Irish Mountain
Running Association

John Lenihan: King of the Hill


On Sunday June 1st 2003, one of Kerry’s greatest sportsmen achieved a record that one can say for absolute certain will never again be equalled. John Lenihan won the All-Ireland Hill Running Championship for an astonishing 15th time in 16 years. He missed last year due to injury.


John won the race up and down Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohil in a time of 77 minutes, 50 seconds. He had three minutes to spare over second man Paul Nolan. He now looks to try and captain the Irish team at the World Championships to Alaska in September. So who is this legendary, charismatic person with the long, flowing hair, known to all Kerry as the man from Toureen. He was Weeshie’s sporting guest on Terrace Talk two years ago, and the following is some of John’s story.


King of the Hill


It’s hard to believe, but just about five miles above the urban lights of Tralee is an area that is totally different, in every sense, from the festive town below. But it is this rough terrain, populated by only the odd sheep, which is the haven of one of the best athletes Ireland has ever produced.


It was on these expanses that John Lenihan, the former World Hill-Running kingpin, learned his trade. “I started running on those hills when I was about 18 years of age, but, I suppose, I really got into running about a year before that.”


Lenihan left school when he was 12 old and, by his own admission, became somewhat of a recluse. “When I finished school I never really went outside my house. But then, about five years later, I went down to the local football pitch in Ballymacelligott. I started running around the field to get fit and then maybe to get back involved with some of the local people,” Lenihan told The Kingdom this week.


One day he cycled into Castleisland to take part in a road race and to everyone's amazement he finished seventh. “I think that surprised a lot of people and straight away the club asked me would I sign for them. That was the start of my association with athletics and right up to this very day I have not regretted it one bit.”


In 1991, Lenihan reached the pinnacle of his career as a long-distance hill runner. After finishing on four occasions in the top six in the World Mountain Running Championships that year in Zermatt, Switzerland, was the moment that really made his life, World Mountain Running Champion. The title took a while to sink in because I thought that the best I could do was bronze and to win the title was just a dream come true. After that I won titles in Wales and on the Isle of Man in the three-day event.” Lenihan, though, did not stick strictly to hill-running and he also dabbled in some road running. In San Diego he won a major road race and in Scotland he finished second in the Sterling half marathon, which is a prestigious event.


In the sport of athletics, Lenihan admits that it is very hard to combine road running with hill running and also very unusual. “In the Isle of Man event over three days it consists of two road races and a hill run. I finished third on each day in the road race but easily won the hill run. After that I began to think about sticking to hill running and found out that one should stick to just one of the events.”


When Lenihan competed his first mountain race in Ireland he knew that there were runners who were a lot better than he was on the road. But when he competed in the race he had no problem beating them and won the first prize of 1000 pounds. “That race really confirmed what I was fast beginning to realise: I knew that I was a lot stronger in the hills than on the road.”


For the stamina needed for these races, Lenihan needed to train religiously and he did so, six to eight times a week, clocking up over 130 miles. In the next three years Lenihan managed to get a trial with the Irish Olympic panel but never made the cut, but his potential didn't go unnoticed. “I was offered a three-year contract with team Adidas in America but didn't take up the offer, which is the one regret I have in my career. I was young at the time and probably didn't know what lay ahead of me. Who knows, if I had taken that contract, what path my life would have taken”, Lenihan comments with a tinge of regret.


He is adamant that the sport today is not nearly as competitive as what it was some years back. “There was one road race back in Duagh years ago when about 400 people turned up for the race. Today you would be lucky to get 40. Times have changed in the sport and the money that was there when I started running is certainly not there now.”


Like any other sport there are dangers attached to hill running. Once, he lost his way in a race around Mount Brandon in the fog and it cost him the title. On another occasion he nearly lost his life.


“I was up running on Carrauntouhill and the day was really cold. On the way driving up I met a lot of people that warned me to turn back but I chose to ignore them. So I togged out in my shorts and started to run up the mountain. With the sleet and wind my legs went numb when I was running so I couldn't feel that much. I stepped into a hole and fell over but l thought that l had just sprained my ankle. When I went to run again my leg just bent over, then I realised that I had broken my leg.


The descent down the mountain usually takes me about 25 minutes, but that time, it took me over four hours between the crawling and the hopping.


“The only thing that was really worried about was the fact that I might pass out and die with the cold. Thankfully, I managed to get to the bottom and got my mother to collect me - though at a price. “When I went to hospital they told me that I would never run in competitive races again but in the months that followed Lenihan’s sheer will to succeed drove him on and even with his leg encased in plaster, he did laps of the field near his house - with the aid of crutches to keep his body aerobically fit.


In New Year's Day, 2000 he competed in a road race in Beaufort and won the event, despite the general consensus was that he would never race again. In February of last year, five months after his injury, Lenihan ran 14 mountain races and three road races and won every single race - a remarkable testament to his willpower.


August 12 this year is a day that Lenihan, now in his early 40s, has been looking forward to for a long time. In his local parish of Ballymacelligott, where it all began, he will host the International hill running championship trials. He is a selector for the event but he is excited that he will have an opportunity to compete in the race. The King of the Hill is far from finished.