Sixth — for many it’s a nothing position, not quite close enough to be considered unlucky, though not so far away that a medal was out of sight.
For some, it’s a destination best forgotten the moment you leave town.
But not for Rob Heffernan. At his fifth Olympic Games, the 38-year-old has come to understand the value of top six. He knows it won’t ignite parades at home, that it won’t register much more than a blip on the national consciousness, but nonetheless he’s come to appreciate both the pain and prestige associated with such a performance.
Maybe we should too.
It could have been even better for the Togher native. The man who finished third, Japanese Arooki Arai, was initially disqualified following the finish, bringing Heffernan into top the five. However, last night it was announced that Arai had won an appeal and would net the bronze medal.
In his bid to crown his career with an Olympic gold medal, Heffernan found five men too strong on the scalding streets of Rio yesterday. He came home in 3:43:55, almost three minutes behind gold medallist Matej Toth of Slovakia.
“I’m around long enough to appreciate how good that is,” said Heffernan. “I have to be satisfied.”
The reality is that it could have been nothing. His fifth Olympics — and most likely his last — could easily have wound up with Heffernan’s legs opting out, which they often threatened to do under a scorching Rio sun.
The temperatures were already in the low-20s when the 80 athletes stepped to the line by the Pontal coast yesterday, and as the race developed they reached searing, sadistic levels.
But these are men with a high melting point, none more so than Heffernan, who positioned himself in the chasing pack as France’s Yohann Diniz charged off on his own — a move that would ultimately backfire — in the opening kilometres.
Diniz held almost a two-minute advantage at halfway, with Heffernan going through 25km in a group of eight. However, the French man’s race soon fell to pieces, the world record holder collapsing to the road before 35km only to rise again and complete the course a beaten, broken man.
At the three-quarter mark, Heffernan began to lose contact with the lead pack, the heat beginning to wreak havoc with his muscles and a litany of cramps tightening his body like a vice.
“I felt horrendous,” he said. “I was getting serious cramps and I had to stay conservative. So many people supported me at home. I was very aware that it wasn’t just for me, so I told myself, ‘OK you don’t have a medal, but you can still finish fifth or sixth. It’s good.’”
His wife, Marian, was on hand at the drinks station, offering technical cues and encouraging him to close the gap to the leaders, but Heffernan was involved in a high-stakes game with those cramps, and they weren’t folding.
“My heart and lungs were good but I was in agony. When I tried to up it, I went into spasm. My calfs were cramping, my arms, my groins, so you don’t know what to do. If you come to a stop the history books will say you didn’t finish, not that you came fifth, so I had to keep going,” said Heffernan, speaking after Arai had been disqualified before later being reinstated.
At the front of the race, the conditions began to create carnage among the leaders. Defending champion Jared Tallent built a sizeable advantage only to relinquish it in the last 2km, watching hopelessly as Slovakia’s Matej Toth powered on by to take gold in 3:40:58. Tallent held on for second, with Japan’s Hirooki Arai crossing the line third.
As he came across the line in 3:43:55, Heffernan smiled and waved to the crowd, soaking in the moment that may herald the end of his Olympic journey. Then again, it may not.
“People always go on about retirement, but if you’re able to be competitive and people are getting joy out of your performances, and I’m getting joy, why not keep going?” asked Heffernan.
“I didn’t look past today, but now I am. I’ll speak to Marian and the kids and see if they’re happy. That’s the most important thing to me, that we’re happy as a family.”
As Heffernan was pondering his future, the man most likely to take the baton from him, Brendan Boyce, crossed the line 19th in 3:53:59.
“I was hoping against hope I could get top 16 but top 20, I’m happy with that,” said Boyce.
“If I can keep training and improving, I should be in the top 16 and then top eight in the next four years.”
Ireland’s third competitor, Alex Wright, was forced to step off the course after 30km with a stomach ailment.
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