Wednesday 23 January 2019

One last roll of dice as Heffernan prepares to go all in

Heffernan: ‘It makes me f****** sick. These people don’t know me. It’s damaging’ Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Heffernan: ‘It makes me f****** sick. These people don’t know me. It’s damaging’ Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Cathal Dennehy

He doesn't know how it will end, but this is how he wants it to begin. It's Friday morning, August 19, and on the southern coast of Rio de Janeiro, Rob Heffernan is standing on the start line at his fifth Olympic Games. He looks across at his competitors in the 50km race walk, athletes he's raced and beaten before.

He sees nothing that scares him.

"I'd love to go there in fucking great shape," says Heffernan. "To be at my best, able to mix it with fellas and be cocky and arrogant again. I want to go out on a high."

For a man who conquered the world as recently as 2013, it seems a straightforward proposition, but the reality is more uncertain. Athletes, at heart, are gamblers - they roll the dice with their talent and training, lured by the vision of a huge win, usually blind to their astronomical odds.

Heffernan is no different. At 38, he knows the chances of him defeating the best exponents of his craft in Rio are slim, but he doesn't care. In a little over a fortnight, he goes once more unto the breach - three-and-a-half hours of mind-mashing agony await.

When we speak, he's halfway through a 180km week, deep in the valley of fatigue he's inhabited for the last two decades.

"I'm bate," says Heffernan. "When you're training this hard, you're fucked after it. Everything is bad. You're in for a massage and then going straight to bed. I love this time of year, though, because most fellas are tired and finished, but I'm all for the big day."

Time and again, the Corkman has played his best hand when the stakes are highest, homing in on a target 10 months in advance and funnelling his energy towards it in a monastic manner that borders on deranged. But it becomes harder to justify each year, at least when it doesn't result in a medal.

"It's very, very hard to really hurt and punish yourself," says Heffernan. "It's not age that holds athletes back; it's that they lose the desire to mangle themselves. You ask yourself: for what? The smaller competitions just don't do it for me anymore, but this time of year it's different."

For the past five weeks, Heffernan has been training in Guadix, Spain, where along with team-mates Alex Wright and Brendan Boyce, he's been churning out gut-wrenching sessions like 10 times 2km, 1km with a short recovery, or a 40km walk at his race tempo of 6:30 per mile - vomit-inducing stuff.

He's been accompanied by wife Marian, a former Olympian who helps with everything from massage to video analysis. In recent weeks Heffernan also flew out a physio, who works on him daily to keep his creaking limbs in motion.

He's also had several unannounced visitors. "The drug testers are my biggest friends," says Heffernan. "I see them more than my brothers or sisters. I've been tested 28 times this year. You see the money being spent on it, then I see the likes of Brendan Boyce living from hand to mouth; that's ridiculous. It's the complete opposite scenario to Russia."

The testers came three times in the first two weeks of his camp. They also rocked up to his hotel room at 6.0am on the morning of the World Race Walking Team Championships in May, extracting blood from his arm and watching him urinate in a cup just hours before his race.

It's par for the course at his level, though what's difficult to accept is having suspicion as a constant companion. Heffernan knows well what the whispers are, and he knows where they come from.

Javier 'Paco' Fernandez was considered one of the greats of race walking, at least until the day in November 2009 when Spanish police raided his home in Granada and found EPO, a blood-boosting drug with potent performance-enhancing qualities. Fernandez was banned for two years after admitting he purchased it from a doctor in a bid to maintain his performance, though he claimed he never used it.

Heffernan first crossed paths with Paco more than a decade ago, back when they trained together under legendary Polish race walker Robert Korzeniowski, a four-time Olympic gold medallist. Back then, Paco was the group's star, Heffernan an up-and-comer soaking up knowledge. In 2009, feeling he'd learned all he could, Heffernan returned to Ireland and set about building his own high-performance set-up.

He remained friends with Paco, shooting the breeze about training methodologies, learning how to periodise his year to create a well-timed peak. He sometimes trained with him while in Spain, viewing Paco as a fountain of knowledge, a guru on race walk technique, but more than anything, a friend.

"Growing up, you read about somebody doping and you think: 'fucking hang them, never ever let them back'," says Heffernan. "But when you know somebody personally, you see the human side. When people do something wrong, when they're your friends, you can't just leave them when they're down. I spoke to Paco and he said that he never doped, that the doctor was dodgy and he was implicated when the doctor sent a package to him, but he was always adamant to me that he never took drugs. He was the best technical walker ever, so if he's ever around and gives advice, you're always going to take the good out of the situation."

Earlier this year Heffernan was upgraded to an Olympic bronze medal from 2012 after gold medallist Sergey Kirdyapkin was retrospectively disqualified for doping. What should have been a day of celebration turned sour when he saw pockets of social media point to his association with Paco, hinting he was just as culpable as the cheats he had always railed so strongly against.

"It makes me fucking sick," says Heffernan. "These people don't even know me. It's damaging, because your kids are seeing this too and it's very, very hurtful."

In the wake of the scandals engulfing his sport last year, Heffernan released data from his biological passport, a longitudinal method used by anti-doping authorities to identify the effects of doping in the blood. Everything was normal.

Heffernan has often requested the same data from the Irish Sports Council as a means to check on any deficiencies. Though you can never prove a negative, he notes that his red blood cell values are consistently higher in the off-season, the times, he says, he is "not training and on the beer".

But what of him training in Spain and Morocco, two countries with a dire anti-doping record?

"People say there's doping in Morocco, and there probably is, but not where we are, not in our hotel room," says Heffernan. "There's also good roads, altitude, good weather and it's very cheap. If you go to a nightclub in town, there's going to be fellas next to you taking cocaine; it doesn't mean you do."

What bothers him most about doping in athletics is he believes it fosters a mentality among certain Irish athletes that they can't compete. He thinks back to Moscow 2013, that day he beat the Russians on their own turf, as proof that they can.

"What the Russians were doing, they get to that point a lot faster, but you can still get to that point clean," he says. "There are times, like what Kirdyapkin did, where you just can't compete against people on drugs, but there are so many areas we can improve."

He thinks back to his time with Korzeniowski, how at the end of the summer the Olympic champion would go to a recovery centre in Poland, leaving his family for three weeks for daily massage and cryotherapy sessions. That's how he spent the off-season.

"Everything was a process, and we don't have that mentality at home," says Heffernan. "When a fella makes a breakthrough at 21, 22, people get really excited and that person can get carried away and next thing they're injured. You're not going to make a racehorse out of a donkey, but from the age of 23 you need to just add on a little every year so in their late 20s, early 30s, they're really, really strong."

Heffernan's career is testament to that approach and as he stands on the brink of his fifth Olympics, his ambition is as bright as ever.

"People go on about the taking part but in the high performance world, you need to be training to win," he says. "Otherwise you're only a journeyman."

He may already be an Olympic bronze medallist, but Heffernan doesn't want to lay his hands on it until after Rio. After all, a hunter moves faster with an empty stomach.

"To do [the presentation] before the Olympics, you might be taking your eye off the ball and become a bit lax," he says. "You need to be really hungry."

For Heffernan, that's never been a problem; he'll want it as much at his fifth Olympics as he did at his first. He doesn't know how it will end, but that's the thrill of it. One last roll of the dice.

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