Ireland needs backing to fulfil mountain-running potential says Zak Hanna

Zak Hanna celebrates after crossing the line in fifth place at the World Mountain Running Championships in Thailand last week
Zak Hanna celebrates after crossing the line in fifth place at the World Mountain Running Championships in Thailand last week Zak Hanna celebrates after crossing the line in fifth place at the World Mountain Running Championships in Thailand last week

IRELAND has the potential to develop into a major player in the mountain-running world – provided it receives greater backing from Sport Ireland and Athletics Ireland in future.

That is the view of Dromara runner Zak Hanna, who defied the odds – and the 30 degree heat in Thailand - to claim a remarkable fifth place finish in the uphill race at last weekend’s World Mountain-Running Championships in Chiang Mai.

Coming off the back of a fifth place finish at the European Championships in September, Friday’s career-best performance was the perfect end to a year in which Hanna has made considerable strides on the international stage.

Indeed, it was the best showing from an Irish male mountain-runner since Kerry man John Linehan finished top of the pile in Switzerland 31 years ago.

As mountain-running is not an Olympic sport, Irish competitors are currently unable to access anything like the same level of funding as athletes in other disciplines, making progress all the more difficult.

Hanna is among those campaigning for inclusion at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, and hopes improving performances from the likes of himself and Sarah McCormack – a 2019 World Cup winner who finished 21st in Thailand – can continue to raise the sport’s profile.

“I got a mention [from Athletics Ireland] on Twitter and Facebook, which is all well and good,” said the 26-year-old, “it’s not what I’m after, but if this is something that kick-starts a conversation, then great.

“Our team manager, Leo Mahon, couldn’t have done enough for us – he was a one man band all week, absolutely brilliant. But ultimately his job could be made easier with that bit more support around him, because you see the support a lot of the other countries received from their governing bodies in terms of matching kit, physios, doctors, media team…

“It’s a speculate to accumulate kind of situation. If you put the money in and success comes at the end of it, then success breeds success.

“For those that aren’t in the mountain-running world, hopefully they start to take a bit more of a look at it, and see it as a sport the Irish have a lot of potential in.”

As for his own performance in the searing heat, Hanna admits he is still struggling to get his head around it.

Having arrived in Thailand late on the previous Saturday after a long-haul journey, it wasn’t until the day before his race that the jetlag finally began to lift and he started to get used to the conditions.

“Considering it was 11 degrees when I left home, the heat was a shock to the system.

“I went out for a couple of runs, then one day I went to a track at a university campus nearby, but I just wasn’t feeling myself. To be honest, I was starting to get a bit worried.

“Even the day before, based on how the week had gone, I’d have been absolutely delighted with a top 20 or top 15 finish…”

Hanna’s previous best at the World Championship was a 35th place finish in Argentina three years ago. It is an indication of how far he has come since that he finished less than three minutes behind Kenyan winner Patrick Kipngeno, and 28 seconds off bronze medallist Alejandro Carrillo from Spain.

“Heading towards the final 5km, then the final 2km, I was coming under a bit of pressure from Joe Gray. He’s from America, the reigning World champion, so I was a bit like ‘oh crap’ at that point.

“But eventually I made a small surge in pace to open up a gap, and once I did I had work like mad to keep it – I just couldn’t relax until I hit onto the red carpet in the last 50m.

“At that point you’re able to take it in, and you realise what you’ve done. To put it in context, at my first World Championship s in 2016, Joe Gray won it - I was 76th, he beat me by 20 odd minutes. This time I was fifth and seven seconds ahead of him.

“I lay on the ground as soon as I got across the line, just thinking ‘where the hell did that come out of?’ I wasn’t expecting it. I still can’t quite take in what happened.

“It leaves you wanting more… I really do believe there’s more in me – a lot more development to come before I hit my potential.”