Saturday 14 December 2019

Heffernan walking his own path in bid to stay ahead of rivals

Corkman inspired by Soweto trip as he targets World Cup glory in China

Ireland's Robert Heffernan on his way to winning the men's 50k walk event at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Moscow
Ireland's Robert Heffernan on his way to winning the men's 50k walk event at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Moscow
Robert Heffernan wants to win more medals for Ireland

Cliona Foley

Exactly why Rob Heffernan is a world champion was underlined in a B&B in Johannesburg recently.

The drug-testers, as is their wont, knocked, unannounced, at 6.0am.

Heffernan was in the middle of three weeks' altitude training and had a particularly heavy training session planned, so he politely told them he couldn't have his sleep disturbed.

His room-mate Ray Flynn, an Athletics Ireland official and lifelong friend, fled for a run, telling him 'you're the contrariest man I've ever met!'

"They were there for two and a half hours while I was sleeping in the bed," Heffernan chuckles. "At one stage I woke up and the nurse had fallen asleep on the chair and was snoring!"

Two weeks ago, when the testers called to his home, he couldn't physically give them a sample and, once again, refused to countenance any disruption to his training.


"They had to follow me for 15km in the car. I was training in Fota so at least I brought them a scenic route," he quips.

Heffernan was tested 19 times in 2013 and six already this year.

Ireland's anti-doping system is far more stringent than athletics superpowers like Jamaica, Kenya or Britain but he meets this blatant inequity and regular inconvenience with the same combination of steely determination and classic Cork scrappiness that helped him become the world 50km race walking champion last August.

"Sure I have to turn it around so it doesn't stress me, otherwise I'm gonna crack up when they call," he explains.

"The anti-doping system we have is the best in the world. We don't need it and if you put that money (more than €1m annually) into our athletes, it might balance things out. But I don't mind being tested because if you win a medal for Ireland then people can say 'at least he's definitely clean'."

Heffernan's notoriously tough training regime was a key contributor to his long-awaited breakthrough, at 35, after that heartbreaking fourth at the London Olympics.

He and wife Marian (also his coach) feared that the birth of their third child in late January might disrupt it but baby Regan, happily, has had the opposite effect – she helpfully joins him on his nap between his twice-daily training.

"She's very chilled and it's after settling everything because you really prioritise things. I have training and then I can't wait to get home to her. It's a brilliant distraction," he says.

The life of a world-class athlete is still wickedly peripatetic. Last month he was on that Johannesburg training camp for Irish walkers that he personally organised and Athletics Ireland part-funded.

Local crime statistics make it an unlikely training choice but it was the altitude (1,700m/5,500ft) he wanted, and he has good contacts there from previous camps.

"It's nothing lavish, we stay in a B&B surrounded by barbed wire, but we have two training loops around the Botanical Gardens and can use the university gym and two local tracks," he says.

One of those tracks was in Soweto, where his contacts helped him organise a free training session for locals.

"Jo'burg is a bit like a prison, you're barricaded in, but in Soweto there's still a sense of community," he observes. "The poverty is unbelievable but there's no barricades there and the people who came were lovely, they were mad to learn."

What the black township kids made of a pint-sized white Corkman proselytising for race walking is anyone's guess but he told them "everyone comes from somewhere and if you put work into this you can get out of it, you can give your family hope".

Tomorrow, Heffernan will be the object of more expert scrutiny at the IAAF Race Walking World Cup in China. The venue is Taicang, 50km from Shanghai. China's thriving 'national garden city' is home to half a million people and 1,500 foreign companies and its industrial horizon is softened by canals and millions of trees.

In local PR-speak they are proud of its 'harmonious and stable society' and having 65 citizens aged 100 or over, and it is has hosted an annual walking Grand Prix for the past decade.


National TV is broadcasting the event live as it features China's men's Olympic 20km champion Chen Ding.

With no walks in the Commonwealth Games, the World Cup is the highlight of this year's race walking calendar, though not for Heffernan.

That'll be the 50km in the European Championships in Zurich in August, but the 20km here is his other main race.

His training has been tailored for 50km but he hopes to "give it a good lash – I'm not using that excuse, you need to be competitive at everything".

He fears he won't be as strong, at the business end, as the top 20km Chinese and Russians, but another time of 1 hour 20 minutes, like his first race this year, would be world-class.

Becoming a world champion race walker brings little financial reward but there is money to be won in Taicang – from $30,000 to $6,000 for the first six home.

Yet despite Heffernan's new status, he's not expecting any extra attention. "Its just too relentless up the front to concentrate on anyone else. If you can't do it yourself you're going to be destroyed but look, if that's how they see me then bring it on."

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