Nothing was going to derail Robert Heffernan’s goal of winning the world 50km race walk title yesterday — not even his own team-mate knocking him down while driving behind him on a 40km walk at a high altitude training camp in Ifrane, Morocco back in April.
Heffernan put aside a series of fourth place finishes, including at last year’s Olympic Games, to triumph on the humid roads of Moscow before entering the Luzhniki Stadium for the final 600m and breasting the tape in 3:37:56 in what he described as his very own ‘Rocky’ moment.
“I wanted it to be the Rocky scenario in Russia,” said Heffernan, alluding to Rocky IV where the Italian Stallion took on Ivan Drago behind the then Iron Curtain.
“I wanted the Rocky story: the man who came from Cork, from Togher, to beating the Russians in Russia.” Heffernan, the Douglas dynamo, did just that finishing just over a minute clear of Russia’s Mikhail Ryzhov (3:38:58).
Australia’s Jared Tallent notched up his fifth medal in Olympic or World Championships competition by taking the bronze in 3:40:03.
Conditions were difficult with high humidity after overnight rain but Heffernan has trained meticulously, only missing six days’ training since London and well used to the heat having trained in Guadix, Spain for the last 10 years.
“Conditions were good. They were no problem for me,” said Heffernan.” This year my training went well and I was in the physio room the other night and Emma [Gallivan] checked me and I’m like, ‘I have no excuses. There’s no excuse at all this year’. Out of the whole year this year I missed six days and it’s the most I’ve missed in three years — three years and I was nearly suicidal.”
Yet the glory of Moscow could have all been undone in a tragic comedy on a windy day in the Moroccan mountains when promising Leevale race walking junior Luke Hickey, who was driving a support car, lost attention as he had to man the drinks for him and Brendan Boyce — who finished 25th yesterday in a new personal best of 3:54:24.
“I was running beside him and next thing he was on the bonnet,” said David Campbell who was resident physio on the camp and a former international 800m runner.
“It was a windy day,” said Hickey picking up the story. “It was really windy and Rob was looking for cover from the car to block the wind. I was doing the drinks but I was looking after Brendan also and he was a kilometre back. It was at around 24 kilometres and I was trying to sort the drinks. I looked down and then suddenly I look up and Rob is on the bonnet. I pulled up the hand break and he came off. Thankfully he got straight back up. He gave me a bollocking and got going again. And I was left thinking, ‘What am I after doing’?”
Heffernan, ever the pragmatist, applied a simple logic to his race that looped around a two-kilometre circuit yesterday.
“I was focused from the first kilometre,” said the newly crowned champion. “I was focusing on my legs. Then on the next K I focused on my hips and from there to my arms.
“I said at 40km, ‘I’m going to bury him [Ryzhov]’, but I started to go into the lead at 39km. At 40km I said, ‘I’m going to keep on working’. I had markers on the road.
“You feed off some of the stuff and you take the lead and people just expected me to be there and I just felt as if I grew and grew and grew as the race went on.”
Heffernan believed his support team on the course, his wife Marian and Ray Flynn, grew throughout the race also.
“Everybody with me grew and they were more composed as well. Marian and Ray on the drinks table were very composed. Marian is very objective with things and they were just set and it was just do what you are doing,” said Heffernan, who after 40km looked like a champion in waiting as long as he didn’t get disqualified for wavering from his near faultless heel toe technique — he only received one warning despite fears he had picked up a second.
Race walkers are disqualified for three red cards.
“There was nobody getting carried away and I just took it bit by bit,” said Heffernan as he edged closer to glory.
“It was great. You don’t want to fall apart. If you’re body is able to do it you’re able to do it. ‘Just keep on working in the here and now’, I thought and ‘don’t try to think too far up the road’.”
Up the road was the Luzhniki Stadium and a motivation to prove Polish race walking legend Robert Korzeniowski, his hero and former coach, wrong.
“Robert was probably my biggest inspiration and the biggest hero in the sport,” said Heffernan. “And he’s done so much for Irish walking, but he was also my biggest motivation today because he said four years ago that I would never do a 50km — that I wasn’t mature enough and I was too erratic.”
Heffernan was a 20km specialist at that point but was set to prove Korzeniowski wrong.
“It was weird coming into the stadium and seeing myself on the big screen and thinking, ‘I look good, like’.”
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