Day 41 | $31,450 paid | $59,267 till freedom
But First, Let’s Talk about Dating
Because I’m definitely not doing any. It’s Friday night, quickly approaching Saturday morning, and while the wheels on my car are stationary because I can’t afford to date tonight, the wheels in my head are definitely turning.
Up until August, I was single and happy. I was dating, but it was mostly casual. In August, right before starting NMHD, I decided that maybe, just maybe, I was ready to start taking dating more seriously again. Unfortunately, I was really struggling to find quality girls to date. Perhaps it was the recruiting pool? I was meeting girls at places like The Ranch and Roial. So I hit up the free dating website, OKCupid. In my mind, dating doesn’t get much more efficient than knowing what a girl looks like, her hobbies, her education, and other information about her background than being able to know it all in the press of a keystroke. Too often, first dates with girls I’ve met at bars lead to unpleasant surprises ranging from, “I never work out and I’m hoping I’ll look like this my entire life,” to “I’m a stripper.” I found on OKC that it’s possible to screen for these kinds of things more effectively than at the bar, as girls are pretty upfront about it on a dating service.
Well, as true as that may be, in going from the bars to OKC, things actually went from okay to bad. To put it bluntly, once a couple of key critieria were screened for, it turned out that OKC was pretty dry. I switched over to eHarmony, but it was right around this time that I decided to start paying off my debt. Without funds, dating became a non-starter.
This (Friday) evening, I was at the office till 7:30, catching up on some work after a long week of training and trial by fire, and I got a call on my personal cell from Lindsay, a girl who works in Marketing. She’s beautiful. I still remember when I saw her for the first time two years ago when she walked into a meeting. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I eventually got to know her, and she turned out to be more than just a pretty face. She’s also super smart. And witty. In short, she’s awesome. But we’re just workplace friends. We once got drinks together, but she works where I work, and that’s a boundary I’ve never crossed before. Interestingly enough, before NMHD, before my funds dried up, I was seriously considering trying to restart things with her, and risking the workplace weirdness for a potential long-term connection.
Anyway, Lindsay called me out of the blue while I was at work–we haven’t talked on the phone since the night we got drinks a year and a half ago–and she very casually invited me out to dinner. It was completely bizarre and unexpected and I did a double-triple-quadruple-take.
I wanted to go. I really, really wanted to go. But I declined. It was embarrassing as hell, but I had to explain that I couldn’t afford dinner. I had already told her about my blog last week, but I felt so much more vulnerable this evening than I did last week.
Lindsay didn’t volunteer to pay. I’m actually glad she didn’t because that would have been awkward as hell.
I didn’t want to decline, but I knew going into this that there would be sacrifices I would have to make. Lindsay and I ended up chatting for an hour, and then she told me she was going to pick up dinner for herself and rent a movie. We texted on and off for the rest of the evening, and she told me to save my money for bagels and coffee on Sunday. I’ll probably spring for that.
It’s an interesting situation, and it begs the question: how am I going to survive the next nine months without dating? I’ve already ended one relationship because of this mission, and I’ve gone out with my buddies a couple of times and gotten some numbers, but where’s that going to go? “Hey, want to cook dinner together at my place?” Yeah, like some random girl I meet out at a bar is going to go to my place for dinner. Nope. I’ve been scrapping the phone numbers the next morning.
(On the upside, my boys aren’t letting me down. Andy Lebron Chad, as he likes to be called, invited me out to reverse HH with the rest of the crew last (Thursday) night. I declined, saying I was poor, had a cold, and had to prep for an 8:30 AM meeting on Friday with my boss. He drove over with some of the crew anyway at 9:30 PM, pounded on my door, and dragged me out of the house–but not before I could flask it up.)
Debt Pay-down Is a Marathon, not a Sprint
The thing is, I know this is a marathon. This is 26.2 miles up the side of an extremely steep mountain. If any part of this is a sprint, it was September, with a pay-off just shy of $31k, a 33% dent in my goal. October? October sees me paying off only $3,400 max, and similar amounts in November through April until I limp into bonus season. There are no more $30k months like September. The starter block advantage and the early-race adrenaline are wearing off.
I’ve run a marathon, so I can relate to this metaphor. It’s time to hunker down and settle in for the long haul.
