Thursday 14 December 2017

Heffernan senses opportunity on happy hunting ground

Race walker Robert Heffernan after being presented with the 2012 London Olympic Men's 50km Race Walk Bronze Medal by Willie O'Brien, Acting President of the OCI, at City Hall in Cork. Photo: Sportsfile
Race walker Robert Heffernan after being presented with the 2012 London Olympic Men's 50km Race Walk Bronze Medal by Willie O'Brien, Acting President of the OCI, at City Hall in Cork. Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennhy

All in all, when you weigh up the case for and against Rob Heffernan winning a medal at the World Championships today, it doesn't make pleasant reading for those looking towards London with a green-tinted lens.

Early this morning, he'll take to the streets on The Mall for what will likely be his last hurrah as an athlete, a venue which will conjure up fond memories for the Cork race-walker as it was here, in 2012, that he won an Olympic bronze medal.

It took almost four years for him to actually get his hands on it, Heffernan crossing the line fourth but receiving an upgrade last year when race winner Sergey Kirdyapkin of Russia was banned for doping.

The 50km walk, more than any other event, is a race where age can prove a powerful asset, given the slow-burning endurance engine required usually takes a decade or more to develop. So, too, does the wisdom to know how to expend your energy.

Heffernan has mastered that art over the past two decades, but at 39, there's no denying his best years are now behind him.

"I'm trying to get back to a level and that level was so high, you're just trying to get within one or two per cent of it," he said. "You know you're not improving so there's no buzz out of training. You're just waiting for one day in the year."

Heffernan's peak years came in 2012 and 2013, when he claimed that Olympic bronze medal followed by a world title, hacking his personal best down to 3:37:54 for the 50km race.

How quick is that in layman's terms? Try doing a marathon in 3:03, then carrying on for another five miles - walking.

But since then only flickers of his best have emerged, finishing fifth at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing and sixth at the Olympic Games last year. Only on paper was he truly close to a medal in Rio, as younger, faster rivals dispatched him convincingly over the final 10km.

However, hope came filtering into the Irish camp earlier this week when it emerged that race favourite Jared Tallent of Australia, the 2012 Olympic champion, had to withdraw with a hamstring injury. Also missing is Matej Toth of Slovakia, the 2016 Olympic champion who is currently under investigation for an alleged doping offence.

But that doesn't make Heffernan favourite - far from it. In Japan's Hirooki Arai and Canada's Evan Dunfee, who both beat Heffernan convincingly in Rio, he has to face athletes whose trajectory is progressing into an upward arc, whereas his has inevitably started to dip. Heffernan will be Ireland's only representative in the race after Brendan Boyce was forced to withdraw yesterday. The Donegal athlete has not recovered from a hamstring injury in time to take his place at the start line.

The 50km is an event subject to calamity and catastrophe in equal measure, where bodies are sent to the outer reaches of their abilities and late-race meltdowns and disqualifications are common.

Heffernan is a good bet to navigate a safe path to the finish, but the big question is how fast can his 39-year-old legs take him?

"I'm ticking the boxes in training but you can't take anything for granted," he said. "It's the desire and the willing to hurt on the day: will it be there?"

Though he didn't want to be drawn on actually calling this the end, Heffernan has hinted that today will indeed be the start of his long walk into retirement.

"I'm looking forward to it and I'm turning it into an opportunity," he said. "I want to beat the young fellas."

But as always, he's blocking out what everyone else does, narrowing his focus to simple things like his technique, his breathing, of eking every joule of energy out of his tired limbs over the course of three and a half torturous hours for one final time.

"If I can perform to my best I'll always go away happy," he said.

"Once I can perform, f*** anyone else."

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