Walkers bid to salvage Irish pride at World Championships

No way of dressing it up, it’s been a poor championships so far for the Irish, meaning tomorrow’s race walks again represent the one remaining chance at a storybook ending.

Of the eight Irish athletes to compete so far, only one has managed a top-20 finish: Brian Gregan in the men’s 400m, who placed 19th overall after bowing out in the semi-finals.

Others, like Ciara Mageean, Mark English, and Síofra Cléirigh-Buttner, all fell at the first hurdle, bowing out in their heats after being well off their season’s bests for a variety of reasons.

On the roads, Mick Clohisey and Claire McCarthy exceeded expectations in the marathon, finishing 22nd and 33rd respectively, though Seán Hehir cut a dejected figure when coming home 63rd in the men’s race, the wheels falling off his performance after finding himself unable to hold down drinks due to stomach problems.

That means, once again, that it all comes down to the race walkers, the trio of Rob Heffernan, Brendan Boyce, and Alex Wright.

Heffernan and Boyce are first up, the training partners going in the 50km race walk at 7.45am, and if there is to be any Irish presence on the medal table here in London, this is where it will happen.

Heffernan has arrived in London in confident mood, and in the absence of Olympic champion Matej Toth — who is under investigation for an alleged doping offence — and 2012 Olympic champion Jared Tallent — who injured his hamstring earlier this week — the runway appears cleared for Heffernan to make a big landing.

In this event, the formbook is essentially useless entering the championships, such is the infrequency of the leading contenders’ races, but Heffernan has made confident noises in recent weeks about the quality of his training. In May, he finished a decent 13th in the European Cup of Race Walking in Podebrady, Czech Republic, and while he found himself outpaced on that occasion by younger, faster rivals over 20km, it’s in the 50km event that the 39-year-old’s true engine comes into its own.

Over the course of a two-decade career at the top level, he has developed a knack for peaking at the right time, as exemplified when he claimed an Olympic bronze medal in 2012 and the world title in 2013. At the Olympics in Rio he came up two minutes shy of the medal rostrum, finishing sixth, but such is the deterioration of the line-up here in London that a similar effort may well land him a medal.

Undoubtedly he will be considered an outsider compared to younger, more progressive types like Canada’s Evan Dunfee and Japan’s Hirooki Arai, who both finished ahead of him in Rio and should do so again here. If any event is a lottery in this sport, however, it is this.

Brendan Boyce, who has walked almost every step with him in training this year, is not the same calibre of athlete as Heffernan, but the 30-year-old Donegal man has made giant strides in recent years and should be in contention for a top-10 finish, if indeed he managed to shrug off injury worries which had troubled him earlier this week.

“I feel like I’m in shape to go fast,” said Boyce. “If I can walk in around 3:44, it would be a four minute PB and I feel like I’m capable of that.

“That’ll put me in the top eight or 10. If I’m outside the top 12 I’ll go home disappointed.”

Later in the afternoon, Alex Wright competes in the 20km race walk, and despite facing disqualification at the national championships a fortnight ago, the Leevale man should feel capable of a top-20 finish after impressing with a PB of 1:21:17 earlier this year.

The highlight on the track tonight will be Mo Farah’s attempt to crown his track career with a gold medal in the men’s 5000m final at 8:20pm, while in what most believe will be his last ever race, Usain Bolt will try to carry Jamaica to victory in the men’s 4x100m final at 9:50pm.

Irish in action

Tomorrow: 7:45am Rob Heffernan, Brendan Boyce, men’s 50km race walk.

2:20pm: Alex Wright, men’s 20km race walk.


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