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Gary O’Hanlon takes the one title he has always wanted

Events around Dublin Marathon give O’Hanlon the national title he deserves

Gary O’Hanlon of Clonliffe Harriers crossing the line in Merrion Square during Dublin Marathon 2017. Photograph: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

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.

Chipping a bone 

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.