Ten years ago, I was a journeyman marathon runner who had passed his peak. That peak had come a few years earlier when I won the Tresco Marathon. I also won a few shorter road and track races around the same time, an unusual career arc in a sport dominated by 20 something's where most careers peak in their mid to late 20s rather than mid to late 30's.
I continued to give my late blooming athletic career my all as I approached my 40s, training harder and smarter than ever. Time stands still for no man though, and in 2006 at the age of 41 I ran my last marathon. Having trained better for the Dublin marathon than ever before, I went into it believing I would smash my personal record (2 hours 44). Instead, on a day when I could not blame anything other than my advancing years, I struggled to get within ten minutes of my PB. I told all my running friends that age had finally caught up with me so I was now retired and would not run competitively again. It has always been my way to throw myself fully into anything I do, and to abandon it as soon as it's clear I can go no further. At earlier stages of my life, I had played chess, bridge and backgammon at the top level, and given up each one as soon as I realised I was as good as I was ever going to be.
The decision to abandon running was a tougher one though, as I still loved running. I also had nothing to replace it. All my previous compulsions followed each other. As soon as I gave up chess, I threw myself fully into bridge. After bridge came backgammon, and after backgammon marathons. Throughout my marathon career, one thing I noticed was that I tended to recover faster and finish stronger than just about anyone else. That planted the seed that I might be more suited to even longer races, so before I lost all the conditioning that came with a decade of distance training, I decided to run one last race, the New York ultra marathon, a 60 kilometre races run as eight and a half laps of Central Park. I toed the starting line wondering if I had recovered from my disappointing marathon less than three weeks earlier to finish. Marathon runners and coaches consider it unwise to run more than two competitive marathons in a year, so running more than two in less than a month suddenly seemed like folly.
Nobody was more surprised than me therefore when I crossed the line more than four hours later as winner of the race, ten minutes clear of the chasing pack. Running friends who had been told just weeks before I would never race again were surprised to wake up the next day to stories in the National newspapers of how an Irishman with apparently the same name as me and a remarkable physical similarity to me had reportedly won the New York Ultra marathon. A few months later I won a 50k in the Netherlands by an even bigger margin, and it was now clear I was a much better ultra runner than marathon runner. I was selected by Team Ireland for a 100k race in Edinburgh. As part of the training, I ran the Connemara ultra marathon, purely as a long training run.. Even forced by my coach (Scottish distance legend Norrie Williamson) to keep my heart rate and pace in the easy training zone, I came 4th. My Irish debut was scuppered by injury and illness, but I put in a creditable finish for a man carrying an Achilles' tendon injury and suffering simultaneously with a chest infection and food poisoning. The performance was deemed creditable enough by the Irish selectors that a few weeks later I was asked if I could come into a top class Irish team for the World 24 Hour Running Championships in Canada as a late replacement for a last minute dropout. I was there essentially to make up the numbers and ensure we scored in the Team competition, and after a chat with Norrie, my initial reluctance to try something that arduous so soon after hobbling 100km around Herriot Watt University with a dodgy tummy and chest was overcome (or at least overruled: Norrie is very much a graduate of the Scottish school of Just Get On With It Ya Big Jessie) and I agreed. The race in Drummondville Quebec was run in 35 degrees Celsius and 90% humidity, conditions many deemed hellish but I seemed to take in my stride. I finished top 40 in the world and top Irishman.
A few months later, I won the Brno 6 Hour Indoor race by a distance despite struggling with my tummy for most of the race. Around the same time, I learned poker and started to take it seriously. As well as my ultra running career was going, I knew that having come to it so late I was on borrowed time, so I was already lining up my next obsession. When I got my brother to teach me poker, the plan was to get good enough at it by my 49th birthday to be able to be competitive at a reasonably high level. The time frame was predicated by the knowledge that once I was closing in on my 50s, any hopes of being competitive at the top level in anything physical would be gone.
