Heffernan taking a walk on the wild side

World champion Rob Heffernan wants to help walking gain popularity in the US and today’s 107th Millrose Games in Upper Manhattan will give him that opportunity. He spoke to John Riordan

World champion Rob Heffernan in Times Square, Manhattan ahead of his New York debut today at the Millrose Games. Picture: John Riordan

This is the tough part, Rob Heffernan admits. He’s away from his new baby girl Regan for the first time since she was born late last month.

On the bright side, the world champion Corkman will make his New York debut at the 107th Millrose Games later today, following in the footsteps of Eamonn Coghlan and Marcus O’Sullivan, who are both still spoken about in reverential tones around these parts.

Their dominance of the Wanamaker Mile back when this prestigious annual indoor track meet was still held at Madison Square Garden remains the stuff of legend and Heffernan’s ambition now is to give walking as high a billing in the US as possible.

“I always remember the stories of Marcus O’Sullivan winning at Millrose, being a Coláiste Chríost Rí boy,” Heffernan told the Irish Examiner this week.

“And obviously watching the races Eamonn Coghlan won on YouTube — great stories. Obviously, I enjoyed last year and I have won 16 Irish indoor titles so I just decided I needed a change and to try something new and hope that maybe the Irish would pick up on it over here.

“Actually a Swedish competitor found out I was coming here to race so he decided he was going to come over too. He’d be quick over the shorter distances. Next year it could be bigger again. Millrose is huge — it’s just a good opportunity. There’s a good buzz here, good energy.

“It works both ways as well. It works for me and it works for the organisers. Everyone gets a piece of the cake then. When I threw the feelers out about going, I got a great response back. I’m coaching a few young fellas back home and maybe next year, we’ll have a group of four or five who’ll come over. We’ll see how it goes.”

Heffernan, who was awarded €40,000 yesterday by the Sports Council, is enjoying fatherhood even more having watched his older children Megan, 11, and Cathal, nine, bloom into young athletes themselves.

“If Marian didn’t support me and the kids too, I wouldn’t be able to travel like this. But yes it’s definitely the hardest part.”

And even though Megan (cross-country) and Cathal (sprint, long jump) have already shone at their age grades in Munster, he won’t be pushing them to follow in his footsteps.

“The sport is cruel. It’s too hard. If they’re doing it just to impress you, that will run out. You have to want to do it yourself. It’s a good lifestyle for them right now.”

Fatherhood has also helped him reflect on the toughest period of his career, the Athens Games disqualification in 2004, another in Helsinki the year after and an injury plagued 2006.

“I suppose when you’re younger, you don’t think of it as much,” he admits. “You’re more selfish. But when you’re older and you have your own kids and you see something bad happen to them, you’d feel for them so then you only appreciate that my disappointments were my family’s disappointments.

“I would have never thought like that when I was younger. It was just all me. You also realise that the people that support you get the same enjoyment out of it when you win, whether it’s your family or whoever invested in you.”

But he hasn’t managed quite yet to reflect properly on the most recent glory in Moscow. “I’m still a little uneasy with it,” he says. “It’s still very hard to take in. Because I’m still able to do it and I’m still motivated, I don’t reflect on it too much.

“Even coming over on the plane when I had seven hours to myself, I was going back over photos and thinking ‘this is mad’. I have had no time to stop and think about it really. It’s still a bit surreal. I know it happened but you just have to park it.

“I know the amount of work that it takes to get to that level so if you get complacent at all, you’re not going to get back there. So the big fear for me then is not being able to get back there. You need a healthy fear.

“I have a healthy fear about Saturday. It’s only a mile — what if my legs don’t move fast enough, what if people don’t think I look good? It’s February now, I’m not as tanned as I am in the summer!” he adds laughing.

Heffernan is obviously happy to be recognised as belonging to the upper echelon in the eyes of Athletics Ireland but is keen to deflect away attention on the sum of money parcelled out to him.

“Everybody focuses on the figures. For me that’s only one aspect. There’s so much more to it: the support, the environment they build around athletes, the camps, all the other vital services athletes need.”

While in Manhattan, Heffernan took time out to meet with the Irish community, hosted by the Irish Consulate and the Irish Network on Thursday night.

“They gave me a lovely welcome. It’s not my first time here but I was only here very briefly. So it’s a real eye-opener to meet the Irish living in the city.”

Earlier that day at his hotel in Midtown, Heffernan was smiling through the lack of sleep. Still a little jetlagged, he was keen to get over to Central Park and get his jog in despite that morning’s snowstorm.

“I’ll be grand,” he said defiantly before adding. “Are you sure? Anything is better than 12km on a treadmill!”

His preparations don’t need to be as intensive for this abridged event, that’s one advantage.

“Last year I set a PB for 3k but I knew — because I was training for 50k — I still had that power and that turnover, enough to have a knock-on from my 50k training to produce that explosive speed. It’s always that way whether you’re a 50k walker or running a marathon, you can’t just move up to it. You have to be very fast and then build your endurance on top of that speed. I know it’s only a mile. It’s not major but it’s still relevant.”

To the lay person, a sudden shift to what must seem like a 60-yard dash must play tricks on his body. How often does he throw his muscle memory out of whack like this?

“Very rare but I’ve always wanted to do Millrose because of that massive tradition of Irish athletes running over here,” Heffernan points out. “But also because walking’s not big in America. I always believed that if somebody is good at the event or even world class at the event, you can change people’s perceptions of the sport.”

As world champion, he’s well able to assume responsibility for spearheading this showcasing of his discipline.

“I just wanted to bring world class walking to Millrose Games and let this year be a foot in the door,” he acknowledges. “Then maybe next year they might increase the distance and there’ll be better fields there. You have to showcase the top athletes, especially in America.”

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