Athletics

'When you accept everyone for who they are and what they are, everything becomes a lot easier': Zak Hanna content to run his own race

A Rangers-supporting Orangeman who is proud to run under the Irish flag and follows the fortunes of All-Ireland club kings Kilcoo, Zak Hanna has always marched to the beat of his own drum. Ahead of a tilt at the World Mountain Running Championships in Thailand next week, Neil Loughran finds out what makes the Dromara man tickā€¦

Dromara man Zak Hanna represents Ireland at the upcoming World Mountain Running Championships in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Picture by Mal McCann

ZAK Hanna can clearly remember younger brother Ben’s excitement after unwrapping a PlayStation beneath the tree one Christmas morning. He clearly remembers wondering what all the fuss was about too.

On top of the usual bundle of games, Santa Claus also delivered an extra controller - just in case the elder sibling fancied joining in. He might as well have left a bag of coal.

“It never came out of the box.

“Sitting in front of a TV for that length of time? I could never get my head around that…”

Zak Hanna has always been his own man.

After touching down in Thailand during the early hours of yesterday morning, the 26-year-old is on the last lap of preparation for the World Mountain Running Championships, which take place from Thursday until Sunday.

And the road that brought him to Chiang Mai as Ireland’s top male mountain runner is a result of the life he has always lived.

Where others would while away hours on Fifa or the latest incarnation of Grand Theft Auto, Hanna was outside, sucking in fresh air on the slopes of Slieve Croob that surround the family home in Dromara. If it wasn’t horse-riding, it was walking. If it wasn’t walking, it was cycling. If it wasn’t cycling, it was running.

“I have zero interest in being inside.

“A day like that, I like to be busy. I can’t just lie around the house. I was brought up having an active lifestyle, an outdoor lifestyle… when it’s bred into you, you can’t get away from it.

“I honestly never cared what other people my age were doing. When I got older and mates started going out drinking… good luck to them, but that was never me. I never followed the norm in that way. I’ve always been comfortable in my own skin.

“You can only be who you are.”

Horse-riding took Hanna to National Balmoral a few times as he rode at Irish and British riding club level, but it never went much beyond being a hobby.

The cycling ran in tandem for much of that time, racing for Dromara Cycling Club until eventually a combination of work, and lack of physical development, saw him falling further adrift.

“I was always ‘wee Zak’.

“I’m 5’9" now but I was probably 5’3"-5’4" until I was 18 or 19, where other boys were hitting six foot at 15, 16. So because I was a late developer the power output never really clicked with me.

“Then it got to the stage where I was working big hours, trying to balance the cycling and the horse-riding, and everything just started to pile up. By the time it got towards the end of 2015, the results in the cycling… it just wasn’t clicking for me. I was getting left behind, really.

“But, although I was never the best cyclist and never raced at elite level in Ireland, I was exposed to training with the best. I raced and trained with Mark Downey, Mattie Taggart. I remember when Sean Downey first went out to Belgium to race for An Post, then you’ve Seamus Downey too - the experience that man has from the Olympics…

“Being with those boys, seeing how they operated, how they lived, it was a just a wee window into that high performance side of things.”

That experience would stand to him as the next, unexpected chapter unfolded.

And if the horse-riding had come from mother Noeline, who runs Mossvale equestrian centre in Dromara, perhaps dad Derek’s line of work inadvertently played a part in steering his son down a path less travelled.

“Dad’s an aviation engineer, based in Mönchengladbach at the minute but he has worked in Switzerland, all over Europe really, and as far away as Namibia.

“He’s worked abroad most of my life, normally six months of the year, on and off. He was actually working in Switzerland when I was born so a lot of holidays were over there ski-boarding in resorts like Grindelwald, then we’d have gone to Basel, Zurich…

“That was my first introduction to the mountains.”

Hanna had enjoyed track and cross-country running during his Dromore High School days – “a good excuse to get out of class” – while it was the Duke of Edinburgh award with the Boys’ Brigade that provided an introduction to the Mournes.

Little did he know how perfect a fit it would prove later in life.

“I joined Newcastle running club, then went to a session on the Tuesday night… I remember being up near the front thinking ‘I really enjoyed that’.

