Q&A with Mountain Runner Zak Hanna
Written By: SportsShoes
Interviewed by Ben Mounsey
Ireland’s Zak Hanna is one of mountain running’s hottest young properties. Since starting the sport in 2015, his journey to the top has been incredible to follow and clearly this is just the beginning of a very successful career in athletics.
We caught up with the Salomon sponsored mountain runner to discuss what it’s been like to train and race during COVID restrictions, find out who inspires him the most and ask him what the future holds.
Hi Zak! It’s been exciting to watch your incredible progress so far as you’ve risen up the ranks in world mountain running. How did you first become involved in the sport and have you always been interested in running?
My first love sport-wise was horse riding, I got involved in it through my mum who has been involved with horses all her life and being around them from a young age kept me interested in it. I competed in show jumping, cross country, working hunter and also a few drag hunts over the winter as well. Anything that involved jumping really! Cycling came into the mix when my dad bought a bike for commuting when he was working abroad, and when he returned he joined the local cycling club, competing in mountain bike races which then led to me tagging along most weekends before I got my first bike to go racing with him as well. It all took off from there and I went onto compete on the road, mountain bike and cyclocross-I represented Ulster a few times on the road and captained the Belgian Project Cycling team twice at the Ras Dhun na Ghall stage race. I've also got numerous Ulster and Irish Championship medals at youth and junior level. In high school I was on the school cross country team, I qualified for a few Ulster Schools and one Irish Schools Championships but never took it seriously as horse riding and cycling were my priorities. I went through 5 years of school unbeaten at school sports days and on the muck! I also played football and rugby in school, mainly as a reason to get out of class! My love for cycling dwindled towards the end of 2015 after I became disillusioned with the sport as I was doing the work in the background training-wise, but in races it never clicked. I decided to try running for something different, but I never imagined it taking off like it has done and I don't regret it one bit.
Travel and competition in the UK are both currently on hold because of increased COVID restrictions. How have you managed to stay motivated and focussed during this time?
When I was furloughed from work, I saw it as an opportunity to put in a good solid block of training for what was initially meant to be 3 weeks, but as things progressed I ended up being off work for 3 and a half months, which I have to say I enjoyed every minute of it. I was exploring more of the local area where I live around Slieve Croob in County Down , a mountain that is right behind my house; the mountain itself is great for running as are the roads that surround it, as I live in a very hilly area at just under 1000ft. Motivation wasn't a problem as I love running and don't see it as a chore to train every day. I was grateful that I was able to get up every day and go running with my dog Corragh, a Collie/whippet cross, tagging along with me on my easy runs. She racked up some serious miles over lockdown!
My coach Richard Rodgers helped me to devise a plan that would see me get into decent shape and once there was news of any races going ahead that I would be ready to stand on the start line. We kept in regular contact regarding sessions, training ideas and just general things so that we both knew what was going on in terms of my training and how things were progressing, it was a huge help and it helped to keep things structured with a clear focus on what we wanted to achieve from the time off. The group that I train with were great in keeping the craic going on Zoom and Facebook messenger every other week, because we couldn't run together at the weekends like we normally do, it was good to keep in touch to see how training was going and anything else that was going on at that time.
Zak, pictured here (centre right) with the Irish team at the European Mountain Running Championships 2019
For many people, 2020 was a year without organised races. However, last year you did manage to complete a mini-season of summer racing on the continent, and with some outstanding results! Can you tell us more about those races and experiences?
The first race I competed in towards the end of lockdown was the Lugnaquilla mountain race in County Wicklow, organised by the Irish Mountain Running Association. I only found out about it a week before the race date and managed to get an entry, I made the 2.5 hour journey down to the other side of Dublin and managed to win the race by over 8 minutes, it was an out and back race over some great fell running ground and posted one of the quickest times ever for that particular race.
The rest of my summer races were spent in Italy, starting in Malonno with the Piz Tri Vertikal where I finished 3rd and the next day I finished 5th in the Fletta Trail race, my first time racing back to back, but it was a great sign that the training I had done was working! Next was the Challenge Stellina race in Susa, doubling up as the Italian Uphill Championships. I was 8th here after going through a rough patch in the middle of the race, and a few weeks later it was the turn of the Vertikal Nasego VK in Casto, I was 2nd here after going right to the wire with eventual winner Henri Aymonod; and the next day I was 14th in the Trofeo Nasego mountain race. To end the season, I ran in the famous Trofeo Vanoni relay races in Morbegno, I was in a team with Scotland's Andy Douglas and the King of Yorkshire Ben Mounsey - we finished 5th in a stacked field and we all ran great laps of what is a fantastic course.
Racing in COVID times was strange in that start lines were gridded like an F1 race and everyone had to wear a mask at the start, as well as filling in contact tracing forms and getting my temperature taken when collecting race packs. Apart from that, everything else was fairly similar, although going through empty airports and not having to queue at security was an added bonus!
What is it about competing in Italy and other European countries that you love so much?
Mountain running in Europe is completely different to here in the UK and Ireland. I love racing at home and abroad, but when the opportunity of racing abroad, in countries like Italy, Switzerland, Germany etc. pops up, it is hard to say no. The atmosphere the Italians bring to the races both before, during and after is magical. The crowds come out to support the runners and it is usually one big party, compared to home when everything is low-key and simple.
The friends I have made through racing abroad is brilliant and the camaraderie mountain runners have in general is fantastic. When you are in the company of people who love the mountains as much as you do, it's pretty special. The races I have competed in have provided amazing courses, spectacular views at the finish line, top class food (there's a good story to go along with this regarding a very expensive steak! – ask Ben Mounsey or Andy Douglas) and amazing experiences in general. I love it!
