Rob Heffernan’s achievements not diminished by Zurich disappointment

Only when Cork athlete realised 50km walk title was no longer attainable did he decide to give up

Hitchcock always said no drama should last longer than the endurance of the human bladder. He might have made an exception for certain sporting events, although he would surely have given up by the end of the 50 kilometre walk at the European Championships in Zurich.

It started out where Lake Zurich meets the city proper, in drizzling rain, which then turned to a torrential downpour, which then dried up completely so that it all finished in beautifully warm Alpine-scented sunshine.

They did 25 laps of a 2km circuit, essentially out and back 25 times from the start and finish, passing the same buildings and same faces, gorging themselves on as much water as they could stomach along the way.

Some of us in the small press tribune found the endurance of our bladder had already given up at around 10km, and again, at least two or three times, before the finish.


Others found time to head back to the Letzigrund Stadium, eight stops up the line on Red Tram 2, to check in on the heats of the 1,500 metres, and still make in back in ample time for the finish of the race.

Rob Heffernan was proudly introduced as "Welt-Meister" – which translates as "World Master", or simply World Champion to us.

He looked calm and quietly confident and even when the Russian duo of Mikhail Ryzhov and Ivan Noskov took off like rockets, the Frenchman Yohann Diniz quickly shifting into their slipstream, Heffernan didn't panic, and nor did we at that stage.

“This race doesn’t reach halfway until 35km,” Pierce O’Callaghan told us, a man who race walked countless miles for Ireland.

“And by that I mean the race doesn’t begin until the last 15km.”

Indeed around 25km, or the official halfway, Diniz looked to be in trouble, suffering from some sort of cramp.

Diniz suffering

First, he tried to stuff a bag of ice down the left side of his shorts, which appeared to do the trick for about two or three seconds.

Then, he started stuffing several wet sponges down the back of his shorts, as if the endurance of his bladder wasn’t the only thing giving up.

Diniz also made some strange gestures with his arms, already dodging some lapped walkers, suggesting he might well drop out at any moment.

Meanwhile Heffernan had moved up to third, and poised, it seemed, to move up on Ryzhov, who was still holding on to second.

Instead, Heffernan was rejoined by Noskov, the other Russian, and also Matej Toth from Slovakia.

Not long after that Toth and Noskov moved away, and the next time Heffernan passed us, in front of the small media tribune, he almost deliberately scratched his head, and so did we.

That was the first gesture which suggested he too might well drop out at any moment.

He wasn’t yet at the unofficial halfway of 35km: the race hadn’t even begun, and Heffernan already looked out of it. In or around that moment he reached one more time into the well, looking for the same source of motivation which drove him to his gold medal in Moscow, almost exactly one year earlier.

It just wasn’t there.

Every athlete, in any individual or team sport, knows how hard it is to put championship-winning seasons back to back, and race walking is no exception.

Hunger, drive, determination – sometimes intangible and yet always essential – invariably take a hit.

After Eamonn Coghlan won his World Championship title, in 1983, the following season was cut short with a stress injury.

When Sonia O’Sullivan won her World Championship title, in 1995, things fell even more dramatically apart the following year.

Heffernan could have found a long list of excuses to by-pass Zurich (a Moscow hangover, a time-out before Rio, a new baby daughter Regan to look after, etc, etc): instead, he was determined to be here.

He’d worked the best part of his 36 years to win that gold medal in Moscow, and a European title was perfectly and justifiably attainable.

That’s what we all thought.

Decision moment

Only when that European title was no longer attainable did Heffernan begin to think differently.

Just after 40km, he realised Diniz wasn’t slowing down, nor were any of his chasers.

Diniz was actually speeding up, about to pass the 42km mark – or a marathon, in old money – in just under the three hours mark.

Soon, Diniz would complete a hat-trick of European titles with the fastest 50km race walk in history, his three hours, 32 minutes and 33 seconds the first world record achieved at these championships since 1990 (when France set a world record in the men’s 4x100 metres relay).

So, shortly after passing 40km, Heffernan stopped at the drinks station, where his wife and coach Marian had been urging him on all morning, and he gave up.

There is no great shame in that, only the great disappointment, that Heffernan will harbour more than anyone else, that once his title hopes were shot, he had nothing else to shoot for.

In no way should that take from the World Championship title he delivered on in Moscow last summer, nor the European Championship bronze Heffernan is now due from the 20km walk in Barcelona, back in 2010, with the Russian gold medallist, Stanislav Emelyanov, now banned due to irregularities in his biological passport.

But if there’s one athletics event where you will only last as long as your mental endurance, not just your physical endurance, it’s the 50km walk, and the important thing now is that Heffernan doesn’t yet give up on defending his World Championship title in Beijing, next summer.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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