Back in November of 2010, I got my license suspended for three months (Nov-Jan) for accumulating four moving violations in six months (speeding, unsafe lane change, failure to yield right of way, no motorcycle operator’s license). Leading up to this suspension, I used to lift weights and run five days a week. I was in good shape. I’m not an intentional law-breaker, so when I got my license suspended, I had to ride a bicycle to work every day, a seven-mile round trip. The suspension took place at a time when dusk arrived before 6 PM, and to get to work, I had to bike on the 55 mph two-lane, zero-bike-path frontage road of I-35, a very busy interstate highway that runs through Austin. Since my gym was not on the way home, going there meant incremental biking in the dark on the dangerous frontage road. So for the sake of my life, the seven miles of bicycling from home to work to home became my sole work-out for three months.
During this time, I was dating Kellie, a girl whom I thought I was going to marry. We had been together since January 2010, I was in love with her, and I thought she was the one. She lived in south Austin, so her driving me to work wasn’t an option.
She broke up with me in January 2011, two weeks before I got my license back. I’m not really sure why it ended, but I stopped trying to piece it together months ago.
A Challenge to Myself
The night after we broke up, I was on Facebook and I saw my friend’s status update about his plans to run the Austin Marathon on February 20 2011, roughly a month away.
In the back of my mind, I’d been tossing around the idea of doing a marathon, and I didn’t even know that Austin had one. I was intrigued.
I hadn’t done an actual work-out longer than 15 minutes in about three months (each ride to work was 12-15 minutes long), the furthest I had ever run in my life was 13 miles and that was four years ago, and the marathon was less than a month away.
Despite all of that, I registered for the race that very night.
At the time, I had no idea why I did it–absolutely no clue. Removed from the situation and looking back on it now, I think I figured, subconsciously, that there was no better way to reconnect with myself on the most basic level than to throw down a physical challenge and pursue it with minimal preparation.
I went on four training runs before the marathon. The most miles I put in during one run was 17 miles, and I ran that directly after I ate Mexican food. The run was tragic. I had planned to go 21, but simply couldn’t do it. That was one week before the marathon.
On the night before the marathon, I went to bed around ten, but I was so nervous that I didn’t actually fall asleep until midnight, and I had to be up at 5:45 for a 7 AM race start. Sleep was elusive. I knew that as soon as I fell asleep, I’d be awake, and within an hour of waking, I’d be undertaking one of the biggest and most painful challenges I had ever faced in my life. That scared the hell out of me, so sleep was hard to come by
Running Like I’m Rowing
Fast forward to the next morning at the start line. I had gone into the race hoping to finish in less than four hours. I don’t even know where that goal came from, but it seemed like a reasonable one. Four hours is a 9:06 split, and at the start line, runners self-sorted themselves according to goal splits printed on various banners hanging over the starting area. Fast runners were in front, slower ones in the back. I found my 9:00 group in the massive sea of runners. I had also calculated the mile splits for 3:45 (8:35) and 3:30 (8:00) finish times. I didn’t expect them to factor in, but as I’m proving once again, stretch goals can be motivational for me.
The race conditions for the Austin Marathon were horrible: Strong headwinds, high humidity, and high temperatures. Far from ideal.
I surged forward with the herd at the signal, but after a mile in, while I maintained the goal pace, those behind me got excited and jumped the pace, and I got passed by a lot of people of both sexes and all sizes and ages. I felt uncomfortable being passed by men twice my age who were clearly out of shape, but I stuck to my race plan.
I’d say it was around mile 18 where things got painful and challenging. It was probably more mental than anything–up until that moment, I had never run further than that 17 miles in my entire life. Going into mile 18, I became filled with self-doubt. I didn’t know if I could run any further.
I dug deep, and self-preservation mode took over. To help me cope, my memory presented flashbacks to the last time I had felt this kind of pain, years 2001 to 2005, during regattas in college, rowing on the Michigan crew team. My freshman coach had drilled within my teammates’ heads and mine that our bodies can endure so much more pain than we give them credit for. When we mentally tell ourselves that we cannot go further because of the pain, we can actually go much, much further, physiologically-speaking.
