John Lenihan – mountain running champion

John Lenihan – mountain running champion

If there is one man who needs scarce introduction when addressing a crowd of Irish hill runners, it is undoubtedly John Lenihan, the legendary Kerry-man, who secured the coveted World Mountain Running Champion title at Zermatt, Switzerland, in 1991.

While this was not his only international success (John won Snowdon in 1989 in a time that would have won the race in the last fifteen years), his local exploits perhaps carry the greatest weight in the collective memory: nineteen victories on Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain, in the 25-year lifespan of this race. He has plenty more records and wins to his name, including a fine 62-minute half-marathon. After meeting up with John when arranging the IMRA Kerry Weekend, René managed to get an interview with the great champion. With John being just the sort of ideal we aspire to here at ChampionsEverywhere, we had no choice but to replicate the exchange here:

RB: When designing your own training what, or perhaps who, were your greatest sources of influence and did you work with a coach during your career?

JL: My only “running Bible” was a book I was given by a friend and it was all about New Zealander Arthur Lydiard and his beliefs on training, I studied this from cover to cover and adapted a lot of his mentality, those early years I designed my own training regime but later worked with a coach until I reached my mid-20s when I turned to mountain running and once again I had to design my own training as it was outside the knowledge of my coach.

For young athletes starting out today I think it’s worth mentioning that my schools coach didn’t pick me for the school track team describing me as “too slow to catch a cold”. I believe with the proper mental and physical training its truly amazing what we can achieve from very humble beginnings.

My only “running Bible” was a book I was given by a friend and it was all about New Zealander Arthur Lydiard and his beliefs on training, I studied this from cover to cover and adapted a lot of his mentality

RB: The last few days or weeks before a race is a period where a lot of runners blow their races, what approach did you take to your training in the final days and weeks before a big event?

JL: I generally trained through many of my races but selected a number of events where I wanted to be confident that I could up my standard and for these race I used a tapering off period, if I was racing on a Sunday I would start cutting back my daily training by approx. 30% a week prior to the event.

JL: I would then take the Friday off and just go for a couple of miles of a walk, listen to some favorite music and just relax and let the body just switch off and go to sleep, then on Saturday I would begin to wake the body up and prepare it for the battle ahead, I would work up a good sweat over 2 miles then do some strides and would quite often do 6 by 400s at a relaxed pace, I was one of a number of runners at that time who found that we could perform better the day after a decent workout rather that after a day of rest.

Rene speaks to John in Glanageenty

RB: There has always been a debate between whether you should structure your training towards peak races or, as Ron Clarke did, do the same training week year-round and race solidly without a peak. How did you structure your training around your most important races?

JL: I fell somewhere between both of those categories, I generally tried to peak for June and July then trained through August with a view to racing well again in September, I then just tried to hold my form as best I could through October, November and December.

As I worked on the family farm the months of January and February were very inconsistent months of training due to huge physical work load on the farm, however come March I was once again working out my training schedule for the year ahead.

RB: Many are probably curious what type of mileage you ran during your winter preparations and how much you dropped it as you entered into the summer season?

JL: A lot of my winter mileage was ranging from 60 to 80 miles a week however I would build on this come March and by May I would be running 120 to 130 miles a week, through June, July and August I would often road race three times a week but in many of these races I never had to give it 100%, I generally tried to win races as economically as possibly rather than racing myself into the ground for times.

I also found that despite these races I was never too far below the 100 miles a week mark. From September to December I was a little bit like the motorist who knew he was running low on fuel I just tried to cruise as gently as possible to get what I could out of what energy was left in the tank I rarely dropped below 50 miles a week and when I wanted to build on that I would increase my mileage by 8 to 10% a week for three weeks and then reduce it by 20% on the fourth week.
I repeated this system over either a 12 or 16 week period, I was a great believer in the one extra-long run each week and for me that was usually my average mileage over 6 days plus 35% .

RB: Your old friend Kenny Stuart speculated the reason his mountain running records still stand was not because of a decline in the top level performers but rather less runners of each level, leading to less competitive races at the front. What would your two cents be on the matter?

JL: I can see the point he is making but I think there is more to it than that. There are a large number of top drawer sports people about but every now and again someone special with that little something extra comes along and the stand out just that tiny bit above everyone else, these are the George Bests and the Mohammed Ali of sport.