As it happened, Brno was effectively my last hurrah as an international class ultra runner. A podium finish in New York where I never really challenged for victory followed by a disappointing second appearance for Ireland at the World 24 Hour championships in Seoul the following year were evidence of a brief career now in terminal decline. A dismal performance in Bergamo the following year confirmed that my days as a top class runner were gone forever. At the same time as my running career fizzled out faster than I would have liked, my poker career was taking off faster than I could ever have dreamed. In all likelihood, these two career arcs are linked. I was a winning player both online and live from the moment I learnt to play, and within a few months was making more from poker than the day job. Within a year of sitting down with my brother to learn what a flop was, I had won a major tournament (the European Deepstack), final tabled the JP Masters, won the Fitz Eom a few times, gone deep in a GUKPT, and was playing at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Long nights that should have been spent recovering from a hard days training were instead spent clicking buttons or playing live. While I was able to keep training as hard as necessary to be an international class ultra runner, the lack of recovery left me jaded, overtrained and ultimately spent as a force.
When I sat down that day 7 years ago with my brother to learn poker having set my 49th birthday as the deadline by which I wanted to be good enough to play at the top level, I imagined I would spend my 49th birthday away at some big tournament. As ever when you make plans and set goals, even if you get the bullet points right, the details and the route there turn out to be totally different from that you anticipated. I did indeed spend my 49th birthday away at a major poker tournament (or to be more precise I spent it in the company of my Firm friends, and legends like Dave Curtis and Willie and Dode Elliot in a villa in Marbella at the tail end of UKIPT Marbella).
However, I am not the newb taking his first tentative steps at this level I imagined I would be 8 years ago. Most people see me as something of a veteran already at this point. I've been a professional poker player for longer than all but a handful of people in Ireland. It's even possible that I'm now roughly at the same point in my poker career as I was in my running one when I toed the starting line in Brno. Still able to compete at the top level, still capable of the big result, but essentially at the top of the slope getting ready to roll down the other side.
I don't believe this to be the case. I certainly hope it is not the case. But I've been through enough other careers at this point to admit that it might be the case. Willie Elliot, legend that he is, drove from Marbella to Malaga and back to ferry the Firm to and from our villa for the week. On the way in, we spoke about what seems to be one of Willie's preoccupations as maybe the most enthusiastic UKIPT reg: whether it's possible to play the game as much as those of us who do it for a living do, and still love it. I assured him I still love the game as much as ever, but was forced to admit I didn't know another pro who would say the same. At breakfast on our last day in Marbella, David Lappin said if he could find something he liked that paid even a third of what he earns from poker, he'd do that instead and never log on to a poker site again. Daragh Davey said pretty much the same (but he set the bar at two thirds). But I still love poker. There is literally nothing else I can think of that I would rather be doing for a living. I'm not bragging when I say this. When I chatted with the world class 24 Hour runners I was privileged enough to be teammate to about what made us better than other people at what we did, the general consensus was that there was something wrong with us that made us tolerate more discomfort tiredness and pain than a sensible person. The natural response from normal people on learning the gory details of what the top 24 Hour runners put themselves through is not one of admiration but rather "What the Hell is wrong with you?" I kind of feel the same about poker. I think the intelligent response to playing ten million hands in something as repetitive as poker day in day out for almost a decade is to want to stop, and to continue only because you make money from it. But that boredom module seems to be missing from my brain (which may also explain why I was able to run about a thousand 400 metres laps for 24 hours without losing my mind).
I also know that the day I realise I will never be better at poker than I am now is the day I will effectively retire. In the meantime, the challenge is to keep on improving, keep forcing myself to put in the long hours needed to get better and stay if not ahead than at least up with the curve. I feel like I have at least another couple of years I can keep trying to do that. But I felt the same when I toed the starting line in Bergamo in what turned out to be my last ever race. I'd like to think that this time next year I will be writing a blog in Vegas about how I got on in the Seniors event, and my hopes for the main event. But we can never know these things for sure, and it's also possible that at some point in the next year I will be announcing my retirement from poker. There is no one finishing line in life or anything else. We cross several, and when we cross the last one, we rarely know it is the last one. Time generally only gets around to telling us later. The wifi in the casino in Marbella was pretty poor, so I may have missed that email.