kids in high school that would study in August to be prepared for the start of the school year (I hated those kids). They seem like a lot of overachievers. They set a goal, they accomplish a goal. They are driven and focused.

I’m not that guy. I’m not even close to that guy. I’m a lot more like Steve Prefontaine, who famously talked about how he wasn’t a very gifted athlete, but he could suffer more than anybody. In the game of early retirement, just as in a 30-mile run, you can take steps back, or sit in place. You can suffer through it. In the May financial report I’m releasing tomorrow, you’ll see that I sort of kitchen-sinked the month of May–lots of one-off expenses, charity, and gifts that created a pretty rough month overall. However, my passive income chugged higher, my consumer debt went lower, and I know that the goal is inevitable, the only unknown is the length of time it takes.

For every step you take forward, that’s one more step that you’ll never have to take forward. In a run, you’re a bit closer to the finish line. In financial independence, never again will I have to “reach” $750 a month in average passive income–that’s pretty much set in stone.

In Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this little experiment. Maybe there’s something in your life, something big, that needs to be done. I suggest “chunking” your way to it.

Much Love!



  1. Happy birthday and well done with the run! Rather than semi-equal portions for chunking, I count down in fractions on my long runs. The first half always feels pretty easy, so then I have 1/2 left. I mentally calculate the mileage for 1/3 left, then 1/4, 1/5, 1/6,… 1/20… and give myself a mental cheer when I hit them. The milestones get closer and closer together, and I’m using more mental energy than is probably necessary calculating the exact mileage for each fractional milestone (which is nice and distracting around mile 20 when things are starting to hurt). =)

    • Mrs. PoP,
      Awesome to see you here and thanks for commenting. I do that EXACT thing for long drives. Part of it is nothing more than mental stimulation, it keeps your mind active in a fruitless effort to think you can speed up the clock :).

  2. It is difficult to retire before you are 50, let alone 30. Keep up the plan, and you will be further ahead when you get there. As you progress in life, you will want more, either for yourself or your kid(s).

    • Good advice, but does “more” necessarily mean more stuff or things? I will certainly want more for myself and my kids. More time with them, more freedom for myself, more interaction. If our most valuable asset is time, it is natural to think the thing we want more of is also “time.”

  3. Thank you so much for the recap of the Chunking technique, which i had completely forgotten. Really creative. I will start right away as i have a lot to chunk.

  4. I too am an ultramarathoner and I can totally empathize with that look of elation and satisfaction at the end of such a “journey”. Congrats to you and keep up the good work on the blog!

    • I would like to quell any notion that I am an “ultramarathoner.” I am not—at all. I’m just a guy with a knack for taking punishment.

      However, I am familiar with the amazing feeling of finishing a long race. Man, nothing tops those endorphins.


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