Zak Hanna: ‘I don’t see it as having demons to battle from last year - you just have to learn from what went wrong’

Zak Hanna put in four weeks of solid altitude training in Kenya as part of his preparation for season ahead
Zak Hanna put in four weeks of solid altitude training in Kenya as part of his preparation for season ahead

IN his bid to get back to the top of the mountain-running world, Zak Hanna took to the skies and headed for the lofty heights of the ‘Home of Champions’.

The Kenyan town of Iten sits 2,400m above sea level, and its endless dirt trails have provided the platform for a host of long distance athletes to thrive on the world stage. Another Irish connection exists too so many miles from home.

Brother Colm O’Connor came to Iten as a missionary in 1976, only expecting to stay for three months teaching geography at St Patrick’s High School. However, 48 years on, he is still there, the Cork native having used his love for track and field to help convert a nation into distance runners.

Hanna was determined to try and tap into whatever it is that sets Iten apart, and joined a 13-strong team of Irish runners on a month-long pilgrimage designed to send him into 2024 on a high.

“I decided in October that a stint at altitude would probably be the best way to try and take myself forward, after last season being poor… to try and find a way to go up another level.

“Before I went out people were saying ‘aw, you have to go on safari’ and all that, but I was there to do a job; I was there to work. The four weeks I was there, I clocked my biggest ever mileage.

“It’s a simple way of living - the WiFi is horrendous, there’s not much in the way of things to do. There’s a small café but that’s about the height of it. You’re basically forced to do nothing all day which, in return for all the miles you’re running, brings benefits because you’re resting.

“You were in your bed for 9pm every night, I was with people who are aiming for Olympic qualification, European medallists in cross-country and the track… when you’re there with a quality training group, it motivates you to do the work and not to try and take shortcuts.

“If you disrespect the altitude it will come back and haunt you.”

The Irish party came across the odd familiar face on the roads but, given the dark cloud that hangs over Kenyan running following a wave of positive drugs tests during the past decade, they opted to keep themselves to themselves at all times.

“So many have been caught, it’s beyond a joke,” says Hanna, “you don’t want any kind of negative association.”

The intention is to go back again at the end of this year, by which stage the Dromara man hopes to be reflecting on a season to remember.

After all, it is only 16 months since Hanna defied the odds – and the 30 degree heat in Thailand - to claim a remarkable fifth place finish in the uphill race at the World Mountain-Running Championships in Chiang Mai.

That was the best showing from an Irish male mountain-runner since Kerry man John Linehan finished top of the pile in Switzerland 31 years earlier. Hanna had also recorded a fifth place finish at the 2022 European Championships as he ascended up the rankings.

Zak Hanna poses beneath the famous 'Home of Champions' sign in Iten, Kenya
Zak Hanna poses beneath the famous 'Home of Champions' sign in Iten, Kenya

Last year, though, nothing seemed to click and, as he searched for the reason why, pushing himself even harder, frustration only grew as he struggled to replicate previous levels of performance.

“I think I know why now,” says the 28-year-old.

“After 2022 you were wanting to go on and better what you’ve done previously. Before last year’s World championships I travelled out to Austria a week before to get a look at the course, and on the way over I caught a pretty bad head cold.

“I thought I had recovered okay, didn’t run well at the Worlds compared to what I had done previously, and as soon as the Worlds was done I was straight over to America to race. My best result there was fourth but, really, I probably should’ve won one of the races based on the people who were competing.

“I never really fully recovered from that head cold, then in September I ended up with a pretty bad chest infection, which the doctors thought was a collapsed lung at first. It floored me for a week, I couldn’t breathe, felt like somebody was stabbing me in the chest every time I breathed in.

“Blood tests showed the body was basically saying you need to just stop here for a week or two and get recovered; basically that you can’t operate at 110 per cent all the time.”

It proved a valuable lesson, even if those difficulties took a physical and mental toll.

“Frustration was going through the roof at times.

“I remember doing a race in Italy - the year before I had set the second quickest ever time on that course, then in September ‘23 I was seven minutes slower.

“After that I decided to bring the season to an end, to try and find the cause of the problem and get myself right. It made me realise I’m not a robot.

“Mentally it was very tough, when you were trying to push on, the season just seemed to be one step forward, 10 steps back, based on performances.

“But look, it happened, I’m just going to put 2023 to the back of my mind and focus on what’s to come. Hopefully this block in Kenya will help kick-start that.”

After taking time off to allow his body to recover, Hanna insists he is now “fighting fit and raring to go” as he opens his season with the Barcelona half-marathon on Sunday, before focus turns to the European championships in France at the end of May.

“Right now, I’m as strong as I’ve probably felt since this time last year.

“After Barcelona, everything is geared towards winning a medal at the Europeans. That’s my main aim this year.

“It’s going to be more a case of racing quality over quantity this year. If I can pick six or seven quality races that will get me back to where I know I belong, at the top, then I’ll do that all the time.

“But I feel like I’ve got a renewed motivation. I don’t see it as having demons to battle from last year - you just have to learn from what went wrong, which I have.

“I know I have to respect my body a lot more.”