In an interview at UKIPT London immediately after busting the Champion of Champions, one of the more interesting questions I was asked was what overlap if any I saw between my old world of ultrarunning, and poker. It being a lot earlier in the day than I am used to being conscious let alone working my brain these days, and my mood not being improved by already having busted quite an important tournament, I didn't give the most interesting of answers.
However, it did get me thinking about the differences and similarities. Back in the period when I ran 24 hour races, I wrote an extensive account of what the experience was like, aimed mainly at my friends of the period, most of whom were runners of distances between 5 kilometres and marathons struggling to comprehend why anyone would want to keep running for 24 hours straight. These days, most of my friends (and readers) are poker players who find it hard to comprehend why anyone would want to keep running for 24 minutes straight, so perhaps a different description of what it feels like to run for 24 hours straight is needed.
The Longest Day
You wake up early, around 7 AM. Or maybe you don't wake up at all. Maybe you've been lying awake all night unable to sleep at the thought of what you are about to put yourself through. You get up and force yourself to eat the biggest breakfast you've ever eaten, because part of the challenge of running a 24 hour race is to have enough fuel in the tank to do it. Enough fuel means eating about 6 or 7 times as much as a normal person eats in a day. You're not going to be able to eat all that for breakfast of course, most of it will have to be eaten (literally) on the run, but you need to make a good start. So you eat til you're stuffed, and it's in this state that you waddle to the starting line, feeling a mixture of dread at the day ahead and bloated from the food mountain you just ate. You try to stay in the moment rather than think about the fact that you are about to start running with the intention of not stopping for 24 hours.
The race starts at 9 AM and you remember the words of your coach, "Start as slow as you can....then slow down". You trot along at what feels like a snail's pace. A few minutes in, you are already eating and drinking. This is not a contest of running alone: it's a contest of running while eating and drinking. The first hour passes quickly and easily, and you chalk it off as the first meaningful milestone. What you don't think is "One down....twenty three to go". You continue trying to stay in the moment, concentrating on the next lap, to the next bend, the next step...all the while eating and drinking.
By midday you're starting to feel a bit tired. If this was a marathon, "just a marathon", you'd be done by now. But it's not....you've been running for a longer time than it takes you to run a marathon, yet you are just half a quarter of the way in terms of time, and probably less than 5% in terms of effort.
3 PM. You are now officially tired. You've been running for twice the time a marathon takes, and you're only a quarter of the way in terms of time, way less in terms of effort. You can't think like this but you can't entirely stop these thoughts creeping into your mind either. Your stomach feels ill from all the food and drink it's been forced to digest. It doesn't want you to eat or drink now, but you have to keep forcing yourself. There's all kinds of internal conflicts in your mind. You're angry with yourself for putting yourself through this. You're annoyed with yourself for feeling angry. You want to just stop but you don't. You don't want to keep forcing your weary legs to keep running but you do. You don't want to open your mouth and force yourself to swallow food and drink, but you do.
6 PM. Daylight is fading, and so are you. You've been running all day and you're barely a third of the way. People have gotten up, gone to work, done a full day's work, and gone home in the time you've been running. You're exhausted by what has been but you know the worst is yet to come. You've been conscientiously diverse in what you've been eating and drinking but your stomach is starting to limit your options. No more sports drink...you just vomit it straight back up. No more cheese....the very smell of cheese nauseates you.
9 PM. It's dark now but the half way mark gives you a temporary boost. Very temporary: by 10 PM you feel so weak you're not sure you can stand for much longer, let alone keep running. You've been running for 13 hours, and in terms of effort you know it's not even half way. Somehow you have to keep these exhausted legs, swollen sore feet (you've had to change into shoes several times bigger than your normal size), and demoralised spirit running for another 11 hours. On a sick stomach. Your legs wobble, you stumble from time to time, but somehow you keep moving forward. You're so tired you can't even think straight. You're in a weird trance like state now, acutely aware of all the aches and strains in your body yet somehow an observer, observing a lunatic who should have stopped running hours ago but keeps going.
Midnight. Everything is tired. Not just your legs. Muscles that hold organs in place while you run are not used to having this strain placed on them for 15 hours straight. The muscles in your mouth that you use to chew are worn out, not used to this amount of chewing in one day. It hurts when you swallow. It hurts when you move your head. It hurts when breathe. It hurts when you blink.
3 AM. The trance like state has started to resemble sleep. You are actually falling asleep while you run. You bump into walls as you doze off. You force yourself to take caffeine to stay awake. Your body wants to know why you are doing this to yourself. You should be sleeping, tonight of all nights. You're always asleep at this time. Just stop and get some sleep. But you don't.
6 AM. The sun is coming up. That and the knowledge you are now only a marathon away from the end of this nightmare gives you a lift. All around you, zombies who shuffled through the hours of darkness more dead than alive are starting to wake up and speed up. Zombies who could barely put one foot in front of the other an hour ago are now doing a reasonable impersonation of running again.
