20 May 2022

Dundalk athlete Gary O'Hanlon is 45 and yet chasing an Olympic marathon time. How and why?

One-to-one with Gary O'Hanlon

Dundalk athlete Gary O'Hanlon is 45 and yet chasing an Olympic marathon time. How and why?

Gary O’Hanlon is 46 on his next birthday and yet he craves an Olympic qualifying time.

Gary O’Hanlon is 46 on his next birthday and yet he craves an Olympic qualifying time. Completing a marathon - preferably the Dublin event in November - in two hours and 13 minutes is the target.

This, having, at 43, won the Irish title in 2017 in 2.18 before coming second in the 2018 event. A “crash course” following injury led him into last year’s race, where he bettered again, completing the circuit in 2.16.

The Kilkerley native, who lives across the road from Phoenix Park, has steadily gone from a returnee to athletics, after a 20-year absence, who ran 2.26 in his first marathon in 2012 to an elitist in national terms, averaging about a two-minute drop-off per year over the standard 42.1k distance.

Naturally, one assumes it’s the visible, gradual upgrade in his standard that serves as the motivating factor to continue achieving, well above what is the stereotypical age for peak performance. But that’s not quite the case. Obviously, his make-up entails a competitive streak, though it isn’t all-consuming.

“I realise that I don’t have many years left,” he says. “I’m counting in months more than years.

“A lot of athletes at maybe 28 or 29 may have a bad year and can decide to come back the following year and do better. I realise that I don’t have that luxury or time. If I get a bad race, I don’t get down about it, I just get over it because I’m lucky I’m still running at 45 and competing at a high level. I’m thankful, grateful for what I’m doing.

“You know the saying, youth is wasted on the young. They’re faster and they recover quicker, they don’t realise how easy they have it. But what they don’t have is the settlement that you have when you’re older. When I go into a race I realise that it could be the last I ever run, so I give it hell.”

Nonetheless, pinning him down on the specific reasons for his continued physical exertion, to the point of complete exhaustion, is difficult. He never drives the Dublin Marathon trek for fear of flashbacks or a chilling sensation. Bar rounding it annually at the beginning of winter, he tries to block it out.

His ‘blinkers’ approach to racing, in which he hears and sees nothing, has its benefits, but there is no way of holding off the pain that strikes at the 10k mark. The groove in which he settles is immediately forgotten with continued struggle about all that’s left.

“I don’t get that buzz that people talk about, this running buzz,” he adds. “I’m tired all the time: I get up in the morning tired; I go to bed even more tired.

“It’s this cycle that never seems to break unless I’m four or five days before a big marathon when I start to freshen up and feel good. They’re the only times, maybe twice a year when I’m training for marathons, that I feel good.

“Somebody who doesn’t know running would say something like, ‘if you tried that little bit harder, you could have run that 10 seconds quicker’. But that couldn’t be further from the truth; running is unique in that sense.

“For example, snooker is about relaxation and confidence in yourself, but with running it’s like being underneath a barbell and you’re already at your max; your arms are shaking and you’re just about lifting the weight off your chest. If it lands on your chest you’re going to die, it’s going to crush you; that’s the way you’re feeling in a marathon if you’re running at the pace I’m trying to. Those 10 seconds are just impossible, I’ve got the most out of myself and there’s nothing more I can give.

“The Dublin Marathon, when I ran 2.16, at mile 14 my legs were starting to buckle and I was saying to myself, ‘hold it together’. It wasn’t a case of seeing if I could pick it up, I was already flat out; tired.

“It’s like somebody has thrown a bag of spuds on your back after 10k, and another at 20k. At 30k you’ve another bag to fit. You’re just about ready to go… holding it together with nothing more left to give.

“I sometimes laugh at my Dad, who does a bit of running. He’d be talking about ‘finding it boring around 14 to 16 miles’ or something like that. I don’t see the things he talks about or hear the crowds; all I can see is 50 yards ahead of myself.”

Again, though. Why do this to yourself? What is the focal factor in forcing an individual to the limit and beyond?

Self-pride? Possibly. Self-indulgence? Maybe. Competitiveness? Certainly.

“When I commit to something, I can’t drop out. I always think that people who drop out are cowards, it’s just the way I look at it and I have that feeling that it’s me if I drop out.”

The bush is still being beaten around, however. Until the ‘f-word’ drops.

“I became a father for the first time at the age of 43, with our wee boy, and we’d a little girl there recently so I think I’d probably like to keep in the sport to a point where he (Ben) knows that I ran.”

Finally. A diagnosis.

“That’s what motivates me, him getting to a point of knowing, and I’m more motivated now to stay healthy and just keep myself right for him.

“It’s not just motivation to be the best athlete, I’d love to be around for another five or six years running to a point where he can take over. Even if he doesn’t want to get involved with running, if it’s football or whatever, just so that he knows that his Dad kept himself fit and was into sport.”

His natural aptitude for athletics saw O’Hanlon cruise through his teens, achieving just about everywhere in all forms with the least amount of training imaginable. He’s rueful of his younger-self relying solely on God-given talent and not working harder. But that’s just experience talking.

“When I was 17 I’d more talent in my big toe than I have now,” he quips.

An accident when running on the Castleblayney Road led to strives towards becoming an international-class athlete being shelved and for much of the following two decades he “enjoyed” himself.

