Irish Mountain
Running Association

John Lenihan - an article from the July 1998 Irish Runner magazine


John Lenihan - an article from the July 1998 Irish Runner magazine

By Douglas Barry


The Kerry valley of Glounageenty is steeped in legend. Mighty figures in Irish history have left their mark on it and it, in turn, has left its mark on them. Its solitude ensured that the last of the Geraldines - James the 16th Earl of Desmond - eluded Queen Elizabeth's forces during his rebellion in the 1570s. 1916 patriot Roger Casement's ally Monteith also hid there, moving from house to house, after the botched version of the Easter 1916 rising in Kerry.


The name Glounageenty means the "glen of the mourning". It probably got its name from the bloody deed that occurred there in 1583. The rebel Earl of Desmond was surprised and captured. His captors dragged off the badly wounded Earl to claim the reward. Worried by his slowness and the nearness of the Earl's followers, the soldiers debated the fact that the reward for a live Earl was double that for a dead one. A soldier called O'Kelly cut the argument - and the Earl - short with a swipe of his sword. The body was left behind and they claimed the reward with the head.


But now, mourning has broken. They've been celebrating in the glen for some time. For in Glounageenty lives a legend of the Irish hills - John Lenihan. The former World Champion, winner of the Carrauntoohil race for the past eleven years, four times winner of the Croagh Patrick race, and a multi-time Irish mountain running champion now farms high on the hills there. The amazing Kerryman trains for his record breaking achievements locally. His long haired figure is a familiar sight on the roads and hills that mark the glen and its surroundings of Ballymacelligott and Castleisland.


On these training runs he is often joined by his wife Mary - now no mean athlete herself. A Castleisland girl, she met John unsurprisingly on a walk up Carrauntoohil. Things progressed romantically and athletically, and aside from getting married to John, Mary also took up running and became good at it. She finished 7th in the Dublin Mini-Marathon - the biggest women's only race in the world - and even represented Ireland in Edinburgh in the World Mountain Running Championships.


Mary likes the race climbs, but candidly admits that she's no expert on the descent. "I've left that to John" She laughs. And undoubtedly, John is a flier on the descent. Seemingly fearless, his effortless plunges down the rockiest of slopes are awe-inspiring to watch. When he won the Croagh Patrick race in mid June, the sightseers and pilgrims burst into spontaneous applause when he swept into view - arms akimbo - on the edge of control. I was watching and the question I was most asked was "Who is that amazing guy?"


Lenihan has won all but five of the mountain races he has entered in Ireland. One was his first race in Kerry, the others were early season ones when he wasn't in the best shape. The last race he lost was in the mists of the Dingle peninsula when he and many others went astray on the descent and he finished a bemused 13th. He recced the route the following year and smashed the record by over 2 minutes. This year he has had straight wins on the Nagles, Carrauntoohil for the eleventh time, Doon, Croagh Patrick, Nephin, and the Ballyhouras.


His eleventh appearance in the World Mountain Running Championship beckons in September. It's on the sun kissed island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. This exotic island near Mauritius is dominated by its extinct volcano up which the uphill only course heads to finish on its rim. While John has a preference for up and down courses, he has finished fourth in an uphill race - his first World champs - in Italy in 1986. But his peak achievement was his win, ably backed up by Robin Bryson in 4th, in the Worlds in Zermatt, Switzerland. He led the Irish team which also included Tommy Payne and Eamonn McMahon to the bronze medals.


Kerry went wild for John then. Huge bonfires blazed in the streets of Castleisland. A local bard Peter Howarth even penned the following ballad lauding his hero's achievement in the Swiss mountains.


"Who is this famous runner that wins every race,

And puts all his competition in disgrace

He has raced all over Ireland, in Britain, and in France

No other athlete ever gets a chance."


It goes on for several verses, one of which includes the immortal lines.


"When our friend is training, he runs to work and back,

Carrying his sandwiches in a small pack.

And on such a morning while running at his ease,

His bottled milk got shaken up and turned into cheese"


Whatever you may think about the song, John Lenihan is still the big cheese both in mountain running and in Glounageenty.