8 AM. You're more tired and more sore than ever, but you're nearly there! An hour is nothing. It's less than a short training run. This knowledge keeps you going, ignoring the pain in your body, the physical anguish. You disassociate, refusing to even acknowledge the pain, as you force yourself to keep running. Running more in that last hour than in any other hour.
9 AM. The bell sounds and we're done. You stop. You're not sure what to do now. Your legs decide the issue as they cave in and you crash to the ground. I guess we're staying here til someone gets us. The next 24 hours will be spent in hospital as different types of doctors argue over which of the various types of damage you've done to yourself are the most dangerous or life threatening. But you know you'll be ok. Within 24 hours, you'll start to feel like a normal person again. You'll be able to walk unaided within a few days, and you'll be back out jogging within a week, starting the recovery from this race and the preparation for the next.
The Long Grind
You wake up early, around 1 PM. Well, that's early when you don't get to bed til 8 AM, and don't get to sleep til 10. Or maybe you don't sleep at all. Maybe you've been lying awake unable to sleep thinking about this downswing you are currently going through. Over 4 months and $20k. You just seem to lose every day. Why get up and grind when you just know you're going to lose some more? You force yourself up and eat breakfast, slowly, trying to put off that moment when you turn on the computer and start to grind. It can't be postponed forever so you eventually find yourself at the desk, watching the machine boot up, feeling a mixture of dread at the day ahead and some residual upset from the bad beats of yesterday. You try to stay in the moment rather than think about the fact that you are about to start a session, by the end of which you will probably have less money (or be in greater makeup) than you are now.
The grind starts and you remember the words, "Focus on correct decisions, not outcomes". You click buttons, the decisions all routine. 52o, fold. 47o fold. AQo raise. 59o fold. 48o fold. Got threebet with the AQo. No stats on the 3 bettor, so fold. A few minutes in, and you take the first bad beat. You raised tens, called a threebet. You check called the ten high rainbow flop. You check raised the blank turn. You got shoved on. You call. He's got a gutter. He hits the river. That table disappears. You reg something else, trying not to get upset about what just happened. It will all even out in the long run. You want them to shove the turn with just a gutter. They won't always hit it, even if it seems like they do at the moment. This is not a contest of poker skills alone: it's a contest of playing the best poker you can while people hit gutshots and other bad shit happens. The first hour passes quickly but not easily. Like any other day the first few memorable occurences are all bad. You get one outered, you lose a flip, you bust a tournament. You chalk it off as the price of winning. To win in poker, you have to be able to handle losing constantly. What you don't think is "Every fucken time". You continue trying to stay in the moment, concentrating on the next decision, the next hand, the next click. Everything is routine: your ranges nailed down by a million hands of repetition.
A few hours in you're starting to feel a bit tilted. 95% of the decisions are routine, boring, automatic and seemingly inconsequential. But the ones with consequences all seem to just bring bad consequences. You feel like you're not just losing all the flips, you're losing when dominating, their underpairs are hitting sets way more than they should, their gutters and their runner runners are getting there way more than they are supposed to. Running bad, feeling bad, but the job is not to start playing bad. Fold 84o. Fold 32o. Raise AQo. Get three bet. You check his stats. No reason to suspect he's light here, but you're pissed off because it seems like every time you open AQo in early position today, some guy with nitty stats three bets you. So screw him, you 4 bet in his eye. He 5 bet piles it back in yours and you feel ashamed and click the fold bet button seething in self loathing.
8 hours. You are now officially tired. You can tell the session isn't going well. Not only are you barely cashing in anything, you're regging more of your backup tourneys than normal owing to early bustouts. You can't think like this but you can't entirely stop these thoughts creeping into your mind either. You should have taken the day off: you'd have more money sitting in your account right now if you had. Hell, you'd have 20k more in your account right now if you'd skipped off to Thailand four months ago on a sabbathical. You're angry with yourself for putting yourself through this day after day. You're annoyed with yourself for feeling angry. You want to just stop but you don't because you can't. These buttons won't click themselves. You don't want to keep clicking them but you do.
10 hours. Daylight has faded, and you are fading. You've stopped regging so you are making less decisions per minute. This unfortunately gives you more time to think about stuff other than routine button click decisions. Did I just misplay that hand? Cut and paste the hand history for analysis later. How much am I down today? No final tables, just a few min cashes, feels like maybe a 2k down day. A friend pops up on Skype to ask how you are going. You don't feel like talking about your continuing downswing so you just shut Skype without comment. Nobody really cares about your downswing, other than you, and you feel like you might be reaching the point where even you don't care. But you force these negative thoughts from your mind and try to just keep making the best decisions you can. Raise AQo. Get 3 bet. His stats are nitty but screw that, not folding this time. You pile for what you know is too much. He snaps. His aces hold. You're left with a fraction of a big blind. You guiltily glance at the title bar to see what tournament it is. A $100 freezeout. You just punted 10 starting stacks in a $100 freezeout. You just set fire to $1k in equity. You feel weak and ashamed, a failure, a discredit to your profession.
