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Lure of the mountain: Zak Hanna - the Orange Order member running for Ireland

‘To me we all live on the same island, it’s not a political or religious thing. I just want to run’

In Newry town waiting for Zak Hanna to come down the mountain.

On the table in front of me is Tough As Leather, the John Lenihan story, apt research and deliberate prop.

Days into the new year, Hanna has already raised his reputation as the best mountain runner in the land – winning, on January 1st, a sixth successive King of the Glens, above in Antrim. By some considerable distance.

He walks lean as a spider into the hotel lobby and after a bone-crushing handshake eyes up Tough as Leather. “That man is my absolute hero,” he tells me. “I can tell you the story of that book without having to lift a page ...”


In ways later apparent Lenihan and Hanna indeed share much in common, fiercely independent spirits in their all-conquering love of mountain running and the call of the wild, outliers among all sporting outliers.

Con Houlihan once reckoned Lenihan “of all the unsung heroes is just about the most unsung”, although his highs on the mountains didn’t go entirely unnoticed. Not least his winning of the World Mountain Running Trophy back in 1991. Or his 19 times winning of the Carrantuohill Mountain race in county Kerry.

Throughout his career, Lenihan trained mostly alone from the family dairy farm on the hilly outskirts of Tralee, one run on repeat play, namely up Stacks Mountain. At age 27, at the near opposite end of the country, Hanna has been quietly following those footsteps and fast making up ground, finishing fifth at the now World Mountain Running Championships last November, fifth place too in the European Championship event last July.

Hanna trains mostly alone from the family home on the hilly outskirts of Dromara, in the centre of county Down, one run on repeat play, namely up Slieve Croob. From there he’s come down to talk, openly engaging on any such similarities with Lenihan, and any subtle differences too.

Because for many, Hanna’s natural progression wasn’t into an Irish running vest, not only given his late blossoming in the sport; given his and his long family membership of the Orange Order, his support of Rangers FC – his entire upbringing and background essentially – many assumed he’d be running for Britain, if running for anybody at all.

Ask him how it all happened, his eyes intelligently brighten as if to clarify, and he takes me to Djouce Mountain, in county Wicklow. Early August, 2016, just over six months after first taking to mountain running – after abruptly ending his competitive cycling interest which for the previous six years had taken him around the country – he’s lining up for the Irish Mountain Running Association (IMRA) trial, the winner guaranteed selection for the World Championships in Bulgaria the following month.

“I told no one I was coming down,” he says. “The month before, coming back on the ferry from the Snowdon Mountain race, a Home Nations competition, a couple of the Irish runners were chatting to me about it, told me I should go for it. I was over there running for Northern Ireland, had never heard of Crone Woods or Djouce before.

“I didn’t want to build anything up, drove down on my own, love my own company like that anyway. I was near the front, wondering to myself what I was doing here, then once we got over the last stile, before the final run up Djouce, I was away, won it by two minutes.

“Then on the way home I phoned mum and dad, told then I was going to Bulgaria, to run for Ireland. I didn’t have to think twice, could not wait. Being picked to run for Ireland, I wasn’t going to turn that down. In my mind, it might have been my first and only chance.

“The excitement was incredible, mum and dad were buzzing too. A lot of people might view that as contradictory, but to me we all live on the same island, it’s not a political or religious thing that I’m running for Ireland, none of that comes into it. I just want to run.

“Yeah, I was brought up with the family involved in the Orange Order, but we’re not political.”

Still, for others the decision may not have been so straightforward, and some closer to home later questioned Hanna’s option: after he carried the Irish flag at the opening ceremony in Bulgaria there were some messages saying as much ...

“Because it was my first time running for Ireland, they asked me did I want to carry the flag. I didn’t think twice, I was there to represent Ireland, wasn’t going to deny it. At no point did I feel uncomfortable. I only felt pride.

“I would agree, my dad always says count myself lucky I didn’t grow up during The Troubles, I know I ruffled a few feathers. But running has given me a whole new outlook on life, a whole new mindset. It’s my own choice. No one tells me what I can and cannot believe.

“But one or two negative comments, that was it. Everything else was positive. People know me being an Orange Order member, being a Rangers man, but people realise too that’s only a small part of me. And yes, I follow the GAA now, which a lot of people in the Orange Order wouldn’t approve of. I have a hurl and a sliotar, puck about with my dog, Corragh, she loves it too. It’s sport, it’s just the way it is.

“And with the Orange Order, it was never forced, never. My younger brother, he’s not in it. My dad’s brother, he’s not in it. My grandad is also a huge member of the Irish pipe band society, and back then, I thought everyone went out on the Twelfth.

“When it came to age 16, and I joined, but did my own research, listened to both sides, and I am still a member. The whole family have been outstanding, they don’t care than I’m running for Ireland, other than being so proud.

“I know a lot of people support Rangers because of the religious thing. For me, it was my uncle, he supported Rangers because of Ally McCoist and Mark Hateley, McCoist was one of the best strikers, through that I started following them too, and afterwards I’d be over in Ibrox once or twice a year. I’m not going to hide behind that.”

