Rob Heffernan: win ‘felt like an out of body experience’

First Irish gold at World Athletics Championships since 1995

Nothing was going to stop him this time, all the agony of the past turning to pure ecstasy for Rob Heffernan this morning, with that ultimate crowning moment of becoming world champion.

Rarely has a gold medal performance in the men's 50km walk at the World Athletics Championships in Moscow looked so comfortable, and never has it been more deserving: fourth in the London Olympics last summer, with several other heartbreaks to go with that, Heffernan produced a truly flawless display in the heat and humidity of Moscow this morning, entering the old Luzhniki Stadium with what he described himself as "an out of body experience".

Heffernan’s time of three hours, 37 minutes and 56 seconds – just two seconds off his own Irish record – gave him over a minute to spare on the Russian Mikhail Ryzhov, but this was all about winning the medal, and they don’t come any sweeter with gold.

“It’s surreal, a great feeling,” he said, “and when I came into the stadium, it felt like an out of body experience. I was looking up at the screen, thinking ‘this fella looks good, like’... So I just rolled with it, and enjoyed the last lap, to be honest.


“But I didn’t get carried away at any part of the race. I was just working km to km. I didn’t get emotional about anything. The plan was to take it lap by lap, concentrate on different things, my head, my legs, my arms, then all the encouragement. Even when I was in the lead it made no different. I could have been in 10th. I was keeping it all for the last 10km. So it’s just a bonus, really, that I destroyed everyone.”

Heffernan had received one warning for “lifting”, but that in no way distracted him: he made his first bold break at 35km, and even with the warning, never needed to look back. He then broke free with his fastest 5km (21:18) of the race, between 35km to 40km, to open up a notable lead on the Russian, and that, as it turned out, was race over.

“It can shake you, the warning, but it’s part of the game. It’s not like you don’t prepare for it. And I was prepared for everything. I’ve been very, very motivated all year. Some people take their foot off the gas after Olympic year, but I was conscious of training even harder, and had to be more motivated because there was less hype for the World Championships, even though the competition is the same as the Olympics.

“I was prepared mentally, and physically. I went through every kilometre beforehand, and I’ve been saying all year this is my Rocky scenario, going to Moscow, to take on the Russians. That’s what I did, and it makes me very proud that an Irish man can come to Russia, and beat them.”

It comes, believe it or not, exactly 30 years to the day – August 14th – since Eamonn Coghlan won Ireland’s first gold medal, at the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki, over 5,000 metres. It was another 12 years before Sonia O’Sullivan matched that feat, winning the gold medal in the women’s 5,000 metres at the 1995 World Championships, in Gothenburg – but now Heffernan becomes Ireland’s only second ever men’s World Champion.

It will go some way to making up for his fourth place in London a year ago – but Heffernan doesn’t see that simply: when he crossed the line there after three hours, 37 minutes and 54 seconds, nearly eight minutes quicker than his own Irish record, his time would have won him silver in Beijing four years previously, and gold in every other Olympic 50km walk.

“People go on about medals, but for the last 11 years I’ve been challenging for medals. For some reason or another I hadn’t yet won one. I still thought I had a great performance in London, even though it wasn’t a medal. I did everything I could. I still performed. This year I just had a better support team, with my wife, Marian. So first today is the equivalent of fourth in London.”

If London was hard to stomach, it was nothing compared to what happened in Daegu, two years ago: having finished fourth in both the 20km and 50km walks at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona, Heffernan felt his time had come. Then three days before the championships started he got a call from home, to say his mother, Maureen, one his keenest supporters, had just died, suddenly, in a tragic domestic accident.

He didn’t need any reminding of that loss at the finish here: “Yeah, I was thinking about her, to be honest. People go on about the disappointment of sport. But when she passed away it was the saddest, saddest time of my life, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. When I was coming through today, feeling good, I realised you have to appreciate the good times, enjoy them while you can. You use that stuff for strength, of course. But this is a big turnaround from a couple of years ago.”

World Championships: Men’s 50km walk

1 Robert Heffernan IRELAND 3:37:56 WL
2 Mikhail Ryzhov RUSSIA 3:38:58 PB
3 Jared Tallent AUSTRALIA 3:40:03 SB
4 Ihor Hlavan UKRAINE 3:40:39 PB
5 Matej Tóth SLOVAK REPUBLIC 3:41:07 SB
6 Grzegorz Sudol POLAND 3:41:20 PB
7 Ivan Noskov RUSSIA 3:41:36 PB
8 Lukasz Nowak POLAND 3:43:38 SB
9 Takayuki Tanii JAPAN 3:44:26
10 Yohann Diniz FRANCE 3:45:18

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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