Zak Hanna is a fast learner.
Just four years after taking up running, the 25-year-old from the Dromara Hills of Northern Ireland finished sixth in the 2019 World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) World Cup standings. Not bad for a part-time runner who works full time as a valet and driver for a car leasing company.
"I wish I was a full-time runner," Hanna said. "I would love to be able to focus more on my running but that is something I am working on."
Given his steady rise over just four seasons, you get the impression that he'll make it happen.
He made his first WMRA World Championships squad in 2016, representing Ireland and finishing 76th, and improving to 52nd next year. He improved to 47th in 2018 and 35th last November in Villa la Angostura, in the heart of Argentina's Patagonia.
He's made a stronger mark at the continental level. He was 53rd in his debut appearance at the European Mountain Running Championships in 2017, then made a substantial jump to 19th the next year and again the year after that.
By 2019 he was also a regular fixture on the World Cup circuit where he collected a fourth place finish at the Snowdon Int. Mountain Race in the Welsh town of Llanberis, and back-to-back seventh place finishes at the season-capping races in Sexten, Italy, and the Šmarna Gora Race in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana.
Athletic roots as a cyclist
In his pre-teen and teen years, cycling was his sport of choice, both road racing and mountain biking, a passion that landed him some podium finishes at the youth and junior level. "The only running I did was in high school where I was on the school cross country team," he said. At 20, though, he felt he needed a change. It came on a Christmas morning.
"I made the decision to try out running after 11 years as a cyclist, which was becoming less and less enjoyable for me. Best decision I ever made!"
Hanna lives on a side of Slieve Croob, a 534m high mountain in County Down in the heart of the Dromara Hills, not far from the Mourne Mountains which include some of Northern Ireland's highest peaks. Given that setting, a move to mountain running seemed a natural progression.
"As a cyclist I loved going up long, steep climbs, so it has transferred nicely into my running," Hanna said. "I live on the side of a mountain, so running up and down hills is the natural terrain for me wherever I go, whether it is on tarmac or off-road. I often read about the local fell races in the local papers every week, long before I started running, but I never once thought that I'd be doing that. Road running is boring and the excitement mountain running brings is another reason as to why I started the sport."
While he didn't have any role models early on, he's now looking to emulate some of the rugged discipline's greatest luminaries.
"Now that I am running I have always looked to John Lenihan, Ireland's 1991 world champion, Kenny Stuart and Robbie Bryson as inspiration for training and racing. I have been fortunate to meet John twice and it was incredible hearing all the stories of the success he had when he was active. Kenny Stuart is mentioned for obvious reasons; a class act and, like the other two, a true legend of mountain running."
Athletes commission call-up
As his career progressed, so did his interest in how the sport was run. Encouraged by other runners, he decided last year to apply for a spot on the WMRA's athletes' commission. His application was accepted.
"I was encouraged to apply by a few runners at home, and I decided to go ahead with it and see what happened. It was good to be invited on board and it's great to be in it amongst other top mountain runners who all want to have a positive impact on the sport."
How does he want to see his sport grow?
"Since I started running four years ago, mountain running has had so many developments take place. As long as it continues to grow in popularity in both Ireland and across the world then it is in a good place.
"It is interesting to hear other people's opinions on how they want to see the sport develop, it allows you to hear other ideas that you may not have thought of before, and also create new ideas of your own. Races like the Youth Cup are great for bringing on the next generation of mountain runners and I think this is vital for the future of mountain running to ensure that it can keep growing for a long time to come."
Looking ahead to his more immediate career pursuits, Hanna said his main goal for 2020 is selection to the Irish team for the European and World Championships, set for 4 July in Cinfaes, Portugal, and in Haria, Spain, on 13-14 November, respectively. Contesting the iconic Sierre-Zinal 31km in Zinal, Switzerland, is also near the top of his list.
"It was too tempting to say no to it this year so I am looking forward to the preparation for the race.” The race, which starts in the Valais town of Sierre and climbs to the village of Zinal, features a course that offers views of five of the area’s 4000-metre peaks, lending it the nickname, the "Five 4000s Race”.
In the bigger picture, one as wide as that spectacular view, is to keep going to see just how far he can advance as a mountain runner.
"Ultimately I just want to keep progressing in the sport, make the most of all the opportunities that I am presented with and to keep on enjoying the journey."
Kirsty Reade for World Athletics