In many ways, it doesn’t make sense. At the age of 43, Gary O’Hanlon shouldn’t be running faster than ever, shouldn’t be Irish marathon champion, and nor should he be able to say — at least with a straight face — that his best years are ahead.
But in other ways it makes perfect sense, and to understand why you have to rewind 26 years, back to the day that splits his story into two contrasting chapters — before and after the accident that nearly took his life, and for a long time left it in ruins.
O’Hanlon was 17 at the time, one of Ireland’s most promising young distance runners, but while on a training run on the Castleblayney road in his native Dundalk he was struck by a car. In that moment, more than a decade of misery was dealt his way.
“It was severe,” he says. “It was mainly head injuries. I had fractures of the skull, damage of the brain and they said it was long term.”
His running career was over, or so he thought.
“When you’re 17 and told you won’t be running for five or six years, you think that’s it. But I always loved the
sport and I always followed it. I always dreamed of getting back.”
In the five years that followed, O’Hanlon had five major operations, mostly reconstructive surgery with a plastic surgeon. The scars healed, but the damage lingered, in the mind as much as the body.
“I suffered for 15 years from depression and was in and out getting treatment for it,” he says. “That was hard to take because I was always happy-go-lucky. But I had a bad time after the accident, and only in my early 30s did I start to come right.”
Throughout his 20s, O’Hanlon made several attempts at a comeback, but the cycle was as predictable as it was frustrating — six weeks’ training then sidelined for months, maybe even years, his back and hamstrings still not having recovered from the accident.
In his early 30s, his body slowly came around and O’Hanlon became competitive on the national stage over 1500m, but in truth it was his talent rather than training that carried him through.
“I didn’t do that much,” he admits. “I might have run twice a week and hit the pub five nights a week.”
But his ability was too strong to ignore, and training partners told O’Hanlon as much. In 2012 he tried his first marathon at the age of 38, clocking 2:26 in Dublin despite preparing in a method that could best be described as half-arsed. The year after, he clocked 2:23, and it was around then that O’Hanlon’s friend Kevin Moriarty told him if he would just string six 100-mile weeks together, he’d easily break 2:20. It took a while for the penny to drop, O’Hanlon only truly committing to a proper build-up in the autumn of 2016. But at the Dublin Marathon that year, he injured his ankle four miles in, scrambled home in 2:22:50, then spent another five months on the sideline.
But the experience emboldened him, and last October O’Hanlon returned to Dublin knowing he had a realistic shot at the national title, despite the presence of more accomplished — and younger — competitors in Stephen Scullion and Sergiu Ciobanu.
On the build-up, O’Hanlon continued the approach that served him well in the years before, racing voraciously at every opportunity.
That habit was formed out of necessity several years earlier, when his career as an electronic engineer came to an abrupt halt amid the recession enveloping the nation. Having invested in various properties when times were good, he found himself staring down the barrel of a terrifying mortgage bill each month.
And so he raced in far-flung places all over Ireland, sometimes three times in one weekend, picking up a few hundred quid wherever he could to make ends meet. But there was another reason, too, best explained by O’Hanlon.
“I love running, watch every race going and know all the stats, but I hate running,” he says.
“I hate training. I can get motivated for a race but not for training and that’s why I race so much — I can get myself up for it when I pin a number to my vest.”
Keen to find a stable income, O’Hanlon qualified as a personal trainer in 2009 and in the years since has built up a large stable of athletes via his coaching business. And last October in Dublin, their coach gave them a perfect illustration of the value of perseverance.
O’Hanlon knew he couldn’t match Scullion and Ciobanu for pace, so over the first half of the Dublin Marathon he held back as they built a one-minute advantage. But in the latter half the metronomic rhythm of the 43-year-old began to rein them in, O’Hanlon passing Ciobanu with three miles to go and Scullion with a mile to go en route to his first national title.
In those final miles some strange thoughts flooded his mind — he smiled through the fatigue as he passed Howl at the Moon, a nightclub near Merrion Square he’d been spilling out of every Saturday night for six or seven years straight, and then he thought of how he’d changed since, his mind turning to baby son Ben, who was born last June.
When he reached the finish, the dam finally burst on his emotions, O’Hanlon setting a lifetime best of 2:18:53 to take the Irish title.
The win guaranteed him a place on the Irish team for the European Championships in Berlin this year, but with one important caveat: that he also run under 2:18 during the qualifying period.
Which is why, on Sunday morning, O’Hanlon will line up at the London Marathon behind the world’s best: Eliud Kipchoge, Kenenisa Bekele and Mo Farah, the rock stars of a sport he once thought had abandoned him, but in which, with each passing year, he’s flourishing ever more.
A rare and special talent, finally in bloom.