World champion, Olympic medallist, husband, father, and coach — for Rob Heffernan, there seems little left to accomplish, but the 39-year-old will nonetheless take to the start line in London tomorrow morning desperate for a medal in what will likely be his last hurrah as a race walker. Can he rescue a mediocre world championships for the Irish?
Q: After coming sixth in the Olympics at the age of 38, what brought you back for another year?
A: I wasn’t satisfied. The Olympics were such a washout that it would have been bad to leave on that note, whereas London is going to be huge. The appeal of going was for the impact it has for athletics in Ireland. It’s the last opportunity for people to see me race and it’s an opportunity to say thank you to everybody. I got so much support over the years off people and they’re all going to be there. But it was a tough decision to come back, committing to that lifestyle for another 11 months.
Q: Does it get harder due to the age or is it more about motivation?
A: It’s very hard to motivate yourself year after year. I’m trying to just get back to a level and you know you’re not improving because that level was so high. You’re just trying to get within one or two percent. There’s no buzz out of training, it’s monotonous. When you’re coming through you’re getting personal bests in training which spurs you on, but now you’re just waiting for one day in the year. The desire to hurt is what people lose when they get older. I got through the training so I need to be ready to go to war on the day, to enjoy the suffering.
Q: How have your preparations gone?
A: It’s been good. I’ve been training down in Fota Island for the last 10 days. There’s too much activity at home with the kids, so I can stay focused there but I’m close enough that they could come see me. When you do your training you have to have no responsibilities — train, rest, and have a bit of craic to distract the mind — because you have to concentrate so hard when you’re doing key sessions. It’s miserable.
Q: Who’s been part of your coaching setup?
A: Marian [Heffernan’s wife] took a step back after Rio. She’s working out of Douglas now with her own sports injury clinic and she’s flying. Her clientele is building up and our marriage is becoming more normal because she doesn’t have the demands of working with me. When she took a step back, there was a massive void. I flew over to Scotland and met up with Stuart Hogg, who coached Marian and was high-performance minded. He was a man to bounce ideas off and he was over and back to Cork all winter. Liam O’Reilly came back on board too and he’s with me most days. They understand the mentality and highs and lows of training. You need people like that because you’re never as objective with yourself.
Q: On the build-up to championships, what is life like?
A: Well, I haven’t slept in my own bed in nearly two months because I’ve an altitude tent [in a cabin] out the back. Then I was training in Guadix, Spain, for three weeks and the last few weeks I’ve been sleeping in the altitude tent in the log cabin. They’re the harder commitments you have to make at a high-performance level. I’ve hit max weeks in training at just under 200km, then doing sessions like 14x1000m in recent weeks. I’m ticking the boxes in training but you can’t take anything for granted. It’s the desire and being willing to hurt on the day: will it be there?
Q: Do you get as excited going into a huge event like this as you did 10 or 15 years ago?
A: I love the fight. I’m looking forward to going out the road and it’ll take a good man to beat me if I’m on. Once I can perform, I don’t care about anyone else, and if I can do that and someone beats me, I’ll give them respect because they’re a bigger man. But if I can perform to my best, I’ll always go away happy.
Q: There’s been lots of recent underage success in Irish athletics. What must be done to bring that to senior level?
A: There are more educated coaches these days and we have the raw talent but you need to have the mentality to bring them into the high-performance world and the lifestyle they have to live. It’s about getting the new batch of athletes coming through and not getting them caught up in the fake social media stuff. I wouldn’t be as good with 15/16-year-olds because I’m so abrupt, and the way things are gone they’d say Rob is bullying, but this is the reality of life: once you’re 19 or 20 and you’re with me, this is how it is. I would make people accountable. Mentors are also crucial to steer people in the right direction. When Sonia [O’Sullivan] messages me I still get excited; it’s a bit of a buzz, and people like that are important.
Q: Would you see yourself working in athletics whenever you retire?
A: Yeah, I love it. It’s something I’m passionate about developing when I’m finished, to go around to schools and maybe develop an endurance hub in Cork. It’s something I’ll always be involved in.
Q: Will London be your last championships?
A: I don’t want to think about it right now. I just want to be completely focused so I’m not looking beyond it. I had a meeting with [Athletics Ireland CEO] John Foley a couple of months ago about what I want to do with them and he was very positive about setting up a hub. I’d like to put my energy into developing other areas in the sport. I’ll see what the options are after.
Q: What are your hopes for Sunday’s race?
A: It’s different to what came before because I’m 39 now, but I’m looking at this as an opportunity. There are new fellas there and I want to go out ready to fight and ready to hurt. Hopefully I’ll be in the mix again. Feck everything else that’s gone before because that’s always going to be there; this is a whole new challenge and hopefully it’s going to go well.
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