11 hours. You are down to 4 tables. Three are bowls near the money and you are short in all three. You start stalling for the min cash. The $40 min cash may not seem like much when you're in a 20K downswing and you're down over 2k today but it has to be done. Part of the job. Be professional. The other one is your biggest game of the day, and you have a stack. Kings! You open. Get 3 bet. You feel sick. You know he has aces. He always has aces. But you can't fold. You check his stats. He's a maniac. If he has aces, it's a cooler. You know you're supposed to 4 bet to 6 bet shove, but you don't want to. You force yourself to click the 4 bet. You know he has aces. He 5 bets. Yup, aces. You check the lobby. It's not a pay jump so not point stalling the inevitable here. You 6 bet pile even though you know he's going to snap and you're going to see aces. He doesn't snap. He's timebanking. 30 seconds, 45 seconds, 60 seconds, and he still hasn't called. Is this a slowroll or did he really not know what he was doing if you shoved when he 5 bet? He calls. Ace.......two......off. Oh my God, how does he get that in? You know the ace is coming before you even see it. It doesn't come on the flop but you know it's coming. It doesn't come on the turn either, so it's gonna be the river for maximum pain. He hits the river, but it's a consolation two ball. GG sir. You check the lobby again. You are now 1/20. $28k up top. That would wipe the downswing out in one fell swoop.
You min cash the three bowls and pat yourself on the back. Now you can concentrate on the last one. You start getting good luck tweets from friends who are clearly railing. You sign back on to Skype and suddenly you're Mr Sociable again.
You go a bit card dead on the final table but not to worry, lots of time. You try a few loose opens and 3 bets and you get piled on. Not to worry. Still 2/15. 1/15 moves into the seat to your immediate left. Every time you open he 3 bets. Every time you 4 bet he 5 bets. Not to worry. We will get a hand eventually.
2/10. You want the final table to form soon and hopefully you get a better seat. But it drags on. Then you pick up aces! You open. He 3 bets. You 4 bet really quick, trying to look tilty. He 5 bets. Now you tank, trying to look weak. Then you 6 bet, trying to look weak but stubborn. He 7 bets. You pile. He snaps. AKo. You flop an ace! AJ4r. You fist pump. Ten on the turn. Wait just a minute here. You try not to think "No queen, no queen". After what appears liker an eternity, out pops the queen. The table disappears. Your phone explodes with notifications from people tweeting you. Your Skype is playing that song you know so well, "You just got sucked out in sick fashion", in monotonous bleeps.
You feel numb. You close Skype without reading any of the messages. You turn off your phone. As the screen dies, you read the last tweet notification. "At least you cashed". Yes, at least I cashed. For an amount that doesn't even dent my losses for the day, when if I win that 90/10 I'm pretty much guaranteed a cash that wipes out 4 months of downswing. You want to throw your laptop out the window. You want to smash the phone against the wall. You want to phone "At least you cashed" and scream "AT LEAST I CASHED" down the line. But you don't. This is part of the job. You chose this profession. "At least you cashed" is a friend who does not understand but who nevertheless means well.
You're not sure what to do now. The next hour will be spent watching TV trying to wind down and get over what just happened. So you can sleep. So you can be ready to grind again tomorrow. But you know you'll just keep seeing that runout in your mind's eye over and over again. That queen on the river will be in your nightmares tonight.
When I unexpectedly flowered in my late 30s from a journeyman marathon runner into an international class ultrarunner, I was determined to make the absolute most of it for the few years I felt it would last. I hooked up with the best ultrarunning coach in the world. I consulted nutritionists. I fretted over finding the best possible massage therapist and physiotherapist. I consulted a top sports psychologist.
The most interesting session with the sports psychologist was the final one. Having exhausted the usual bread and butter topics of sports psychology (routine, managing negative emotions, focus, performance anxiety, dealing with unexpected setbacks, visualization) we got onto what motivated me personally. Ultrarunning is an extreme sport which largely boils down to "how much pain can you take when you could make it stop at any second?". The psychologist ventured the view that I had strong masochistic tendencies stemming from a deeply troubled and unhappy childhood. This willingness to welcome pain into my life was, she felt, the key to my "success". I couldn't really disagree with this. It seems more than plausible.
Now I often wonder if the same masochism has found a new outlet in poker. Psychologists tell us that people will not persist in activities unless they derive pleasurable experiences at least twice as frequently as unpleasant ones. If this were true, nobody would play poker (or run ultramarathons) for very long. Poker is not a fun game most of the time. You lose more than you win, you get more bad beats than suckouts, and you bust more tournaments than you don't. Ultrarunning is not a fun sport. The training is exhausting, time consuming and repetitive. The races are not about having fun, but about enduring the polar opposites of fun for a very long time.
In both these pursuits, you don't have to be a masochist, but it helps if you are. The lows are written into the fabric of every day. The highs are awesome but fleeting, woven into the fabric of our lives. Moments of redemption and pure happiness, standing on the shoulders of hours, day, months and years of misery and unhappiness. Moments you will never experience unless you can endure all that misery and unhappiness.
On second thoughts, scratch what I just said. You do have to be a masochist.