“A round of the British fell-running championships was taking place in Newcastle a few months later, so I entered. It was up round Donard, across Commedagh and back down. I was in the top 20 by the time we got to the summit at Donard then, because I’d no real fitness for running, I blew out so badly on the way back down.

“But I loved everything about it. The more I did it, and the better I got, the more I was thinking ‘this is something I could maybe do something with…’”

Seven years since first taking to the trails, the international scene has whipped Hanna out of his comfort zone, plunging him into some of the world’s most treacherous terrain against the sport’s top operators.

Propelling his wiry eight stone frame up the likes of Mount Snowdon, the French, Italian, Swiss and Bavarian Alps and the Dolomites in northern Italy, he has become an established force in mountain running, with a fifth place finish at July’s European Championships in La Palma a career-best performance.

There have been other challenges too, of course – some a little closer to home, and all faced down in his own way. Just how it has always been.

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IT was on the boat back from conquering Snowdon in 2016 that Zak Hanna was first sounded out about running for Ireland. Until that point, it wasn’t something he had considered, or was even aware of as an option.

Yet the more those around him talked, the more intently he listened. There’s a trial for the World Championships taking place at Crone Wood in Wicklow. Why don’t you give it a shot?

“I went down, but I never let on to anyone.

“There’s boys round me left and right, and I’m looking at them thinking ‘I don’t belong here’. It was a six kilometre uphill race. Even when I was cycling, I loved going uphill on all the big climbs around county Down. That’s where I’m strongest.

“Three of us got away early on, I got up to the front, stayed there and ended up being picked to go to the World Championships in Bulgaria that September...”

It was a landmark moment in a burgeoning career.

The tradition upon winning a first international cap is to carry the flag before the event, depending on personal choice. This is where things get complicated – for a few others, at least, if not the man himself.

“The context here comes from my background.

“I’m born into a family that has a history in the Orange Order. I joined when I was 16 and I’m still a member now. I’m also a huge Rangers fan. But when the opportunity came to run for Ireland, I never gave it a second thought. Same when I was asked to carry the tricolour.

“My thinking was this could be the first and last time I get to run for Ireland, I’m going to take every chance I get here. So I carried the tricolour, then a picture comes out of me on Facebook, I was tagged in it, people saw it.

“Next thing a few texts came through – ‘turncoat’, all this, people in the Orange asking ‘what’s he at?’ I woke up another morning and I had a Facebook message from, well, I wouldn’t call him a friend now, basically saying ‘you’re a brave man doing that’, calling me a Lundy.

“He said he was going to do everything in his power to get me removed from the Orange Order – and he’s not even in it! But look, I never batted an eyelid. I’ve always been thick skinned.

“Dromara’s very mixed. No-one from Dromara’s ever said anything. Everyone gets on with each other in Dromara, that’s the beauty of it.

“There is no divide.”

And yet Hanna is certainly not the first sportsperson from this part of the world to find their international allegiance subject to debate and discussion.

It is something golfer Rory McIlroy has regularly come up against while, following a record-breaking summer on the track, Portaferry runner Ciara Mageean spoke of her pride at representing both Ireland and Northern Ireland after landing European and Commonwealth Games silver medals.

Hanna finds the whole thing tiresome. Travelling to different countries, meeting different people, enjoying different experiences, the belated introduction to mountain-running has only served to broaden his horizons.

“I haven’t missed an Irish team since.

“I’ve been approached on several occasions about running for Britain, but I wouldn’t even consider it because Irish mountain running has done a lot for me - to turn would be a slap in the face.

“There might be more money involved, but it doesn’t appeal to me. At the end of the day I’ll proudly say I’m Irish, and I’ll proudly say I’m Northern Irish. It’s a very small minority who would actually give you abuse; most people are extremely supportive.

“The way I see it is the people who are bitter, they’re people who are very sheltered. Mountain running has opened my eyes. It has changed my outlook.

“When I was younger, you always knew you were going to the Twelfth every year. When I joined the Orange Order, you’re brought in and you see what you see. The Orange Order was always more than good to me.

“I was never brought up to be bitter, never brought up being told you shouldn’t mix with Catholics. You find a common ground with people. I would never, ever hate anyone because of what they believe in.

“You’re a lot more restricted in what you can do in life if you hold such narrow-minded views. When you accept everyone for who they are and what they are, everything becomes a lot easier. People look at you in a different light.”