Coming into the last 750 meters of a 2,000-meter race, when lactic acid was flooding my quads, the body was working overtime to flush it out, the pain was white-hot, and every ounce of gray matter in my skull was telling me to drop the oar and stop rowing, I had to fight those urges, and believe in myself–my body, not my brain–and take another stroke. I had to have faith in my body. And I had to put the oar in the water, and pull on the oar, and hang off the oar, and slam my legs down to the hull, and then I had to take the oar out of the water, go back up to the catch, drop the oar back into the water, and do it all over again, as hard as I possibly could, harder than the other guys in the other boats I was racing, until I finished the race. That coach who told us to ask more from our bodies is the same coach who helped the crew in our boat win second place at Nationals in 2002, beating elite times like Cal, Princeton, and Navy.
Zen for a Debt Pay-down Mission
Phil Jackson’s Sacred Hoops, Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior was required reading for a leadership class at b-school at Michigan. I wanted to take the class during my senior year because I knew I was going to be a supervisor in a factory once I graduated, but it didn’t fit in my schedule, so the best I could do was get a copy of the syllabus which listed out all of the reading material.
I read Sacred Hoops after graduating from Michigan, and noting all the positive references Jackson made to Zen Buddhim, the philosophy that he drew upon for his leadership style, I was inspired to learn more. I read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki and An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D. T. Suzuki before I launched my career.
One page into Zen Mind and I was hooked on Zen as a philosophy. I want to share some powerful, powerful quotes that all came from the two short books above. This philosophy is what I think got me through the marathon and will get me through my NMHD mission.
- “As long as we have some definite idea about or some hope in the future, we cannot really be serious with the moment that exists right now. Some might say, “I can do it tomorrow, or next year,” believing that something that exists today will exist tomorrow. Even though you are not trying so hard, you expect that some promising thing will come, as long as you follow a certain way. But there is no certain way that exists permanently. There is no way set up for us. Moment after moment we have to find our own way. Some idea of perfection, or some perfect way which is set up by someone else, is not the true way for us.”
My Interpretation: It makes me exhausted and panicky to look out all the way to June, count the months between now and then, and know that I have to live like this for nine more months. It paralyzes me with inaction. I just have to focus on the now, on the present goal; I have to focus on not spending money today, and finding as much extra money as possible today.
- “The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”
My Interpretation: If I enter a debt paydown mission being an “expert” and only an expert on my finances and the lifestyle I’ve been living up to this point, I’ll never recognize all of the possibilities in front of me. I’ve pulled apart my finances and analyzed them fully, I’ve reviewed my past year of $1,400 monthly entertainment spending, and even knowing where I’m coming from and being fully aware that I have a $5k+ delta to my goal, I’m still remaining “novice” with optimism that I can realize my vision.
- “In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do. You will have something remaining which is not completely burned out. Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes. This is the goal of our practice. This is what Dogen meant when he said, ‘Ashes do not come back to firewood.’”
My interpretation: A ten-month $90k pay-down is a raging fire of effort and sacrifice. At the end of it, there will be nothing left–no savings, no energy, no fuel left in the tank. Zen would argue that that’s the only way to do it. It focuses you.
- “Nothing comes from outside your mind. Usually we think of our mind as receiving impressions and experiences from outside, but that is not a true understanding of our mind. The true understanding is that the mind includes everything; when you think something comes from outside means only that something appears in your mind. Nothing outside yourself can cause any trouble. You yourself made the waves in your mind.”
My Interpretation: At the end of the day, I am me and they are them. I have to separate my thoughts and goals and motivations from their judgment and input. I decide what I spend, what I buy, what I save, and what I do with my free-time. I decide if paying down my debt aggressively is too hard. I decide if I quit.
- “The desire to possess is considered by Buddhism to be one of the worst passions with which mortals are apt to be obsessed. What, in fact, causes so much misery in the world as the universal impulse of acquisition? As power is desired, the strong always tyrannize over the weak; as wealth is coveted, the rich and poor are always crossing swords of bitter enmity. International wars rage, social unrest ever increases, unless this impulse to get and to hold is completely uprooted. Cannot society be recognized upon an entirely different basis from what we have been used to seeing from the beginning of history? Cannot we ever hope to stop the massing of wealth and the accumulation of power merely from the desire for individual or national aggrandizement?”
My Interpretation: I like this quotation because it rallies so strongly against materialism, which could really hinder my ability to pay down my debt in time if I get caught up in it.
