Tough as leather: John Lenihan the conqueror of Carrauntoohil

New book tells the extraordinary story the legendary mountain runner from Kerry

John Lenihan  won the annual  Carrauntoohil mountain race  19 times, the first time in 1988. No man has run that route faster since.  Photograph:  Valerie O’Sullivan/Sportsfile

John Lenihan won the annual Carrauntoohil mountain race 19 times, the first time in 1988. No man has run that route faster since. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan/Sportsfile

 

These are busy days in the Kingdom. Some people – indeed many people – think Sunday’s Munster football final is the only show in Killarney this weekend. It could be, although the 11,000 people who will have cycled the Ring of Kerry the day before might think otherwise. And they’ll have heads full of slow-release endorphins convincing them they’re right.

Other people – indeed most people – think the only way to cycle the Ring of Kerry is at a leisurely pace, with frequent stops to admire the views, and perhaps the occasional refreshment at some of the Kingdom’s finest public houses. It could be – and when they’re also raising around €1.6 million for local Kerry charities, then there’s no reason to think otherwise.

Although for one person among them, the only way to cycle the Ring of Kerry – all 112 miles of it, from Killarney, to Killorglin, to Glenbeigh, then Cahirciveen, Waterville, Sneem, then Kenmare and back to Killarney – is on fast-release endorphins, and he’s not even a cyclist. His name is John Lenihan, the Kerry farmer and former hill runner, and in the immortal words of Con Houlihan, “of all our unsung heroes, just about the most unsung”.

I have never met John Lenihan, and part of that has to do with Charles Bukowski’s idea that the gods should be left alone – that one didn’t bang on the door.

I did see him running once, in the Wicklow Mountains, near the foot of Lugnaquilla, coming headlong through the forest bearing a frightening resemblance to Hawkeye in the opening scene of The Last of the Mohicans.

John Lenihan ruled the Wicklow Mountains that day, just like he did the mountains of the Kingdom for over two decades. Not long into the Ring of Kerry cycle, the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks reveal themselves in all their bulking glory. Within this dense 10-mile stretch of perfectly pure mountainous terrain, in the midst of the Iveragh Peninsula, lie nine of the 10 highest peaks in Ireland. The one exception, the ninth-highest peak, is Brandon Mountain, just across the way on the Dingle Peninsula.

Blessed and cursed

From the tooth-like highest peak of Carrauntoohil – 1,038 metres, or 3,406 feet in old money – the view is at its busiest, into what locals call the Heart of the Kingdom. No man has passed that peak at greater pace and frequency, nor indeed blessed and cursed it more times, than John Lenihan. Carrauntoohil is the mountain that helped make him, and also once threatened to take him. These and other tales are now told in Tough as Leather, the book that finally sings many of his heroics.

It’s a worthy and wordy reminder that well before John Lenihan first ran up Carrauntoohil he was already an athlete of considerable merit. He came down from the mountains around Tooren, where he grew up, a few miles north of Castleisland, to mix it with some of the best distance runners of that era, particularly on the roads: John Treacy, Jerry Kiernan, Neil Cusack. With that he was offered a three-year contract with Team Adidas to run professionally in the US, but he turned it down. There were cows to be milked, sheep to be herded, 160 acres of land to be tended.

Then, in 1988, he was called back to the wild, by the annual Carrauntoohil mountain race. With little specific training, he ran the 8.5 miles from base to summit and back – up to Caher, across to Carrauntoohil, returning by the same route – in one hour 11 minutes and 43 seconds. That was 47 minutes faster than the previous record, and no man has run that route faster since. He won the race another 18 times.

Indeed, John Lenihan’s mountain running career soon reached unprecedented heights. In 1991, he went running up Zermatt, in Switzerland, and found himself 20 seconds behind the leading pair at the top. He was 30 seconds ahead by the time he reached bottom, becoming Ireland’s first and still only World Mountain Running Champion. He once milked his cows in the morning before driving up the country to Croagh Patrick, won the race up that mountain, then drove back home again to milk his cows that night.

By 1999 he had probably reached his peak, and returned home from that October’s World Mountain Running Championships in Borneo feeling a little down on himself. So, two days later, he went running up Carrauntoohil, as only John Lenihan would do. Only he didn’t tell anyone. Wearing just a T-shirt and shorts, he reached the summit of Caher, where he passed a couple of hikers on their way down. “It’s harsh up there,” they said, yet he ran on, into the suddenly blinding snow and freezing wind. His left leg slipped into a rocky hole and didn’t come out in one piece. He was alone on Carrauntoohil, about 15 minutes from the summit, with a broken leg and no way of getting down. He could either die or crawl, so he crawled, only this time the descent that once took him 25 minutes lasted four hours, before he was rescued.

Running on crutches

Now, anyone who has met John Lenihan will know that’s not the end of that story. The surgeon who drilled the pins into his leg told him he’d never run again, which was the equivalent of showing a bull a red flag. He was soon running around his farm on crutches, and, two months later, John Lenihan won the Beaufort 10k, on New Year’s Day, 2000. In June that year he won another race up Carrauntoohil.

Why he’s now cycling around the Kingdom, and no longer running the mountains within it, is mainly because of a hip replacement three years ago, which he reckons is more to do with heredity than the estimated 140,000 miles on his running clock. Why he cycles the way he always ran, not just for leisure and certainly with no time to admire the views, is because that’s the only way John Lenihan still knows.

Tough As Leather, The Story of Sporting Legend John Lenihan, by Con Dennehy, is available in all good bookshops in the Kingdom.

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