Heffernan hunger drives him on
IN his story The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, author Alan Sillitoe's main character remarks how " ... every run like this is a life - a little life, I know - but a life as full of misery and happiness and things happening ... "
While distance running is both physically and emotionally taxing, distance race walking seems to have the potential to be more psychologically demanding. And Rob Heffernan's career has long been one of the most fascinating stories in Irish athletics.
For the Cork 34-year old, the London Olympics will be his third Olympiad. In Beijing, he was one of Ireland's brightest medal hopes but finished eighth in the 20km event. This year, Rob reckons he's better prepared. Following a winter of sleeping in a specially adapted oxygen tent, he got stuck into high altitude training in the Sierra Nevada mountains with extra zest. "I was straight into it," he says.
"I averaged 100 miles a week for four weeks. My training's gone better than it's ever gone," he says. "I've done 250km more at this stage than before the last two championships."
Heffernan can look at his record in major competitions and know that the graph is still going up. Nobody mentions medals.
Instead, Heffernan fixes me with a steely-eyed stare and says: "I'm there to compete, not just take part. For the last 10 years of championships, I've always given it a go, mixed it with the group, gone with it and come back disappointed that I should be stronger here or there. I've been sixth, eighth and fourth twice."
He avoids discussion of personal targets, preferring to say: "My year is the same every year. I take October off and just do active recovery. From November, bar injury or illness, I can plan every single day of my training up until the Olympics. That's the difference from when I was younger. Robert Korzeniowski (Poland's winner of four Olympic titles) coached me for four or five years. Being in Poland and Spain, where sport is professional, as opposed to Ireland, you're motivated. Now all my cycles are planned all the way through to a championship."
It isn't the Cork accent that hints at the ruthlessness of Roy Keane. Heffernan is equally his own strict taskmaster. He learned what he could from his Polish mentor and moved on.
If you've never seen a race walker kick himself, you've never met Rob Heffernan. There's a lesson to be learnt from every race. "Before Beijing, I'd walked 38.27 for 10km on the track which was the ninth fastest time in history," he recalls. "In Beijing, I wanted to win a medal and made a break. I ended up finishing eight."
After all the hard preparation, is it difficult to control the emotions when in a race?
"It can be hard," admits Rob. "When I did my first 50km the pace was slow for me because I'd be a 20km walker. A gap opened and I kicked for home at 21 miles to go. I took an aggressive 20km mentality. Marian (his wife, pictured, a member of the women's 4x400m relay team) said, 'Watch your heart rate.'
"But I walked through a marathon in 3:06.00 and then absolutely crumbled. I was leading the race by eight minutes off pure emotion and not thinking of being smart. I ended up finishing third. I got passed with 200m to go and then I got passed on the line. I rattled. But it stood to me afterwards. You have to control your emotions when you're racing."
Apart from competitive instinct, what about stray thoughts? Would domestic or family matters intrude over long distances?
"When I raced in Spain three weeks after the death of my mother last year, it was the World Challenge final and everyone was there," says Rob. "I felt totally detached from everything. I just went hard from gun to tape. I broke the Irish record for 10km. But I had no feeling. You can use things to your advantage or you can over-complicate things."
In London, Rob will compete in both the men's 20km and 50km race walk. How different are the demands?
"They're totally different events," explains Rob, "20km is very fast and aggressive. If you make any wrong moves in the 50km, like getting your drinks wrong, going off too fast or making wrong choices, it can come back to haunt you. There's no hiding.
"The 50km is a great event to watch. You could have bluffers up to 40km.
"It's like poker. You see some fellas who you know don't have the work done and after 40km they... (he exhales).
"In the 50km, you have to be very focused, concentrate on your potential and go through it bit by bit."