Robert Heffernan leads the 50km race walk at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Personal bests – Robert Heffernan

With the 2015 IAAF World Race Walking Challenge having started on Sunday (22), there is no better time to ask Robert Heffernan about his ‘personal bests’.

After just missing out on making the podium at several major international championships, the popular Irishman claimed an emotional gold medal in the 50km race walk at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow.

My best achievement in athletics

In the very public arena of a World Championships it would have to be Moscow. Yet I have so many personal achievements beyond the Olympic Games and World Championships which mean so much to me.

I recall that between 2003 and 2006, I had no finishes at major championships and I was diagnosed with injuries. I remember qualifying for the 2007 World Championships in a really low-key competition in Copenhagen; that performance helped get my career back on track. At the time it was a massive achievement.

My best friend in athletics

His name is Ray Flynn, not be confused with the famous Irish ex-miler of the same name. He’s a little guy from Sligo county in Ireland. He treated me the same when I became a world champion as when I was aged 19. He has become a great friend and a father figure to me, and he was an usher at my wedding.

I first got to know him when I was a younger athlete and he was a race walking official. He used to wear a duffel coat, a woolly hat and a pair of wellies to the meetings. He is now the Athletics Ireland chairman of high performance. He is just a real athletics man and we have become good friends.

My biggest disappointment

I was very disappointed to miss out on a medal in the 50km race walk at the London Olympics (Heffernan finished fourth). I put everything into that race and I remember feeling a massive loss, almost like a death. I thought, “Am I ever going to win a medal?”

I would also say after the European Championships in Zurich last summer (when he failed to finish the 50km race which was won in a world record by Yohann Diniz) I was at a very low point for two or three months. It was only when I was diagnosed with a hernia that I saw light at the end of the tunnel.

My best piece of advice

It was when I was coached by Robert Korzeniowski (the four-time Olympic champion), his philosophy was ‘don’t be distracted by the lights’. What he meant by that was, just keep focused on what you have to do. Don’t get carried away, and keep things simple.

My greatest rival 

If you only focus on one rival or a group of rivals from one country then someone else will pop up and surprise you. I think you need to respect everybody because if somebody drops their guard it gives someone else the opportunity to take the big stage.

My biggest indulgence

I love pints of beer, wine and cake. So for me, it takes massive discipline to abstain from alcohol. Now, I never drink alcohol during a training period and I cannot eat as much as I used to during the off-season. If I do drink, I will have a non-alcoholic drink to relax.

My best training venue

I train at Fota Island in Cork. It is like a sanctuary. It has beautiful roads and trees and is very peaceful. I also do a lot of training in Guadix in Spain, it’s another place I love to train.

My best competition venue

I loved the London Olympic course. I really felt the energy from the British and Irish fans. There was so much happy energy, it made London a very special place. It was magic.

My greatest regret

I don’t regret anything in my career because I have always learned from the experiences and anything that helps me became a better and more mature person has to be a good thing. The Robert Heffernan of today would look back and laugh at the Robert Heffernan who competed at the Sydney Olympics. I don’t have any regrets and that is why I have had such longevity in my career because I have always learned and tried to better myself.

My best achievement outside of athletics

Marrying my wife, Marion, who has been such an amazing support to me.

Steve Landells for the IAAF

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