You’ve competed in some beautiful places during your career so far. Where is your favourite place and why?
This is a hard one! Patagonia was a spectacular place to visit as I represented Ireland in the World Mountain Running Championships back in 2019. I spent two weeks there and I would go back in a heartbeat.
Malonno, Morbegno and Sexten in Italy are definitely up there as well. It's hard to beat running at home though, whether it be on Slieve Croob, or in the Mourne Mountains. Two places that have helped me develop my ability as a mountain runner going up and downhill; but to be honest I could be here all day writing about my favourite places to run!
What’s your favourite race so far and which race is top of your bucket list?
My favourite race in terms of the course and finish line would have to be the Drei Zinnen Alpine race in the Dolomites - it finished at just below 3000m and alongside the thin air, the view of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo/Drei Zinnen peaks would take your breath away, plus I ran a good race that day so that helped!
The Trofeo Vanoni relays are also a favourite as it's a great way to end the season, the locals always make you feel welcome and I have been fortunate enough to have teamed up with some top-class athletes anytime I have raced there; Andy Douglas, Chris Smith (RIP), Ben Mounsey, Michael Cayton and Joe Baxter (he'd kill me if I didn't mention him!) to name a few.
Sierre-Zinal is the top race on my bucket list, I've an entry for it this year and I am buzzing for it; you watch the videos on YouTube and listen to others talk about it but there's nothing that compares to experiencing it for yourself. I'd love to give the Red Bull K3 a try someday too, it's basically a triple VK with 3000m of elevation gain in 10k!
Who or what is your biggest inspiration?
John Lenihan is a huge inspiration for me. He's Ireland's first and only World Mountain Running Champion after winning the title in Zermatt in 1991; he was an animal on the mountains and also the road and track. I've met him twice and his words of advice have given me the motivation to try and be as good as he was.
There are so many inspiring people who run in the mountains who I am lucky to call friends; Sarah McCormack and Andy Douglas stand out as they have both won the women’s and men’s Mountain Running World Cup in 2019 and to have trained, travelled and raced alongside them is pretty cool. The home nations have some great talent when it comes to mountain running and to see them all do so well is inspiring in general.
Zak and his dog Corragh
Considering what you’ve achieved so far, it’s clear that you’re doing something right! What are the secrets to your success?
I'm still serving my apprenticeship in this great sport! I think being consistent in training and having a good mentality towards doing the hard work in the background are key factors; also having a good coach in my corner and a training group who are constantly pushing me to be the best I can be is up there too. The Nepalese mountaineer Nims Purja recently said in a podcast I listened to 'To be the best in the world, there must be no excuses' and I aim to follow that as closely as possible going forward. You need to enjoy what you do, I certainly have taken that on board and I hope that I can continue to get better and hopefully stand on the top step of the podium in some major races in the future. Also having Nutella for breakfast every morning helps too. That may not be to everyone's liking, but it might help someone!
Do you have any top tips and kit recommendations for other aspiring off-road runners?
My top tip would be to enjoy it. Whether you are doing it for fitness or training for a race, enjoyment is key in allowing you to get the most out of each run. There is a lot of fun to be had running off road whether it be on the forest trails or out on the open mountains, so don't take it too seriously and have fun along the way. I'd say my favourite bits of kit in terms of shoes would have to be the Salomon Sense Ride 3, Sense 7 SG and Wildcross. The Ride 3 have been a great shoe for long runs on the trails and on the roads when it snows, they have the grip of a trail shoe and the comfort of a road shoe which is a great combination. The Sense 7 shoe is great for racing as they are light, comfortable and great for the European races. The Wildcross was released earlier this year and for running on the fells when it is wet, muddy or covered in snow the grip hasn't let me down yet and they protect your feet over the rougher ground. Living in the mountains means that a good rain jacket is essential and the Bonatti WP jacket is fantastic for wet and windy days, as you can be sure of staying warm and dry during a run.
Are there any exciting new Salomon products launching soon?
There are some great shoes coming out soon, Salomon are releasing a new road shoe called the Phantasm which look great for knocking out fast times on the tarmac; there's also the Pulsar trail shoe that is the lightest trail shoe that Salomon have produced; all very exciting stuff in the pipeline and with the way trail running is changing, as brands begin to produce carbon-plated trail shoes, it's good to see Salomon keeping on top of developing the highest quality kit.
In terms of your athletic progress, you’ve been on a constant uphill trajectory since the beginning of your career. Just how much do you think you’re capable of achieving and what can we expect to see from Zak Hanna in the short and long-term future?
I am still finding my way in the sport, so I want to continue learning my trade and work my way to being the best runner I can be. 2021 is already action-packed, providing races don't get postponed. My main focus will be on the WMRA World Cup races and I will also make my debut over the longer races in the Golden Trail World Series, and I'm excited to see how that goes. A mixture of short, long and Vertical Kilometre races is ideal, as it allows me to test myself over a range of different distances and terrain; although the VK races are a firm favourite as I love the steep stuff! Representing Ireland at the European and World Championships is also on the radar; 2020 saw both races cancelled and getting to pull on the green singlet is a fantastic feeling, and if I can one day replicate what John Lenihan did in 1991 and win the World Championships, then that would be incredible. It's targets like these that keep the motivation levels high when stepping onto the road at 6am in the morning to run and then doing it again in the evening after work.
You can follow Zak and all his mountain running adventures here.