Born to run here: O’Han­lon achieves de­served ti­tle win

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Ian O’Riordan

To­wards the end of my last trip to Kenya we had a quick whip-around for one of the lo­cal run­ners. His name was Tony Sigei, and he had kindly showed us white folk – the mzungu – around the tan­ger­ine-coloured run­ning trails of Iten, where the air is so thin that the first thing to catch you each morn­ing is the sound of your own breath­less­ness.

The plan was to get him to Europe for some races, where he might earn a lit­tle cash to bring back to Iten and with that buy some cows for the fam­ily farm. That was the ex­tent of his am­bi­tion. He wanted noth­ing more than to bet­ter his life in Kenya.

It wasn’t long af­ter that, to­wards the end of 2012, when sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances brought Freddy Sit­tuk to Ire­land. He had met some run­ners from Ra­heny, also train­ing in Iten, who sug­gested he could earn him­self some cash on the road-run­ning cir­cuit here while also rep­re­sent­ing their club Ra­heny Sham­rock.

That was the ex­tent of his am­bi­tion. His fa­ther was killed in a road in­ci­dent when Sit­tuk was 20 years old, and, one of 10 chil­dren, all he wanted was to bet­ter his life in Kenya. What he has earned dur­ing his vis­its to Ire­land in the five years since has in no small way af­forded him the chance to do that.

This should have had noth­ing to do with Sun­day’s Dublin marathon – which as most peo­ple now know dou­bles as the race for the na­tional ti­tle. In­stead events unfolded, and sud­denly it turned into some­thing more than just a glar­ingly am­bigu­ous rule on el­i­gi­bil­ity as drawn up by Ath­let­ics Ire­land.

In fin­ish­ing ahead of Gary O’Han­lon, Sit­tuk was first awarded that na­tional marathon ti­tle, only to be told three days later that he wasn’t el­i­gi­ble as he had not spent the re­quired six months “un­bro­ken” in Ire­land prior to the race (what­ever that means). This is strictly in terms of rep­re­sent­ing club, not coun­try, and a rule that clearly needs some tight­en­ing up.

Na­tion­al­ity

Then Thurs­day’s Live­line on RTÉ got hold of it, and later Six-One News, and with that came another re­minder that noth­ing stirs na­tional de­bate quite like the sub­ject of na­tion­al­ity. Hadn’t other for­eign ath­letes won na­tional ti­tles in the past? Was there some­thing more sin­is­ter at play?

When ac­tu­ally the only sto­ry­line here is that Ath­let­ics Ire­land had failed to re­alise it had been mis­guided about its own rule.

Part of the prob­lem, it seems, is de­ci­pher­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween what it means to rep­re­sent your coun­try and what coun­try rep­re­sents you, all of which is in­vari­ably tied up in na­tion­al­ity.

Sit­tuk rep­re­sents Kenya, has no am­bi­tion to run for Ire­land, so the real ques­tion about Sun­day’s race is not whether he earned or de­served that na­tional ti­tle, but even wanted it. Sit­tuk him­self has an­swered that since.

O’Han­lon wanted noth­ing more than to win that na­tional ti­tle, hav­ing spent the best part of his life chas­ing it. He ran on Sun­day with ex­actly that in mind and timed his ef­fort to per­fec­tion to cross the line in 2:18:52, a per­sonal best and at age 43 the fastest marathon ever run by an Ir­ish­man over the age of 40.

For every step of the 26.2 miles he thought about the jour­ney he had been on to get this far, begin­ning as a 14-year-old in Kilk­er­ley, just out­side Dun­dalk, when he first fol­lowed his sis­ters down to the lo­cal run­ning club.

His tal­ent soon shine through, and af­ter he set a Le­in­ster schools 800m record at age 15 there was no stop­ping him. He went two years un­beaten, and by his fi­nal year in school had set up a US schol­ar­ship at Iona Col­lege.

Hit by a car

Then he was near fa­tally stopped – hit by a car dur­ing a train­ing run around Kilk­er­ley in Fe­bru­ary 1992, af­ter which he spent sev­eral weeks in and out of con­scious­ness. He un­der­went plas­tic surgery five times, and spent the best part of the next five years in re­hab, go­ing from be­ing in the shape of his life to think­ing he would never be the same again.

His 20s passed by in a haze of the liv­ing and cel­e­brat­ing of life, and oc­ca­sional re­gret for what might have been. Only in his 30s did a hint of that old run­ning hunger reap­pear, and, en­cour­aged by some col­leagues from the Clon­liffe Har­ri­ers club, he be­gan his slow come­back.

Six years ago O’Han­lon ran his first marathon in Dublin, ended up fifth best Ir­ish fin­isher, and a year later fin­ished third in the 2012 Na­tional Cross-Coun­try. His first se­nior na­tional medal, but would he ever be na­tional cham­pion?

In 2013 he thought so, dom­i­nat­ing the Ir­ish marathon run­ning scene with near reck­less aban­don. He ran six marathons in eight weeks, win­ning four – in Con­nemara, Lim­er­ick, Kil­dare and Newry.

Primed for Dublin, his luck ran out just 24 hours be­fore, when his mo­bile phone was robbed, and, in an en­su­ing Garda sting, got his wrist bro­ken. He ran any­way, fin­ish­ing sixth best of the Ir­ish. Sec­ond best placed in 2015, O’Han­lon went into last year’s Dublin marathon sure it was his time.

Luck may have had noth­ing to do with it but he turned his an­kle af­ter just five miles, chip­ping a bone and tear­ing sev­eral ten­dons. He fin­ished any­way, then couldn’t run again for five months.

The irony now is that, af­ter run­ning 58 marathons in the last six years, events around Sun­day’s race have given O’Han­lon the full and proper plau­dit he has earned and de­served, and, three days late, three decades later, the one ti­tle he has al­ways wanted in his run­ning ca­reer.

The hope now is Ath­let­ics Ire­land will re­alise that is what it means to be na­tional cham­pion.

Sit­tuk rep­re­sents Kenya, has no am­bi­tion to run for Ire­land, so the real ques­tion about Sun­day’s race is not whether he earned or de­served that na­tional ti­tle, but even wanted it. Sit­tuk him­self has an­swered that since

PHO­TO­GRAPH: SPORTSFILE

Gary O’Han­lon of Clon­liffe Har­ri­ers crosses the fin­ish line at the Dublin Marathon last Mon­day.

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