Clampdown on dopers gives hope to Rob Heffernan
Corkman confident as he bids to defy age and odds in world title defence
For Rob Heffernan, things are different this time around, though in some ways, they're just the same.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, the Corkman will once again line up for the 50km event at the World Championships and take on the might of a race-walking superpower on their home turf.
Two years ago in Moscow, Heffernan upset the favoured Russians and reigned supreme, and this time, he will have to out-walk and out-last three formidable Chinese opponents on the sweltering streets of Beijing.
In addition, there is Slovakia's Matej Toth, the hot favourite after his 3:34:38 performance earlier this year - three minutes faster than Heffernan's best.
Throw in the fact that Heffernan is returning from double hernia surgery last year and was disqualified on his most recent outing at the National Championships a fortnight ago and it's clear that the defending champion, the 37-year-old is as a massive underdog.
"I don't feel different," he says. "I always go in with the expectation of trying to win a medal and I feel good, My training has gone well and I'm ready to give a good performance."
To prepare for his title defence, Heffernan took himself into the thin air of the Moroccan mountains for four weeks of altitude training in July.
There, he logged over 100 miles each week; right there with him, as always, was wife Marian, still dedicating herself to her husband's career, with her own competitive days now in the past.
"Without Marian I'd have no support," says Heffernan. "We've a great system. She looked after us out in Morocco: did all our drinks, all our video work, and looked after the kids."
Things are different now because Team Heffernan, as Rob likes to call it, has an extra member since his victory in Moscow, with baby girl Regan joining the family last year.
Despite the extra demands, Heffernan's focus has remained fixed on Saturday's race.
"Conditions are going to be very tough," he says, "but we were training at altitude in up to 35 degrees, so it prepared me well.
Heffernan did sessions like 30km at his race tempo, or eight three-kilometre repeats, enough to make him collapse in a heap the moment he came in the door.
"We just slept, trained, slept, trained," he says. "It was very, very tough. I was just counting down to the next session all the time."
At 37, Heffernan knows he won't have many more chances of success at this level, but if there is an event suited to those of advancing years, then it is the 50K race walk.
It is the longest, most arduous event at the World Championships, a gruelling conundrum which requires the constant technical focus of a gymnast, the strategic patience of a snooker player and a pain tolerance bordering on masochism.
Heffernan's chances were boosted last month when it was revealed none of his Russian rivals from the notorious Saransk training group will be in action after a spate of doping busts.
One of those, Sergey Kirdyapkin, was given a three-year ban in January, which was backdated to late 2012 - not early enough to allow Heffernan's fourth-place at the London Olympics to be upgraded. None of the recent revelations surprised him.
"I've known this all the time," he says. "I've been on the receiving end of it for years. People say 'oh, this is all very disturbing', but how do you think I feel? I finished fourth in London, and that's not just been a medal for me, it's a medal for everyone who cheered me on out on the road, a medal for everyone who loves athletics. It's not just me affected."
As always, though, Heffernan has tried not to get bogged down by distractions in the build-up to the biggest race of the year.
"I try not to focus on it because if I know if I start looking at that side it'll take away from what I can do," he says.
"It's great that everybody's getting caught. They're clamping down and they're actually following through and they're cleaning it up, so it's good.
"There's stuff we can do on a legal level to compete with the best in the world."
Once again, Heffernan hopes to do just that on Saturday. Few are giving him much a chance. Which is exactly how he wants it.