Zak Hanna’s journey to the World Mountain Running Championships in Austria has been a remarkable ascent, mirroring the steepness of the courses he conquers.
At 27 years old, this Northern Irish athlete has defied his disinterest in running during his school days to reach the pinnacle of his sport. Hanna is now preparing to take on the challenging slopes of Innsbruck.
In his youth, Hanna’s passions lied in horse riding, a sport he claims “never leaves you,” and cycling, in which he competed at a national level. However, a loss of enthusiasm for cycling led him to discover a newfound love for running, and he hasn’t looked back since.
What began as a hobby has transformed into a full-time profession, with Hanna now dedicating his days to the pursuit of athletic excellence. His fifth-place finish at the previous Championships held in Thailand in November has only fueled his ambitions.
Reflecting on his school days, Hanna recalls, “I ran a bit in school, participating in cross-country and track, but I never took it seriously. It was merely an excuse to escape class,” he chuckled.
“If you had told me ten years ago that I would be a runner, I would have laughed at you. But looking back now, it’s a blessing that I didn’t start too early. If I had, I might have quickly lost interest in the sport.”
Hanna’s restless nature and aversion to “binging on Netflix” have further propelled his passion for running and the great outdoors. “It wasn’t initially about competition, but once I realized I had a talent for it, I decided to give it a shot,” he explained. “A few years ago, I began taking it seriously, and now I’m fully committed. This sport has given me so much, and I’m grateful for the transition I made.”
Being able to compete at the highest level while exploring the world simultaneously is a concept Hanna finds utterly incredible. “It’s the fact that you’re competing at the pinnacle of your sport while experiencing different parts of the world. It’s unbelievable. I love it.”
Hanna, whose race is scheduled for June 7th, emphasizes that training in the Mournes, with their challenging slopes and rugged terrain, has prepared him well for races across the globe. While the Alps and Dolomites boast equally steep gradients, their tracks are more meticulously maintained, often catering to tourists with mountaintop cafes. In County Down, however, there are no such luxuries, nor even signposts to guide one through the peaks.
“The Mournes truly serve as better preparation for what lies ahead in a race,” he affirmed. “It’s advantageous to become accustomed to running over rough terrain. For instance, while Slieve Donard is both rough and steep, mountains in Europe may be steep but nowhere near as rugged. It’s excellent preparation.”
‘Becoming a World Champion Would Be a Dream’
Following his fifth-place finish last year, Hanna admits he approached the race with a modest mindset, only to deliver an outstanding performance against some of the world’s finest runners. However, he now harbors serious ambitions to become a world champion.
“Since I started taking this sport seriously, becoming a world champion has always been a dream of mine. I have plenty of motivation tucked away, and occasionally, when the weather is harsh or I’m not feeling as good as I’d like, I have to imagine what it would be like to cross that finish line as a world champion.”
“When training sessions become challenging or nerves creep in before a race, I remind myself to enjoy the experience. You never know when those opportunities will cease. I intend to seize every chance that comes my way.
I consider myself blessed to be able to do what I love.”
Ireland has only ever had one World Mountain Running Champion, John Lenihan, who secured gold in the short race category in 1991. Hanna now aspires to join Lenihan’s elite ranks.
“When I finished fifth last year, it was a wake-up call that I can compete with the best in the world. It boosts your confidence, and I’m determined to surpass that result by giving my absolute best. If I can reach the podium or cross the finish line as the winner, it would be absolutely surreal. I would be left speechless.”