A member of the Kilkerley Emmets panel that reached the 1999 senior championship final, his lifestyle went a bit “wild” in that he took a liking to his weekend beverages and time with friends.

His return eight years ago was when he realised the talent he’d wasted. Training with a few guys in Dublin, Mark Christie included, it took him roughly two weeks of a programme to reach the guru’s standard over 5k. From there he would finish third in the national cross-county championships as the pennies followed the 5c coin in hitting the deck. ‘What I could have been…’

Yet there has possibly been a benefit to his road not taken. The risk of fatigue has never been there in a time-sense. Given his long lay-off, there is part of him that reckons it’s in its mid-20s, when that’s far from the case. It’s about perspective.

“What happens to a lot of people is that they’re ‘all-in’ too young and they get burnt out.

“They’re burnt out mentally more than physically. I do think running is maybe 20 percent physical and 80 percent mental because if you don’t have the hunger and the appetite, you could have all the ability in the world, then it’s a waste of time.

“People who come back and are doing better in their 30s and 40s, they appreciate it more now and they’re prepared to work for it. When you’re in your 20s or teens, there’s that many distractions.”

But within that realisation there is a danger of selfishness, something which is testing to avoid in such a single-minded pursuit. A 100m sprint lasts longer than the sense of achievement at reaching a milestone, whatever that may be.

Perhaps it’s the impact of this mindset which ensures any top athletes have, in O’Hanlon’s view, “a love-hate relationship” with the sport. They’re simply never fulfilled, always chasing an intangible next stage.

Again, though, age has the former Irish champion keeping the negatives at bay. Coaching, as he does on a several-times-weekly basis, helps too. He’s working with all shapes and sizes, talent and timing differing. Helping others to improve fills a gap, providing the nourishment that his own career simply doesn’t. It’s a thrill where running isn’t.

“I’d be conscious of not letting myself change as a person when I’m running. The satisfactory moments are there for a time, but they might only last a while and then you want to go quicker.

“Running is such a selfish sport and such an individual sport. You could tell somebody that you’re after breaking a world record and they’ll be like, ‘well, I’ll tell you what I’m after doing…’ It’s totally about them and nothing about you, and you have to remember that.

“What I do, it means nothing to other people, only to yourself and maybe your partner - and the only reason for that is because she knows you’re in really good form; she doesn’t really care either!”

You ask again why he does it and within the complex layers outs a reason. In Dublin 2016, he went over on his ankle early in the excursion, damaging it badly. A race he felt he could win against all the odds saw him thickwittedly labour to the finish, the pain of the break in his lower leg or not - the excruciating unwillingness to be a self-branded “coward”.

But it was an unwise move and he spent five months cooped on the recovery table as a consequence. And then there was consciousness that developed into a ruthless relentlessness.

“I was telling people that only for the injury I could have been the first Irishman home and I could hear people just laughing, ‘yeah, right’. That, that drove me to prove that I could have won it - and I did.”

It was on a flight home from Doha four years ago where O’Hanlon got chatting to a connection of Armagh senior side Maghery, which resulted in him taking the club residing to the south-west shore of Lough Neagh for a session or two, an arrangement which turned into a full-time gig.

He trained them as he saw fit and while desirable outcomes on the pitch didn’t come at first, they would end the campaign as county kingpins for the first time in their history.

They went into Crossmaglen that term, for a league match, with just 15 players, losing one through injury in the first half which saw them finish a man less. The game closed with the scoreboard reflecting parity, Maghery’s training being their key.

“We can talk about commitment and in Gaelic football the word is thrown out so many times it’d burn the ears of you, but there’s very little of it in Gaelic football,” O’Hanlon observes.

“The only differences between football and running are that there isn’t the same commitment or drive in football. They talk about it, but they don’t do it. If you listen to Pat Spillane, he’ll talk about the 30 fittest amateur people you’ll ever see in this country out there today. They’re not, they’re not even as fit as a 14-year-old club-running female, and they’re not my words, they’re Joe Doonan’s who trained a Cavan team to an All-Ireland semi-final and an Ulster title.

“You have to train a Gaelic football team as if they’re an 800m runner, a track 800m runner; two laps of the field. They have to have the speed of a sprinter and the endurance of a 5k runner… Seventy yard sprints and recover within two or three seconds to go again.

“If you’re super-fast over 40m or 50m, you’re going to outsprint the guy beside you only maybe for the first four or five times going for the ball. After that speed and endurance kicks in and after that endurance kicks in.

“If you bring on a player with 10 minutes to go, he’s flying around at 90. That’s not him being fast, it’s just the rest of the team that’s slowed down.

“If you can get a team that’s super fit, who can run as fast in the last 10 minutes as they were in the first 10 minutes, they’ll annihilate others.

“But it’s very hard to get this through to Gaelic football teams. Skill is important, but if you can get a team that’s super fit…

“Football is great fun, it’s enjoyment, but it’s not commitment, it’s nothing compared to athletics, swimming, even, or cycling to a high level.”

And he would know.

Crossmaglen Rangers, the all-conquering brand, were trained as such, as are the Dublin footballers. O’Hanlon was with Louth for a spell in 2016, when they had a superb league campaign, before being cast aside ahead of the championship.

What of gym training?

“The gym is overrated.”

A point of mutual agreement.

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