As a result of that outlook, and through friendships at home and further afield, Hanna attended his first GAA match earlier this month when Dromara lost out to Teconnaught in the Down JFC final in Newry.

Having got to know some of the Kilcoo players from training around Castlewellan Forest Park, plans are already afoot to attend the Magpies’ Ulster Championship quarter-final against either Ballybay or Crossmaglen.

“I loved it! It was brilliant,” he said of that first visit to Pairc Esler.

“When you know that many people on the team, it would be a shame not to go. Me and a few boys have already said when Kilcoo play in Ulster, we’ll go.

“I was talking to Aaron Branagan there recently, and he was saying you’re more than welcome, any time. For me, it’s a case that you’ve seen these boys train, you know what they put into it.

“I mean, they’re All-Ireland champions, and that’s a place of around a thousand people. They’re obsessed with winning. I remember Aaron Branagan talking about moving out of the house when the child was born because they had an Ulster final coming up… now that I admire.

“They’ll do anything to win, and I can relate to that because they’re trying to get to the top of their sport, and I’m trying to get to the top of mine.”

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Zak Hanna hopes to emulate Kerry man John Lenihan, who is Ireland's only ever world mountain running champion. Picture by Mal McCann

 

HE’S getting there too. As was the case for many, lockdown proved a major turning point for Zak Hanna.

A few performances that fell below his expectations, culminating in “a shocking run” at the 2017 Irish cross-country championships, sparked some serious soul-searching.

It was then he started doing “double days” – out at 5am before work, then again in the evening.

“Rain, hail, shine, snow, whatever,” he smiles, “it doesn’t bother me.”

That was the first step, though combining everything was still proving problematic. After being furloughed for three months when the pandemic struck, that taste of the full-time lifestyle proved irresistible.

From there the car was sold, the belt tightened, while whatever adjustments required were made to give this his best shot.

“Everything I did was geared towards running, every decision I made in my life was based around how it would affect my running.

“I’m not professional, I’m not being paid a wage to run, so I’m full-time amateur. But running’s my drug. If you want it to work, you make it work. That’s the way I look at it.”

Hanna spent three months in Italy in 2020, racing all over Europe, before homesickness took hold. Not once did he consider stopping, however, with the rewards clear to see in the results that have followed.

Where he once stood at the foot of the Wicklow mountains and wondered what he was doing there, Hanna now knows he belongs alongside the very best. A voyage of discovery has also brought him in touch with people and places he could never have imagined.

And no matter where he goes, he brings a book called ‘Tough as Leather’ – the story of John Lenihan, the only Irishman to wear the world champion’s crown after topping the pile in Switzerland 31 years ago.

“That’s my Bible,” he smiles.

It is Hanna’s dream to one day emulate Lenihan, and to see mountain-running finally receive the recognition he feels it deserves - particularly on the greatest stage of all.

“The Irish are viewed as underdogs in pretty much any sport. When I go away, I get asked ‘where’s the mountains in Ireland?’ I tell them they’re only speedbumps compared to what you have.

“But it was the same for John Lenihan - he’s a dairy farmer from Kerry who became world champion, so what’s to say I can’t too?

“The Italians are the best for mountain running, they live and breathe the sport. When I started out they wouldn’t even have looked at you, they thought they were better. I can go out and beat them now.

“Unfortunately mountain running doesn’t get any recognition in Ireland. I got fifth in the European championship this year… if that had been on the track or the road, straight away I’d be given access to €23-25,000 funding. Because mountain running’s not in the Olympics, I can’t get a thing.

“This year coming, I’m not allowed to apply for it, but I will be applying for it, and I’m going to fight for it. I’m on the World Mountain Running Association athletes’ commission, I’ve written that many articles for different websites… I have a huge passion for it, and I want to be a voice for it. I want to see it get Olympic status.

“I see they’re talking about eSports [being in the Olympics]. Aww,” he says, shaking his head, “you’ve no idea. That’s baffling. We just have to keep pushing and hope someone listens.”

For now, though, it’s the World Championships that loom large - and another crack at John Lenihan’s legacy.

“I’m not near him yet, but that’s where I want to be. World mountain-running champion… I have it written down on a board in my room.

“My coach always preaches that it takes 10 years to become an overnight success. Sixth in the world at the minute, number one is the aim. Time is on my side.”

Athletics