The Man from Glanageenty
In this article – Part 1 of MST “25th Anniversary Celebration for Carrauntoohil” – our man with his finger on the trail and mountain running pulse in Ireland, Rene Borg, meets with one of the legends of world mountain running, John Lenihan…
“You could see how these hills would make you strong,” Jason Kehoe remarked to me over his shoulder, and he was right: each climb was steep enough to make you work hard but not so long as to make you slow.
The same went for the many descents, some of which snaked their way through forest, while others allowed more space with the forest around newly felled; they all tested your speed and coordination without punishing the body overtly.
Our small band was running in the woodlands of Glanageenty, County Kerry, and in front of us, John Lenihan, the former world champion, set a solid pace for this “jog” through the newly opened trails of his native Glanageenty on a gloriously sunny Easter Monday. Sitting behind him was Jason Kehoe, last year’s “King of the Mountains”, local man Jerry McCarthy, a fellow member of John’s club An Riocht, Des Kennedy, the European Master international, and, at the back, your trusty reporter.
“The trail race here in January, started a mile down the tarmac road at O’Riadas pub,” John explained, “as parking and all of the two loops were not yet fully completed.”
We were six at the outset, as John led us down through a few tight bends to the bottom of the verdant valley where he has done most of his training for the last thirty years. Cresting the first tough uphill, a wide dirt path led us back towards the bottom of the valley. Recent felling meant quite a few treacherous roots had to be watched. Weary-headed I almost tipped over on my ankle prompting my companion behind me to issue a few words of warning before promptly spraining his ankle himself!
“How bad is it,” John inquired from the front, “about 70%”, the answer rang back before quick agreement was reached for our unfortunate “sixth man” to hobble back to the bottom. We started to watch our feet more closely.
For two years, John Lenihan has worked on completing the Glanageenty trail and opening it to the public.
Now a car park complete with colour-coded routes of varying lengths and official sign welcomes visitors to experience the arboreal setting that shaped a young Kerry runner into one of this country’s finest, running sixty-two minutes for the half-marathon, and gaining legendary status for his exploits on the hills, particularly Carrauntoohil.
“I’d train in the morning while my dad was away at the creamery,” John relates to us, “when I’d hear the car, I’d know it’d be time to stop training and get ready for work. I’d always hope he would meet the neighbours on the way back so I could get in some extra training.”
After a brief spell of fire-road, we are back ducking and weaving through the deciduous trees. Several little monuments and memorials arrest the eye and we come to a complete stop late in our journey at a green table situated at a natural viewing point. On it were the stories and names of the runners of Ballymacelligott such as the mercurial Eoghan McKenna who crowned a magnificent 2007 season with a ninth place finish at Snowdon.
From here we finished the current loop with a final short climb to where we had begun. Throughout, we had been steeped in local history and memorials to men passing through the area or those who died here such as Gerald Fitzgerald, the 14th Earl of Desmond, or Stephen Fuller, the lone survivor of the Ballyseedy massacre during the Irish Civil War.
While John Lenihan carries a deep connection with his locality and its, sometimes bloody, history with him on his runs here, it is the tranquility here among the trails passing the Raven’s Glen waterfall, Castle Desmond and the Glounageenty River that mesmerized him.
Earlier in his career, he put in place a number of physical challenges along the route such as a climbing rope and a concrete block for star-jumps and would perform these rigorous exercises during certain sessions molding his little valley into the perfect setting for developing strength, speed, and agility and reminding us that with a little imagination any place can become the perfect training space with no need for gyms.
After our run, we listened to the speakers at the laying of the wreath at the memorial of Captain Monteith, part of the Banna Strand landing party, and Sean Thaidhg Oig, the man who sheltered him here in his small cabin. In the presence of such an ambassador of our sport it was hard not to be touched as John first read from Monteith’s memoirs and finished by mentioning his connection to mountain runners as all part of his extended family.
Sadly, the former champion will play no active part in the 2011 season and the 25th anniversary of Carrauntoohil, “John’s race”, as he needs an operation on his hip, an injury that we would scarcely have noticed as he easily led us on our tour.
But he will not be idle as there is still plenty of work to do in Glanageenty where John plans one further extension and he also keeps a keen eye on the next generation of hill runners:
“The walkway in Glanageenty is something that I’m very passionate about and hopefully it will continue to grow and gain publicity over time.
Sometimes it gets a bit scary for me in recent times when I look at results of mountain racing and I end up searching for some name that I can put a face to, it seems as if I’ve been gone from the sport for years with all the “strange” names that appear on the results, so yes it was great for me to get to meet the athletes of the moment and to get to know these lads.”
With that we departed back from verdant mystery vale of Glanageenty and bid our farewells to John before heading back northwards. We all hope to return here, perhaps for a race in the future, or to join John for more runs when IMRA returns with another group of runners next Easter.
MST will be bringing a preview of the Carrauntoohil race and an interview with John Lenihan in preparation for the 25th anniversary of the race to the roof of Ireland.
Results from the Glanageenty trail race are now online IMRA.