'If I don't get out and run I'd crack up. I'd be in a bad place in my head' - Rob Heffernan on life after athletics
Having found his feet in retirement, Heffernan hopes the next generation will reach for the top
Does he miss it? Does he hell. It may be almost two years since Rob Heffernan experienced the sadistic slog that is a 50km race walk, but that's a chapter of life he's happy to keep closed. Even his capacity to suffer can eventually fizzle out like a sand-timer.
"My last two years, it was a drag," he admits. "I was working so hard and not getting the same return."
Rio 2016 was always a no-brainer - Heffernan went there to become a five-time Olympian, his sixth-place finish enough to reload for one last shot at a medal at the 2017 World Championships in London. But when he got there he felt... nothing.
"I was immune to it, I just didn't care anymore," he says. "It was the opposite to when I was young when I cared too much about everything. I was not one bit excited and I'm going, 'You've done all the training, just shut up and deliver something because too many people have helped you and invested in you'."
He finished eighth. Good but not great, not when four years earlier he had won gold in Moscow. His time was up, but it took several months to accept. "It's scary, when you've a family to look after, you can be brought right down," he says of that period. "I was lucky we teed things up."
His transition was relatively smooth, Heffernan landing a job with Bank of Ireland to deliver financial literacy programmes in schools. But with his all-in mentality the exercise withdrawal was severe. Still is.
These days he runs 70 kilometres a week, and when he misses a few days? "It's a disaster," he admits. "If I don't get out and (run) I'd crack up. I'd be in a bad place in my head, everything would be really negative. I can't help that I feel that way and it's bizarre: I'm over 20, 30 years running and why, when I finish, do I feel this way all the time?"
The question is rhetorical, and over the past two years Heffernan has come to understand why so many without his talent lace up their shoes with the same, addicted frequency.
He was in Santry yesterday along with his wife, Marian, to launch the Irish Life Health Festival of Running, which takes place in Morton Stadium ahead of the national senior track and field championships on July 28. It features a one-mile fun run for children and a 3km run in the adjacent park, with the couple hopeful it will lead more youngsters into their sport.
"You'd hope it might ignite something and kids will watch the national championships after," said Marian, a 2012 Olympian. "That's where it came from with us - we grew up watching Sonia (O'Sullivan)."
The four Heffernan children follow their lead by being active - each and every day. "The responsibility comes to the parents," says Rob. "You have to make time to exercise. People make time to eat and it's just as important."
Their eldest daughter, Meghan, showed promise in athletics but has since focused on soccer, playing with Cork City U-17s. Their son, Cathal, is with Cork City U-15s and has been over and back to Preston North End a few times, his first trial for the Irish U15s arriving this weekend. "Nothing might come of it but him getting the opportunity, you have to take it," says Marian.
To Rob it's no surprise they opted for soccer: "There's better opportunities. It's resources, finances and professionalism. All the boxes are ticked."
Of course, high-level athletes face a much lonelier path to the top and when it comes to this golden generation of Irish teenagers, Rob believes they must learn what's needed for senior success. "It needs to be made clear: Athletics Ireland doesn't have the funds to make you a professional athlete. If you expect that, it's not going to happen and kids can feel let down. It needs to be clear what can be done for them and what the life is for full-time, senior, professional athletes. (For them to) get away with really good athletes abroad, live in that environment and realise, 'Oh, this is what it's about'."
He believes Athletics Ireland camps serve that need for juniors but that athletes in their early 20s need to decide if they're willing to commit. "After that you need no distractions. The association needs sponsors but at the end of the day, are we preparing people for war? Are we really preparing them to compete in majors?"
He thinks back to his own career: eat, sleep, train, repeat - a never-ending cycle. "The thought of going back into that life again," he says, his expression halfway between pride and disgust. "Aw, my God."