Saturday 20 January 2018

Heffernan walks into the sunset

Rob Heffernan holds the tricolour aloft after what looks likely to have been his final race. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Rob Heffernan holds the tricolour aloft after what looks likely to have been his final race. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

In many ways, the race itself stood for the whole - a 20-year career simmered down to four hours on London's streets which represented everything we have come to know about Rob Heffernan.

It started in silent shadows, just a handful of die-hards present on The Mall at 7.45am yesterday morning as the 50km race walk got under way. This was how it was when no one knew his name.

After all, Heffernan's international career began in absolute anonymity, long enough ago that the mobile phone wasn't even a thing in Ireland.

At the 1997 European Junior Championships in Slovenia, he came home an exhausted and embarrassed 14th out of 15 finishers. He was a stick-thin skinhead with a thick skin, a teenager from the wrong side of the tracks in Cork who had an engine and an attitude but no real idea what to do with either.

He did have talent, however, lots of it, and would certainly have made it to international level at distance running if race-walking didn't claim him first.

Early in yesterday's race he showed as much, Heffernan throwing himself into the medal contention from the outset, passing 10km with the peleton that was chasing early leader - and eventual winner - Yohann Diniz of France.

Persist

By 15km, however, Heffernan entered a bad patch and began to lose contact, and through the laps that followed all he kept telling himself was to persist, that if he just kept bashing on the door it might just swing open.

The cheers from Irish crowd begin to quieten, Heffernan sensing the loss of hope in their voices, imagining their internal monologue that they were witnessing a once-great champion reduced to a punch-drunk has-been who took on one fight too many.

"You feel like telling them to relax, there's a long way to go, it's going to get better," said Heffernan. "But you can sense the disappointment when they see you back so far, so you have to be so confident and assured that you're going to come through strong."

At the 30km mark Heffernan was languishing in 21st, but if he's learned one thing about the 50km event it's that the race only starts with an hour to go.

By 40km he had climbed to 14th - younger men with more courage than sense starting to be laid to waste all around him - and with 5km to go he had risen to 10th. Now he was chugging, all remaining life beginning to be squeezed from his 39-year-old legs.

"I went through a very bad spell and my natural instinct is to win a medal so it was about pulling the positives out of it," said Heffernan. "The support off the crowd was incredible and I wanted to finish on a positive."

He did, Heffernan clawing his way up to eighth by the time he crossed the line in 3:44.41, more than 11 minutes behind Diniz, who took gold in 3:33.12.

At the line, a wave of relief came washing over Heffernan, the grimace he had worn for so many hours, so many years, replaced with a content smile.

"I'm happy I finished on a positive note," said Heffernan. "A big chunk of the race was very negative but I ran out of road. I came through strong."

Afterwards the question on all our minds, if not Heffernan's just yet, was whether this was the end.

"I always said when I'm not challenging for medals (I'll retire)," he said, leaving us to fill in the blanks.

"It's time for me to help the new generation and I think that opportunity is going to arise. I want to thank everybody because I've got such great support from everyone in Ireland."

The end, when it arrives, can come in a variety of ways for sportspeople. Usually it's through either a loss of motivation or physical ability, but for Heffernan it boils down to a simple reality: he's suffered enough.

Desire

"The body has lost that desire to be massively competitive and massively hurt," he said. "I love racing and the crowd, but it's not racing that's the problem, it's the 11 months beforehand where you have to live as a professional athlete. I miss things with my kids and miss going to their matches. It's a hard life."

Hard, but rewarding.

In a 20-year career Heffernan has amassed European and Olympic bronze medals, though his greatest day will remain the sunny August afternoon in Moscow 2013 when he won the world title.

To ascertain the knowledge he needed to accomplish that, he had to up sticks from Cork many years before and plonk himself in with the best, spending many years under the tutelage of race-walking great Robert Korzeniowski.

Once he had milked all he could from that set-up he returned home, creating his own high-performance bubble - one which relied heavily on the contribution of his wife, Marian, an Olympian herself in 2012.

"With Rob - his personality, his experience - the world is his oyster," said Marian yesterday.

"With athletics he can give so much back."

And that was where Heffernan's mind immediately turned after the finish.

"I know the life you need to live as a high-performance athlete and that's where my passion is now," he said.

"I've a lot of experience and knowledge and I want to pass that on."

Few would be better placed to guide the new generation. The hope is that Athletics Ireland can see that too.

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