Besides, his debut in an Irish mountain running vest in 2016 taught him a far more lasting lesson: if he wanted to succeed in this sport, it was time to get properly serious.

Lure of the mountain

That lure of the mountain was always within him, not just from growing up at the foot of Slieve Croob, or from frequent visits to the Mournes to the near south. His father Derek, a former aviation engineer, would spend periods working in the Swiss Alps, the young Zak recalling images of Swiss mountain resorts from his earliest holidays.

Through his mother, Noeline, his first sporting pursuit was horse-riding, which he stuck with until age 20; the cycling thing just wasn’t to be.

“I still get on the horse, now and again, but haven’t touched the bike in years. At youth and junior level, I made a few podium places, but riders the same age were getting bigger, stronger, I just stayed the same size, until I was maybe 20.

“I was doing all the training, I wasn’t slacking, I was just getting left behind. So I stopped completely that Christmas 2015. I’d always said I wanted to try the local Slieve Donard race, I was always aware of it. I didn’t realise there was a whole world of mountain racing. So I bought a pair of fell running shoes, joined the Newcastle running club, on New Year’s Day 2016, that was it.”

From there it’s been nature perfectly combined with his own nurturing: “Slieve Croob, which peaks out at about 1,800ft, it’s a stand-alone mountain, and I know every blade of grass up there. On a clear day, you can see Belfast, the Isle of Man, the Lake District. Incredible. I missed that, missed it when I moved to train in Italy, knowing this is the best place in the world to train.

“I know some of the European runners laugh at me when I tell them that’s the biggest mountain in my area, it’s not Alpine terrain, but it serves me well. All the family, mum and dad’s side, all live in the area. We’re that close-knit, out in the countryside, the nearest shop is three, four miles away. It’s rough, rugged, absolutely stunning countryside.”

To win one World title like him, equal what John Lenihan has done, a dairy farmer from Kerry, I’ll be doing absolutely everything I can to achieve that

There’s the sense and gentle intensity of a Christopher McCandless when Hanna talks about the openness and idealistic pursuit of his existence: “I loved school, was always good attendance-wise, I’d great teachers, but I was only competitive in sport, and once I realised running was what I wanted to do, I knew I had to pursue that.

“The thought of being stuck in education, coming out in debt, just did not appeal to me. So I worked in the local shop, as wholesale butcher, I knew nothing about butchering or steaks or anything like that, but worked there for years, until it got to the point, I was taking running more seriously, couldn’t get the time off, so I walked out on that.”

That asceticism of mind was further heightened after what Hanna considers his proper breakthrough win, fittingly on the highest point in the North.

“At those first World Championships, in Bulgaria, I got absolutely destroyed, finished 76th, 20 minutes behind the winner. At the Slieve Donard race, the following May [2017], that’s the big one, locally. Starts at the sea, straight up and back down. It’s been run every year since 1945, once you get your name on that trophy ...

“That was also the trial for the World and European Championships. The tradition is everyone goes into O’Hare’s Bar that evening, has their fill. I went straight home and started looking at the Europeans, what’s the course like.

“I’ve never seen the inside of a nightclub in Ireland in my life. It’s just not my scene, I’ve always been a teetotaller. In school when we got to the age my mates would be out drinking. Because I was so busy with horses, with cycling, it just didn’t appeal to me. I’d rather come into school on Monday morning, with a medal to show or do something with the weekend, rather than still be hanging from the Saturday before. Late nights, and me, just don’t go together.”

His coach since that breakthrough is Richard Rogers, at Newcastle AC, and its high volume – twice a day, six days a week, one long run on a Sunday – show he’s clearly a masterful student of his own game.

The game is changing too, most mountain running events offering the Vertical Kilometre (VK) uphill race (his speciality), plus the traditional up and down. At the World Championships, staged in Chiang Mai in Thailand, his fifth place came up the 8.5km route, Patrick Kipngeno of Kenya winning, the American Joseph Grey, a former World champion, one place behind Hanna in sixth.

“I’m not making any money, I’m not interested in making any money. Even with fifth in the world, fifth in Europe, I’m entitled to zero funding, but I’m trying to change that, quietly.”

Among his wins last summer was at the Matterhorn Ultracks Vertinight, an uphill race staged at night so that spectators below can follow the runners’ headtorches as they weave up the mountain; staged at Zermatt, the Swiss Mountain resort which boasts the Matterhorn as its startling backdrop, it was close to where Lenihan won his World title, 32 years ago.

“When I got into mountain running, in the Mournes, you start to hear about records being set here, then you start to hear about John Lenihan. I can count on both hands how many days’ running I’ve missed the last four or five years. For me getting out for a run is recharging the batteries.

“To win one World title like him, equal what John has done, a dairy farmer from Kerry, I’ll be doing absolutely everything I can to achieve that.”

And he touches the table in front of me.