Retirement. Or, as Brian O’Driscoll described it earlier this month, the afterlife.
O’Driscoll laughed as the word left his mouth but the inference was clear: for a sportsperson the thoughts of reaching the end of their career on the pitch, track, road or court can fill the soul with equal parts dread and sadness.
Most are led away reluctantly. Injury makes the call all too often and Father Time catches up with most of the rest, but then there are those who can step outside themselves, run the numbers and lean on hard facts rather than emotion.
Marian Heffernan did just that.
It’s just over a year since the 31-year-old Cork athlete drew the curtains on a career that had peaked just months earlier with an appearance at the 2012 London Olympics in the 4x400m relay.
She was already an integral cog in the system that had propelled husband Rob to a fourth-place finish in the 50km walk at the same Games. The only difference now was that she could contribute even more.
No emotion. Just logic.
“In sport you have to be very, very realistic because it is taxing if you are flogging a dead horse,” she said. “You have to ask yourself what are the gains you are going to get if you carry on in your sport for another year or five years. How far am I going to get?
“So, after the Olympics there was the European and world indoors and I had done them, you know? Other than going and winning a medal, which I am not going to be able to do, I can’t do any more in the sport.
“It is brilliant to go to these competitions, to do the training and have that structure and compete at such a big championships but for the same gains you can step back and be happy with what you have done.
“I knew Rob had help before London and it was really good for what it was but there were so many areas where we thought ‘this is wrong, this worked, this didn’t work’ and we were able to approach 2013 and say ‘this can’t happen again’.”
You can talk about the loneliness of the long-distance runner or walker, but the Heffernans are proof of the fact that anyone hoping to conquer the world in their chosen pursuit requires a cottage industry behind them.
Other coaches, physios, masseurs, agents, sponsors and government sports bodies all crop up in conversation in a chat with Marian, whose own role could never be corralled into the limitations of one or two words. Wife. Mother to two of Rob’s children. Qualified sports therapist. Marian has always brought numerous strings to a bow that propelled her husband to the heights and the pair have made the operation work.
After years of effort and nearly-but-not-quite-enough efforts at major competitions that saw him within touching distance of podiums, Rob won the World Championships in August, nine months after Marian hung up her spikes.
Marian was already four months pregnant with their second child — and Rob’s third — at the time. Baby Regan duly arrived in late January and she was just a week old when mum brought her along to work with her dad.
The detail and dedication required to balance an operation supporting a world champion as well as young children is one only other parents can truly appreciate, if not gasp at. Rob’s season will kick off next month in Lugano, take in a month’s altitude camp in South Africa, pick up pace with the World Cup 20km in China in May and really hit its stride with the European Championships in Zurich next August.
Competition and training schedules are worked out a year in advance, communications flow forward and back with their support team that is based in Cork, Dublin, Belgium and Spain. And, of course, nappies and schoolbags must be emptied and filled.
“There’s a lot in but it’s nearly automatic because it’s our life,” added Marian. “I don’t see it as work. It’s hard when you’re trying to balance a marriage, being a parent and coaching, but it’s working.”
Not only is it working, it is working better than ever. Every session, race, trip and camp is shaken down for an extra grain of knowledge that will improve Rob as a walker. Their operation is as smooth as his stride last summer in Moscow. But for how long?
Rob has been on the international circuit nearly 20 years, his wife has been running since the age of seven. He will be 37 at Rio in 2016 but Marian believes his travels need not end there.
“I genuinely think there is another Olympics in Rob and after that if he wants to go on and enjoy a year at a championships we will decide that then, but he hit the nail on the head in London: it was the first 50k he trained specifically for and he was fourth.
“He put in another year and ended up winning the worlds last year but the set-up he has now is fantastic. He has tried for years to get this system together in Cork and he has done it the last two years.”
Quite the team, all told.
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