Veteran vows to rise to challenge for his last stand in London
It never gets any easier. Like daily beatings, training for the 50km race walk is an exercise in persistent suffering. And while the body, in time, can grow accustomed to such abuse, it's usually the mind that is first to give up the fight.
Late last year, when the dust had settled on a mediocre Olympic Games, Rob Heffernan sat down and wondered if he still had the stomach to go on.
He could have walked away - aged 38, with World, Olympic and European medals to his name - and everyone would have understood why. After all he had a wife and kids and, truth be told, he didn't come within an ass's roar of the medals in Rio.
He finished sixth, more than two minutes behind the bronze medallist, but something about it left him incomplete.
"The Olympics were such a washout that it would have been bad to leave on that note," he says. "The biggest decision for me to come back was committing to that lifestyle for another 11 months."
He thought about London, where he finished fourth in the Olympics in 2012, a near-miss that would later be upgraded to third when race winner Sergey Kirdyapkin was disqualified for doping.
He remembered the crowds that lined the Mall, how it contrasted to the old man and his dog who were present for the race walks in Rio.
He thought of the tricolours and the legions of Irish fans screaming his name, imagining what it would be like to walk onto a podium with guys 10 years younger and give one last up-yours to father time.
His mind was made up: London would be his last stand.
"I want to go out ready to fight and ready to hurt," says Heffernan, now 39. "The desire to hurt is what people lose when they get older. I got through the training so I need to be ready to go to war, to enjoy the suffering."
If there's irony in that phrase - enjoy the suffering - it's best explained by the chicken-and-egg strangeness of 50km race walkers.
Is it that their event attracts oddities, those happy to commit their lives to pursue perfection in a craft ridiculed by so many? Or is it that the journey itself, those long hours of solitary reflection on the roads, is what conditions them towards unhinged masochism?
"There's no buzz out of training," admits Heffernan. "It's monotonous. You're just waiting for one day in the year."
Tomorrow is that day, and it's been circled in his calendar since late last year.
It's been a lonelier journey this time. His wife, Marian, stepped away from his coaching team after Rio to open a sports injury clinic in Douglas, having pressed pause on her own ambitions for four years.
"I put massive pressure on Marian and when she took a step back there was a massive void," says Heffernan.
Aware of the need for a replacement, Heffernan flew to Scotland to meet Stuart Hogg, who had coached many international athletes, mostly sprinters.
Hogg's knowledge of race-walking was minimal, but he was a high-performance mind who Heffernan could use as a sounding board.
He also recruited Liam O'Reilly, a Cork-based biomechanical specialist and physio, to work with him daily.
"They understand the mentality and highs and lows of training," says Heffernan. "You need people like that because you're never as objective with yourself."
Heffernan is also still friends with Javier 'Paco' Fernandez, the retired Spanish race walker who was handed a two-year ban in 2010 when police found EPO, a potent blood-boosting drug, in a raid on his apartment.
While Heffernan has come under extra scrutiny from Sport Ireland's anti-doping unit as a result of that friendship, he defends it by pointing to the Spaniard's rare technical knowledge of race-walking.
In recent months he has spent some time training with a group of Guatemalan walkers coached by Fernandez in Guadix, Spain, though most of Heffernan's year has been spent at home, racking up as much as 200 kilometres a week with training partner Brendan Boyce.
It's a Spartan existence, and Heffernan hasn't slept in his own bed for two months, opting instead to stay in an altitude tent set up in his man-cave cabin in the back garden.
Irish athletics has enjoyed a string of underage success this summer, but performances in London have demonstrated how standards have regressed at senior level. So what, I ask Heffernan, is the missing link?
"We have the talent," he says. "It's about getting the new batch coming through and not getting them caught up in the fake social media stuff. People trying to be popular is killing sport.
"Real sportspeople go out to train, to compete and win, but now social media is making gym bloggers and all these idiots so popular. We're losing touch of what real sport is."
With an eye to working in athletics after retirement, Heffernan met Athletics Ireland CEO John Foley in recent months and was encouraged by the attitude he saw across the table.
"There are more educated coaches these days but you need to have the mentality to bring them into the high-performance world and the lifestyle they have to live," he says ahead of tomorrow's race.
"I wouldn't be as good with 15/16-year-olds because I'm so abrupt. The way things are gone they'd say 'Rob is bullying', but this is the reality: once you're 19 or 20 and you're with me, this is how it is.
"I would make people accountable. You need to ask people why they haven't progressed. When Sonia (O'Sullivan) messages me I still get excited. People like that are good for aspiring athletes."
In recent weeks Heffernan has been practising what he preaches on his final training camp in Fota Island, going into the lockdown mode.
"I love the fight," he says. "This is a whole new challenge and it'll take a good man to beat me.
"It's the first time I've been properly injury-free in over two years and my f***ing attitude is back as well," he says.
"I'm not going out just to say goodbye or toddle around. I'm going out to go out on a high."