- “Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transiency, we suffer. So the cause of suffering is our non-acceptance of this truth. So to find pleasure in suffering is the only way to accept the truth of transiency. Without realizing how to accept this truth you cannot live in this world.”
My Interpretation: My life changed when I decided to pay down my debt. Gone were lavish nights out. Gone was my typical dating life. Gone were the trips. This was all replaced by working on side-jobs to find more money and loading a flask up in bathrooms, and being constantly out of my comfort zone. But everything changes, and change is not necessarily bad, nor is suffering.
- “When you give up, when you no longer want something, or when you do not try to do anything special, then you do something. When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something.”
My Interpretation: This is perhaps deeper than I can ever fully appreciate, but I think this relates to debt pay-down in that it requires a complete submission of the soul. It requires giving up and just letting the debt owning me for a little while, until I can fully satiate it.
The Painful Part of the Marathon
As I plugged away at miles 18 through 26, as my legs became two heavy, solid cylinders of painful lactic acid, as I started drinking two cups of water at every water stop instead of one, my survival mode kicked in and presented me with two tools: my rowing experiences and my post-rowing Zen learning. I used the two tools to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. And I believed in my body. I refused to listen to my brain. I focused on the present. Every time I thought about having to run another six miles, or four miles, or one mile, I grimaced in pain and I thought about quitting. In order to finish the race, I had to focus on the present. I had to put one foot in front of the other. I had to be fully engaged in the now. Thinking ahead, taking myself out of the moment, was paralyzing. I had to take the moment seriously.
I had to have a novice mind, and not consider the math and science and kinesiology that would have logically determined that I could not finish the race at all, let alone finish it in four hours. I had to burn myself completely, destroy myself in a fire of sheer willpower, completely exhaust every ounce of available energy in my body to finish the race. I had to be internal, and disregard the people at the beginning of the race who passed me, and not let them influence my race plan. And finally, I had to submit my soul to the challenge in front of me, and give in to it, and not have any grand ideas of what time I wanted to finish in. I just had to run.
So I did, and in doing so, I passed many of the people who had passed me earlier, and I ended up finishing in 3:36 (8:15 split), 24 minutes sooner than I hoped to. I took 60th out of the 430 men in my division, ages 25-29, or 86th percentile; I took 441st out of 2,873 total men, or 85th percentile.
A colleague of mine at work who runs ultra-marathons (50-100 mile races) pulled up my race performance online and he told me at work the next day that I ran the last 13 miles in the same exact time–to the minute–as the first 13 miles. According to him, that’s a solid race plan. And fairly unique.
As other racers slowed to a stop at the end of the race and walked relatively casually to the water stop, I slowly limped over. My guess is that 99.9% of these guys had done more than four training runs prior to the marathon, so their bodies were equipped to flush great amounts of lactic acid out of their muscles in a very efficient manner. Mine was not. My legs were on fire. It hurt to touch them with my hands. I had to grit my teeth and mentally prepare myself just to step off curbs. I found a bench and sat down. It didn’t help the pain at all–sitting still was almost more painful than running.
After some time, I went back to my car, parked two painful floors up in a parking garage. I slowly and gingerly changed into some shorts and a t-shirt, sprayed on some Axe, and then met a couple of my buddies at La Taverna for brunch. We killed multiple $1 mimosas, then went and smoked a hookah. Nothing says, “Thanks for all the hard work, lungs,” like smoking them out with some Double Apple-flavored tobacco.
That week at work, the staircase up to my desk on the second floor presented a daily challenge to my sore muscles, and the heart palpitations I experienced multiple times a day all week long were uncomfortable. But I beat my goal and I survived. And the pain and palpitations were all secondary to the overwhelming sense of accomplishment I felt in doing something pretty crazy by myself, for myself, alone.
As I make my way into the second week of the second month of then ten-month mission, I have to take the lessons I’ve learned from rowing, Zen Buddhism, and the marathon and apply them to my entire life.
One stroke at a time. One step at a time. One financial decision at a time. One foot in front of the other, one dollar in front of the other. Be serious with the moment that exists right now. Be open-minded and realize that anything could happen. Be a raging fire. Be internal and remember that I decide how I feel. Avoid materialism. Embrace change. Give in and just do it.
The course to financial freedom is completely uphill and attractive dates are few and far between. But my friends pounding on my door to get me out of the house are the water breaks that keep me hydrated to run another mile.