If you look at the Snowdon records and take the times of Kenny Stuart, Robin Bryson and Carol Haigh these are very special times set by people who were that little bit extra special and these records will only be broken by people of similar standard though many great athletes may come frustratingly close it will take someone extra special to topple those records.

John talks to Jason

RB: There is a trend back towards a more natural approach to running, minimalist shoes and barefoot running is getting a lot of attention in the media. What’s your opinion and experience on the matter?

JL: As like many a runner in my era I started out as a barefoot racer on most grass races but soon began wearing shoes as bare feet are very vulnerable to the elements.

In recent times I can’t but help notice that what shoes to wear for a race are taking center stage in pre-race conversation such is the variety out there nowadays, it makes you wonder are some athletes losing focus on the more important pre-race issues of focusing on their event, on their opponents and on their race plan.

RB: Your recent video shows you performing several interesting strength exercises and plyometrics during a run in your local Glanageenty. Did you come up with the program yourself and was it the only strength and conditioning training you employed?

JL: It was the only strength training I employed and I used to really look forward to these session as there was a real feel good factor afterwards.

It was entirely of my own design and there was a huge mental factor to this as it was so peaceful in those woods training by the mountain stream among the wildlife of birds, rabbits and foxes that you almost felt as if you left the restrictions of your human body behind for that hour as I climbed up ropes, did lots of skipping and rope ladder drills, pull-ups and weightlifts and then showered beneath a local waterfall. It was sheer magic. It also added a great variety to my training which I believe was very important in preventing me from going mentally stale.

Years later I was to learn that 1958 Ras Tailteann winner Mike Murphy adapted a similar method where he created his own gym in the woods.

RB: Speaking of Glanageenty, the hills there are short and sharp rather than long and protracted. Do you think this gave you an ideal conditioning for fast hill racing and how would you the training effects compared to longer more protracted training runs such as those up Carrauntoohil?

JL: When in serious training I would try and run different routes up Carrauntohill as relaxed as possible once a week, this was not used as a hard gut busting session but rather as training to move as efficiently as possible over the rough terrain, to train the eye and the mind to picking out the best line etc.

When I tried on a couple of occasions to up the long tough mountain training I got totally muscle bound and mentally wrecked on every occasion and ended up running away below my best form. For me to perform at my best on the mountain I had to focus on lots of fast feet drills, lots of pep runs over 50 and 60 meters particularly after long runs, stretching just didn’t come into it at all at that time.

RB: The likes of Joss Naylor and Billy Bland seem to have run on hard mountains for hours every day, perhaps courtesy of their jobs, but others such as Kenny Stuart felt they “got stale” if they ran too much in the hills (Kenny recommending not to run on hills at all the week before a mountain race, when we last spoke to him). What worked best for you in your training?

JL: We are all different individuals and there’s no perfect program that will suit us all, I wouldn’t run on the mountains during the last six days before a mountain race, I too would get very stale and mentally and physically tired if I trained too much on the mountains, I needed variety such as fast road runs etc. to keep me sharp.

RB: Your range of road racing PBs is quite glittering and the English high youth officer Bashir Hussein told me once he was particularly impressed with your half-marathon time, yet you never recorded a marathon time. Were you ever tempted to test yourself on the distance?

JL: I tried three marathons, I led one at 20 miles and dropped out at 25 and I was 3rd in another at 20 miles and then slipped to 26th in a time of 2hours 30 minutes and 10 seconds; a leading coach once told me that my style of running was sheer aggressive power to the point of pounding the roads.

This worked positive for me up to the half marathon distance but he told me that no athlete’s legs could take that pounding over 26 miles; he was proven correct. In hindsight now I regret that I didn’t concentrate more on my track times as I had run 13.55 for 5000 and 29.36 for 10,000 at the age of 22 but then I moved on to road racing and unlike the track I feel that I achieved my ultimate potential over all distances from 4 miles up to the metric marathon.

RB: There are not many books around about mountain running and even less on Irish hill running, any chance we will see a book about the “life and times of John Lenihan”?

JL: If I thought that it would be influential to the future of our Irish mountain runners I would be keen but like training I feel that variety is important in any story and I don’t think there’s enough of that in my life-story to create a seller, maybe one day it could be a chapter in a bigger picture, maybe somebody will do a book concentrating on major achievements by people in a cross section of minority sports.

RB: Thank you John for taking the time to speak to us…

This interview first appeared at Mud, Sweat and Tears

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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.