Mental challenge of 50km walk too tough for Rob Heffernan this time

World champion drops out after 40km as Yohann Diniz sets a new world record and completes a hat-trick of European titles

If everything had gone to plan Rob Heffernan was exactly where he intended to be. Standing at the finish of the 50km walk, on the banks of Lake Zurich, flags waving all around him, as he greeted Yohann Diniz, the French athlete who had won the last two European Championship titles.

Instead, Heffernan was standing there already dressed in his Irish tracksuit, his medal hopes broken not by the physical challenge, but the mental one, while Diniz, dressed in sweat and tears and various other bodily fluids, was hailed as the greatest 50km walk champion in athletics history.

No man had ever won three successive European titles in this event, and better still Diniz had just improved the world record by nearly two minutes – clocking a mightily fast three hours, 32 minutes and 33 seconds. That’s nearly six minutes faster than Heffernan has ever walked in his life, which even in an ultra-distance event like the 50km walk is a world apart.

Effectively quit

Now, Heffernan was in no way honoured or bound to be standing there to greet Diniz, but after his race ended some 10km earlier – admitting that he effectively quit, once his title chances were shot – it seemed fitting he at least pay suitable respect to Diniz, one of the men Heffernan broke to claim his


World Championship

title in


last summer (where Diniz finished 10th).

Here, Diniz responded to the mark of respect by kissing Heffernan's hand, and at that stage the Frenchman was dressed not just in his national flag, but the Portuguese flag, too, which he'd stopped to collect shortly before the finish as a final salute to his grandmother, from Portugal, who died earlier this year.

Even the most casual observers of this sport understand the unrelentingly grind of the 50km walk, and if the head is not up for that challenge, then no way will the body be. For Heffernan, that meant replicating the same mental fortitude which drove him to the World title in Moscow last summer: sadly, it was a lack of that mental fortitude which ultimately resulted in him dropping out.

“As a race, I just feel as if I got beaten up, and it just broke me,” he said. “It broke my spirit, broke me mentally. When I realised I just wasn’t going to pull them back, it just fell apart, genuinely fell apart. Mentally, I was gone, because when first and then second were gone from me, I just didn’t want third, or fourth. I came here to win, and that just wasn’t to be.

“Now maybe that attitude is wrong, and I’ll have to think about it, afterwards, to go forward. Because that’s only making an excuse. And I don’t want to make any excuse. The motivation just wasn’t there, that’s bad, and I’m not happy about it.”

Cut adrift

Indeed Heffernan was cut adrift right from the start, as Dinniz and the Russian duo of

Mikhail Ryzhov


Ivan Noskov

set off on world record pace. Heffernan held back, sensibly it seemed, and briefly moved up to third, around 20km. He then fell back to sixth, around 30km, where he struggled on for another 10km, before dropping out just after the 40km mark– accepting, reluctantly, that his medal hopes were utterly shot.

Part of the problem was that Diniz, who at 36 is actually a few months older than Heffernan, kept speeding up, instead of slowing down, his 3:32:33 shattering the world record of 3:34:14 which had stood to the Russian Denis Nizhegorodov since 2008. Matej Toth came through for silver, setting a Slovakian record of 3:36:21, with Noskov setting a personal best of 3:37:41 in third – both those times also quicker than Heffernan's lifetime best of 3:37:54.

Too fast

“I was smiling a bit all right, early on, thinking they’ve definitely gone off too fast,” said Heffernan, and for a while it looked as if Diniz would pay a high price for his relentless pace.

“Physically, I was fine. My heart rate, all of that. But once your head goes it’s very hard to stay going. Around 25k I realised Diniz was getting stronger and stronger, and probably wasn’t going to come back.

“But I expected they’d go out fast, and thought they were playing into my hands again. Then when they weren’t coming back I knew it was different. I know Diniz was dropping 4:06 per km, wasn’t slowing down, and you saw that. He broke the world record.

“So from that point of view my tactics were wrong. There was no way I was going to walk a world record. There’s nothing I can do when someone walks 3:32. I’m just not capable of that. It’s an unbelievable performance, but maybe I should have concentrated a little more on what I was capable of. I feel a bit naive over that. His performance shouldn’t have affected what I wanted to do.

“So I think maybe I should have held back even more, maybe then come through more. But again, if I was in third, I don’t think I would have cared. I’d no motivation. There was no motivation there.”

It wasn't just that he realised he wasn't going to win a European title to go with his World title: he also suggested that the bronze medal he is now due from the 20km walk at 2010 European Championships, in Barcelona, thanks to the retrospective banning of the Russian gold medallist, Stanislav Emelyanov, also ate into his motivation levels.

Bronze medal

“I think, after being told I’d be getting the bronze from Barcelona, it was like that box was ticked. Another bronze medal just didn’t appeal to me. If I was 22 or 23 years old, maybe I’d have driven on for sixth.”

Indeed he stopped first at 36km, consulting with his wife, and coach, Marian, who was commanding his drinks station.

“She just told me to get on the road again, that I had to finish. So I tried again, for as long as I could, but I was just broken. Nothing was happening for me. I wanted to win. I didn’t want to finish sixth.

“But look, I always said I’d continue on from here, for Rio, good, bad or indifferent. So we’ll see.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics