Rob Heffernan hungry to defend 50km title after rekindling fire in belly

Cork man feeling confident having trained for month in Atlas Mountains

The last thing Rob Heffernan needs is any reminder of how difficult it is to defend a World Championship title. Especially in the 50km walk. In the longest athletics event, where so much can – and often does – go wrong, all predictions sound perilous.

What is certain is that Heffernan has got himself to Beijing in the best possible shape to defend that 50km title won two years ago in Moscow. There, he was the relative outsider, beating the all-conquering Russians on their own territory – and it's since been revealed that almost all of those Russian walkers were systematically doping.

Coming here, at age 37 and having failed to finish last year’s European Championships in Zurich, it’s been about rekindling that competitive fire. The 50km walk sets off at 12.30am on Saturday morning (7.30am Beijing time), and having spent the entire month of July training at altitude in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, Heffernan believes he’s primed to challenge for another title.

Everything possible

“I’ve trained very, very hard the last month,” he said. “It was very isolated in Morocco, very tough, but what I needed. I believe in doing everything possible, legally – and everything out there was about training, sleeping, recovering.


“I want to defend that title. I want to win a medal. Ever since 2001, when I started filling out forms for the Irish Sports Council, winning a medal at the major championship has been my only goal of the season. It’s important as well that I control what I can control, which is my performance.

“I don’t feel under any more or less pressure than Moscow. Because I always went to Moscow believing that I could win a medal. Again, I just need to keep the eye on the prize. The Chinese will still be very strong.

"Matej Toth from Slovakia has walked 3:34.48 this year, which is a phenomenal time. You'll always have new guys with motivation. But I feel I've my own bit of arrogance back."

There is still one Russian entry, Aleksandr Yargunkin, who is not part of the Russian walking camp that threw up some 20 positive doping tests over the last year.

One of those was Sergey Kirdyapkin, who won the 50km walk at the 2012 London Olympics, where Heffernan finished fourth. The process of retrospectively awarding Heffernan that bronze medal is still underway, although Heffernan insists he has never let the doping issue cloud his approach.


“I don’t really worry about who else is out there. It’s about getting my mentality right. I need to completely focus on what I have to do. I hear about all these doping allegations, especially in Russia, and I think to myself, ‘sure I’ve already known this the whole time’. I’ve been at the receiving end of it for a long time. But I know I can’t focus on it, because I know if I do what I can do, I’ll still be in the mix.

“I’ve had two hernia operations since Zurich. The start of the season was all about qualifying for the Rio Olympics. Once I got that, the second half of the year was all about Beijing. The training has gone as well as I expected, so if everything comes right on the day, mentally and physically, I believe I can give a very good performance, get a very solid result.”

There was, however, the not ideal send off at the National Championships in Santry three weeks ago, where Heffernan found himself disqualified around halfway through the 10km distance. “There was, maybe, some technical issue at 3.50 per km. But I race 50km at 4.20 per km. So that’s a 30-second difference. So there shouldn’t be any technical issues over 50km. It’s always different coming down to 10km.”


Along with Toth, there's a trio of Japanese and Chinese who have all walked faster than Heffernan's season best of 3:48:44 (he's actually ranked 12th of the event entries). But with the world record holder Yohann Diniz from France absent through injury, if Heffernan can reproduce the 3:37:54 he walked in Moscow then a medal is certainly possible. But that's still a perilous prediction.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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