ountain running is a very specific discipline, says athletics coach Mike Carmody, and the Irish Mountain Running Association (IMRA) backs up that statement.
The IMRA website says the sport involves a “run over of a variety of terrains from forest tracks to rough open mountain sides but all include a large elements of climb. Most races, but not all, involve running up and down, the down section is the specialised bit.”
Carmody chips in with a bit more detail: “There are two sorts of races, uphill races where you start at the bottom and finish at the top of a mountain or — more common — when you race to the top and back down to the bottom. You can have someone who has great endurance going uphill, who’s not as good coming downhill, which is the more technically challenging part — or vice versa. It’s a specialist discipline.
“Michael excelled at it.”
Carmody is referring to Michael Cunningham, who passed away last month, a central figure in Irish mountain running.
Cunningham didn’t take up the sport until he was in his mid-30s, when his friend Tom Blackburn got involved in the sport, but from day one “it was his forte,” says Carmody, adding: “It suited his build and his running style — from the start he was in the top three or four in most of the races he competed in, even though he might have been older than many of the other top competitors. He competed for Ireland on numerous occasions as well.
“He had so many great performances — he came 10th in the World Championships a couple of years ago in Snowdonia in Wales, for instance. He also had some top times for a man of his age, but what most people would be aware of was that he also held the record for the number of races run in one year.”
In the world of Irish running, this is one of the markers of Cunningham’s prowess. He completed an incredible 121 races in 2014, averaging out at a significant physical challenge every three days for a year. Amongst these were ultramarathons, marathons and several 34-minute 10k runs.
“To an ordinary person that mightn’t seem that big of a deal,” says Carmody.
“You might imagine, for instance, that you could play that number of hurling matches in a year.
“But the toll those races take on the body — several of Mike’s races were long-distance mountain races or marathons, with a 24-hour race thrown in among them — showed his phenomenal ability to recover.
“I’ve been involved in racing for years and encountered hundreds of runners, but he’s the only man who could have done that. He never seemed to break down, though. He had the odd freak injury but he’d be back on his feet very quickly every time.”
In one race in the Galtee Mountains, the injury was more severe than usual, but Cunningham gritted his teeth and kept going.
“He had an accident in that hill race, but whether through adrenaline or grit, he managed to get through it,” says Carmody, “And to win the race. That certainly stands out for me, because he was in such a bad way afterwards but the injury didn’t affect his performance in the race.”
unningham had ruptured his knee, and spent much of the next week in hospital. But he’d still won the race.
By trade a bus driver and a farmer, he was a member of Bilboa AC (Cappamore) and Mooreabbey Milers AC in Tipperary.
In 1999, he ran his first marathon in Dublin in a time of three and a half hours and he competed in every Dublin City marathon until 2015, when he clocked 2:46.46 for 90th position: Cunningham was 50-years-old at the time.
“He’d race in two and, sometimes, three or four races on any given weekend,” says Carmody.
“Most runners would compete in about 20-30 races per year, but that year he finished 120 of them. He just didn’t seem to get tired. His powers of recovery were incredible.”
In a sincere tribute to Cunningham which Carmody and Cunningham’s partner Maire published in the Limerick Leader, they outlined the other passions in a full life, which included rearing prize-winning cattle, gardening, and the maintenance of vintage cars and tractors, and noted his sporting past lives in hurling and soccer as well.
ut running was the sport Cunningham made his name in. An indication of his popularity was seen the Monday evening before he was buried, when the removal went on for nearly two hours beyond the allotted time, such was the crowd waiting to pay their last respects. Michael Cunningham was a quiet person but he made his mark.
“He was a man of few words,” says Carmody.
“It might be more accurate to say he didn’t waste his words. He was very easy-going, very relaxed, took everything in his stride. He was always content with where he was in life. He enjoyed other people’s company, he had a kind word for everybody — he’d always ask others how they got on in a race before talking about himself. Humble and assuming would be appropriate words to use about him.”
Mountain running is a small community of people. Is losing someone like Michael Cunningham a big blow?
“That would be fair to say,” says Carmody.
“He’s a big loss.
“He was one of those people that no matter who he met, he left a mark on them. People who didn’t know him that well, even, they felt that attachment to him. In the small running sub-group of mountain runners, he was well known, but also in the wider running community in Limerick, Munster and beyond, he was known. The same with the triathlon community, many of them would have known him well.
“At his funeral there were people from all walks of life who’d have met him.”
Michael Cunningham passed away at Milford Care Centre on May 20.
He is sadly missed by his loving parents Mary and John, brothers Sean and George, sisters Caroline, Marie and Brenda, partner Máire, brother in law Liam, relatives and friends.