CEO: Running a 100-mile race taught me 4 key lessons about money

Mike Alfred
Mike Alfred running the Leadville 100.
Courtesy Mike Alfred

Last year, I ran The Leadville 100 for the first time. It's held every summer in the Colorado Rockies, and it is one of the most challenging foot races in the country.

The 100-mile race, roughly the length of four back-to-back marathons, begins on an August morning at 4 a.m. Each runner carries a headlight or flashlight because there are no other lights to guide them in the 75 minutes before sunrise, and most competitors will still be running when darkness falls again. In 2019, the trail began nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, briefly went below 9,200 feet, and ascended twice past 12,200 feet.

The trail winds off roads and even on the best day it isn't dry, since runners have to cross multiple streams and creeks, without aid of a bridge. It was tough but worth it.

Many Leadville racers are professionals who run 20 or 30 hours every week, but I'm not. In my day job, I'm the CEO of Digital Assets Data, a financial technology company I founded in January of 2018.

Mike Alfred in the midst of the Leadville 100.
Courtesy Mike Alfred

While I was launching my company, I ran several ultramarathons, but nothing as grueling as Leadville. Still, I found that the training helped. I've learned that sometimes the most productive part of my day is when I'm unplugged and away from my desk. I'll take a two-hour run, and when I return to the office, I sit down with new ideas and new energy.

In the months since I finished Leadville and began prepping for my next race, I've found that the mental tools necessary for running are the same ones essential to building a business and achieving wealth. Here are some of the lessons I've learned.

Pick the right pace, but stay adaptable

In running, and in finance, remember that your route to success likely won't be someone else's. Set a pace that works for you.

On the race course at Leadville, I knew that there was a time to sprint, a time to jog, and a time to rest. The same applies to saving. If you experience a financial setback, like a layoff or medical bills, you'll have to reassess your budget. And in good times, a little indulgence, like a long-awaited vacation, can set you up for future success.

You should also put aside extra money and let it grow. I recommend that you invest between 1% and 5% of your discretionary income. With the twin powers of compound interest and market growth, it can grow substantially down the line, but it won't negatively affect your day-to-day life. And if you're investing in small pieces, you can diversify with innovative investments.

I knew that there was a time to sprint, a time to jog, and a time to rest. The same applies to saving.
Mike Alfred
CEO and ultramarathon runner

Do your research and prepare for the unexpected

Runners at Leadville come prepared. They scrutinize maps and examine the course elevations. They read the advice from past finishers, and they learn what headlamps are best for the early going. They discover what foods give relief when exhaustion sets in at mile 75.

You have similar resources on your financial journey: your friends and family, your work colleagues, even your HR manager. All can serve you well, but you'll still face challenges you can't expect. On the Leadville course, it might start to rain despite the forecasts. Mist might blanket the trail or a bear might emerge from the woods into your path.

For your personal finance, the sudden hazards are different — think recessions — but you'll be sure to encounter some in the months and years ahead. Build and save with the unexpected in mind. It's better to let a backup plan go unused and a rainy day fund go untapped than it is to find yourself in sudden need of one.

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Set achievable goals

Friends, family, and colleagues surround the starting line to cheer the runners. They provide much-needed encouragement, but in the end your run is your own. All too often, inexperienced runners sprint through the first portion of a race, propelled by optimism and buoyed by their supporters, before fading in the long, lonely miles after the busy start.

In the same way, you may start your New Year with plans to save a large percentage of your income every month, but let your resolution fall by the wayside by March. Remember that you can't treat your lifelong financial marathon as a sprint.

If you plan on getting your financial life in order, imitate the prepared runner and start with a road map, and small, achievable goals. Ask yourself, what do you want to achieve and when? Do you have to climb out of a financial valley? What are the peaks and inclines along the way?

Check back on your road map from time to time to make sure you haven't gone off course.

Mike Alfred at the finish line of the Leadville 100.
Courtesy Mike Alfred

Take the long view

A career lasts 30, 40, even 50 years. While you may focus on the next quarter in the office, when you build wealth, you need to think about the next five years. A 100-mile race condenses the emotions of years into a few hours.

At the three-quarter mark of Leadville, I had to stop for a brief rest. By this point, it was dark again, and the prospect of running 25 more miles was unwelcome. If I hadn't learned to take the long view, I doubt I could have succeeded. I knew those last miles would be a long grind, but I was used to taking a long view, so I knew I could handle it.

I'll be the first to admit I'm incredibly persistent and stubborn — I wouldn't recommend Leadville to anyone who isn't — but anyone can apply the discipline of running to their personal financial lives. Few races matter more.

Mike Alfred is co-founder and CEO of Digital Assets Data, a financial technology platform providing enterprise-grade data for the cryptocurrency industry. Mike received his bachelor's degree in history from Stanford University. In 2015, he finished a 100-mile race with the 38th-fastest time in the U.S.

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