by ELLIOTT DENMAN
MOSCOW – They kept asking Robert Heffernan how he was going to celebrate his gold-medal performance in the 14th World Championships of Track and Field and he kept telling them “I have no idea whatsoever.”
“How can I even think about something like that at a time like this?” he responded.
“Don’t you know I’ve been institutionalized the last three weeks?”
You wouldn’t think a man would have his quick wits about him after pouring out his guts for the previous three hours, 37 minutes and 56 seconds, but that’s not Robert Heffernan.
He’s downright serious about what he does best – which is walking great distances with all possible speed – but he’s a bundle of good humor once he takes off his racing shoes.
“I don’t get the abuse I used to (once heaped on him by fellow Cork residents) when I go on my training walks,” he said.
“The idiots are no longer about. I guess they know what I do by now. And I guess some of them may even know that I’m pretty good at it.”
If they don’t, they should be ashamed of themselves.
While so much of Ireland’s great athletics heritage has been built by the golden achievements of its runners – think Ronnie Delaney, Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan, Ray Flynn, John Treacy, Sonia O’Sullivan – let it be known that it’s those who do not choose to run at all who are keeping Ireland on the athletics map these days.
Just two Irish athletes had ever won gold medals at the thirteen previous editions of these Worlds – that was Eamonn Coghlan in 1983 and Sonia O’Sullivan in 1995, both as 5000-meter runners.
But walkman Heffernan made it three Wednesday, the fifth daily session of the 14th Worlds, and did it in inspirational fashion.
A pre-Worlds eat-breathe-walk-sleep-and-not-much-more training camp in Spain – where Heffernan had been “institutionalized,” as he called it, had paid off incredibly.
Yes, Robert Heffernan had won the longest and toughest event on the World Championships program – that’s the 50-kilometer racewalk, and don’t you marathon-aholics out there dare say otherwise – in fantastic fashion and he beat the Russians at their own game in the process.
The host team had walked off with top honors in the two 20K walks held days earlier in the Worlds -with Aleksandr Ivanov and Yelena Lashmanova – and some locals were predicting that 21-year-old Mikhail Ryzhof would make it a Russian triple, too, by beating off the outlanders and walking away with the 50.
There was no way that Robert Heffernan was going to let that happen.
No way in the world.
The EverReady Bunny of the 14th Worlds reeled off 10 consecutive 5Ks of amazingly
consistent pace to win it.
He was satisfied “staying with the boys” for the first 10K – walked in pack fashion – and still had some close company up to the 30K mark before saying his goodbyes (and maintaining the approval of the majority of the event’s judges.)
These 5K “split” times pretty much tell his story: 22:37, 22:15, 22:13, 21:53, 21:36, 21:43, 21:29, 21:18, 21:22 and 21:30.
Yes, that was amazing consistency by a man who’s had some consistently tough luck in earlier stages of his career.
He would have been a top 50K medal candidate at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu and was trained to a fine pinnacle as the race approached.
This sad story saw Heffernan flying back to Ireland before he could even compete – rushing back when he’d heard the news of his mom’s tragic accident. She’d fallen down steps and died as a result of the injuries.
At the 2012 London Olympics – just across the Irish Sea from being on his home turf – he again walked superbly, but not superbly enough to catch bronze medalist Si Tianfeng of China, who got under the wire – and onto the podium – with just 38 seconds to spare on Heffernan’s 3:37:54.
Rather than being discouraged by that near miss, Heffernan resolved to train harder than ever before in the buildup to Moscow.
And everything paid off in golden fashion “on the day.”
“Coming into the stadium (with Ryzhov comfortably second) I was watching myself on the big screen and thinking ‘this fella looks good.’
‘When I came into the stadium, it just felt like an out-of-body experience.”‘
“It’s surreal,” he called his first post-finish line thought.
But true it was. This was really, truly happening.
“There’s not a more deserving champion than Robert,” said Irish 50K teammate Brendan Boyce, who placed 25th in 3:54:24, in the 62-walker field.
“When I saw him walking into the stadium (thanks to the huge video board along the loop course), “tears came to my eyes. I almost stopped for a moment, I felt so emotional about it.”
When it was all over, under the stands, fellow survivors of the 50K trek limped by, their own efforts fortunately over, virtually all of them in awe of the Heffernan effort.
“A truly deserving winner,” 3:40:03 bronze medalist Jared Tallent of Australia, called him. .
“Bloody darn good,” Andreas Gustafsson of Sweden, 39th in 4:01:40, told him.
Hugs and kisses abounded everywhere in his post-race walkabout.
Those of wife Marian, of course, were sweetest of all.
She is a former Irish national 400-meter champion and ran the 4×400 relay at the London Olympics.
They are expecting a child in five months’ time.
The kid, obviously, is destined to be a winner.