When some of your earliest memories are seeing horses walk up the driveway, stables out the back, spending days at a time at the Curragh and Phoenix Park racecourse, to say I was born and bred into a sporting family is no exaggeration.
Sport was literally running in the blood in our home, every minute of every day, and from a very early age I understood each year on the basis of the sporting calendar. I just never imagined ending up as passionate about the simple act of running as I am now.
We lived right on the Curragh. My father, Tady Regan, was a horse trainer, and during the 1980s had winners everywhere, including the Curragh on Derby weekend. That’s where I was a lot of the time, out on the racecourse. And while we watched an untold amount of sport in the house, racing was on at all times.
That life has always been in the blood, and also the respect for that endeavour. That commitment, graft and hard work to get to the top of the tree. I still say this to my Da, that’s one of the reasons I went out on my own and became a comedian. That graft and gamble is something similar to what he and all the other jockeys that I knew were doing.
Also being the youngest child my big fear was a horse was going to kick me in the face, which was a real threat. Now, I was never actually kicked, but I just couldn’t seem to get into that same obsession, maybe because that danger had me scared stiff a lot of the time.
It was also around that time I set up my first basketball hoop in the horse yard. In the 1980s, early 1990s, basketball was the antitheses of horseracing and the GAA, where there was to be very little or no “showing off”.
The Dream Team arrived, it all seemed so spectacular. It was showbusiness, I only realised that later. That’s the part I loved, and why I would eventually enjoy being on that stage, that was the addictive feeling for me.
Horseracing was more about getting the job done; basketball was about soaring through the air, doing the fanciest dribbling, wearing colourful (ridiculous) clothes. It couldn’t have been less “Irish” at that time.
I was also lucky that I attended Scoil Mhuire primary school, which was a basketball school thanks to our coach Joe O’Connor. He literally showed us the propaganda videos, NBA games and taught us all to be referees so we could appreciate how hard that job is.
We were shown the beauty of the game, and I was hooked, and I mean hooked. To use The Beatles analogy again, I was the fella with the guitar singing into the hairbrush, believed it was all possible for me too.
By the time I was 11, I was 6ft 1in, which is taller than Michael Jordan was at 11. Now, I didn’t grow another inch, but when you’re over 6ft at 11 that helps, and I devoted myself to it, attempting to be the best I could be at this thing.
I also found basketball was something you could also enjoy in your own isolation, shooting hoops, dribbling between chairs, and I was absolutely in love. It was a grey time in Ireland, and basketball felt so exotic, just seemed so much more open-minded than everything else around me.
While my older brother went to Newbridge College, a rugby school, I went to the basketball powerhouse that was Patrician Secondary School, which often turned out Irish internationals. Our team went on to win the All-Ireland Under-19 A level title in 1996, which was a tremendous achievement, and hasn’t been done since.
Playing at the National Basketball Arena, I had my trials for the Irish junior men’s team. I never got to suit up in the green, but came close. And that was good enough for me, and still is.
I went on to help create my own club in Newbridge because we didn’t have one. After I started playing in UCD the injuries first began to have their say. The shoulder and collarbone, then a hip, and by second year I was walking around with a limp just from wear and tear.
So it was quite the break-up when you loved something the way I did. I couldn’t be around the sport for a while. It took me maybe 10 years to get over it, and now I have the luxurious experience of passing it on to my son, trying to make it fun for him.
Fast forward a decade, and when I talk now about my passion for running it was really more of a revelation. Like a lot of guys I didn’t take care of my body in my 20s, and rinsed my ramshackle journey of my fitness for laughs for the first 10 years of my stand-up career. There were a lot of stories about attending boot camps, gyms, diets and failing to lift heavy things.
Just before the first full lockdown last year I wasn’t running anywhere. I was doing hot yoga as a way of relieving stress, and I know some people laugh when they hear stand-up comics saying it’s a stressful job. But believe me, supporting a family on jokes can get stressful.
When all that was gone, it started to look like running was my only option. My first thought was I’m only going to get injured because every other time I tried running I came home holding my shins in pain, unable to do it again for weeks.
With that I picked up the phone and rang Sonia O’Sullivan in Australia. She’d been on The Irishman Abroad podcast a few times and we stayed in touch because that’s the kind of person she is. I asked her straight up could she teach me how to run without getting injured? Absolutely, she said.
Juice in the tank
So it all started on August 24th, 2020, and I went from not being able to run around the block without wanting to keel over, to running my first 10-mile road race last Sunday.
And I felt like I still had juice in the tank. It felt like a Waterford Whispers News headline: 40-year man starts running and starts talking about it like he invented running!
I never imagined any of this: I often drove past people out running and said to myself: ‘what are they thinking?’ No one looked like they were enjoying it one bit.
Now Sonia has helped me understand that running is a metaphor for life. The way she articulates it, the tiny incremental steps, the self-kindness that is required, that’s what I didn’t have before, and why I’ve grown to love it. It’s also about learning to nurture the body, remind yourself why you’re doing it, to look at the landscape around you, and she has converted me fully.
It also means I don’t eat like it’s a children’s party anymore, and while that’s not why I started, I’ve lost 12kg, and that’s without any cutting calories.
I also used to see a therapist, and there was one day where I missed an appointment because I was running. I completely forgot I had the appointment. In ways running just replaced that, it was having such an incredible effect on my mental health.
Thanks to Sonia – and I’m incredibly grateful to have the greatest Irish athlete of all time as my coach – we’ve started a fundraising challenge for Jigsaw, the youth mental health charity, with An Irishman Running Abroad Podcast. And in ways that has removed any love-hate that sometimes can happen with running, it’s not just a self-endeavour.
I did have my doubts, genuine concerns about this, but I’m now running 50km a week without major pain, and I would 100 per cent see myself on the starting line of a Dublin Marathon in the future.
Sonia has also taught me the difference between discomfort and pain, being super careful about increasing the workload. According to my Strava profile, my fitness has improved 6,000 per cent in the last six months. Is that even possible? Was I comatose or clinically dead before?
It’s impossible to go through that kind of physical change without it changing you as a person. The last year has been an exceptionally solitary time for a lot of people, and even though I’m lucky to have a family, with a podcast running community you also get the sense you’re not out running alone, but running with the far wider running family.