By Will Downing, Beijing
Rob Heffernan’s defence of the men’s 50m walk world title saw him finish fifth at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing, but the Corkman still felt it was a performance as good as his gold-medal win from two years ago.
Robert Heffernan after the Men’s 50km Race Walk. Picture: PA
Slovakia’s Matej Toth took gold after breaking away at the front barely a kilometre outside the stadium right at the start of the race, with thousands inside the Birds Nest for the 7.30am start.
Toth’s lead increased as the race went on, with Heffernan establishing a large chase group with Australian Jared Tallent.
As the kilometres would continue, that chasing bunch would be whittled down, either by the pace or though disqualifications, with 2012 Olympic silver-medallist Tallent pushing the pace the hardest.
Toth, who finished fifth two years in Moscow at the last World Championships, had opened up a lead of a minute before needing to take an urgent toilet break around halfway, costing the Slovak twenty seconds.
That opened the door for the seven-strong bunch to cut the margin to forty seconds, but it wouldn’t get any shorter, as the European silver-medallist from Zurich last summer kept pushing a tempo too strong for the rest.
Tallent had seen a number of attempted breakaways reeled in by Heffernan, but with the pack cut to four, the Australian put the foot down with 10km to go to open up a slight lead over the man in the green singlet.
The Irishman accelerated also, leaving the Japanese pair of Takayuki Tanii and Hirooki Arai behind in chasing down second place.
Tallent forced open a 10-second lead over the Leesider, but worse was to follow as with five kilometres to go, Tanii and Arai shot past the outgoing world champion, who never got back into the medals.
Toth came into a full Olympic Stadium well clear, with over 40,000 fans acclaiming him, and having put out a 3:34 earlier in the year, Toth’s winning time of 3:40:32 was still one minute 45 seconds faster than silver-medallist Tallent.
Tanii’s third-place gained Japan their first medal of Beijing 2015, with Arai fourth, and Heffernan fifth in a season’s best time of 3:44:17, one minute 22 seconds away from bronze and almost four minutes behind winner Toth.
Despite losing his world title, the Togher athlete is not disappointed.
Heffernan said immediately after the race: “Today is an excellent performance. After having two operations this year – and after having my second operation, there were complications for five weeks – I trained really, really hard the past couple of months to get myself in the best possible shape, and finished fifth in the world.
“(Considering) all of the problems I’ve had this year, it’s as good as winning in Moscow. It’s very positive.”
Referring to the hernia complaint that saw his European Championship campaign finish early in Zurich, Heffernan said: “I had problems last year and problems this year, so I had to be very composed.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen after 40k. It’s a huge platform for me for next year, not to be 100% and still finish fifth. In a lot of the race, I felt well within myself but missing those few little blocks of training cost.
“I’ve no doubt I’ll be back next year and back to where I belong.”
Due to next year being Olympic year, Rio will have walks, but the European Championships in Amsterdam won’t feature road races at all as part of the new two-yearly arrangement.
Brendan Boyce was progressing well in 15th when he received his third red card and was disqualified with 10km to go, while Alex Wright succumbed to injury inside the final eight kilometres.
Meanwhile, the Irish men’s 4x400m relay team set a new national record of 3:01.26 in finishing eighth in a fast semi-final.
The new mark is 0.41 seconds inside the record set in finishing fifth at the European Championships in Zurich last year.
The quartet of Brian Gregan, Brian Murphy, Thomas Barr and Mark English were always playing catch-up, and despite coming close to catching Brazil on the line in seventh, had to be content with the time but not the placing.
The United States won with a world lead 2:58.13, with Trinidad and Tobago second in 2:58.67 and Jamaica third in 2:58.69.
Not much consolation, but Ireland finished 13th overall and would have been fifth with that time in the other semi-final.
Double European medallist English said afterwards: “I think we all ran out of our skins today.
“It’s a great time and the standard over 400m is incredible this year so it was always going to be a challenge, but we held our own.
“We ran our own races, and we probably got the best out of ourselves today with the national record.”
World Universities 400m hurdles champion Barr felt the achievement was even more remarkable considering the conditions: “It’s hot and humid and it’s early in the day. The conditions are tough, we won’t deny it.
“Sure we came eighth in our heat but we ran a national record and we gave it our all.
“It was a privilege to be out there with some of those teams because they’re the top teams in the world, so even just to get here was one thing, but to break a national record in the process is amazing.”
Murphy wants Irish teams to be a permanent fixture at major international championships: “I think we can get a lot stronger.
“I’ve been around a long long time and I’ve been campaigning on behalf of this event for years. It’s worthy of investment and worthy of funding because nations that are similar to our own have got medals on a consistent basis – the Poles, the South Africans, the British, the Australians.
“We’re comparable in rugby terms with these countries. With further investment, there’s no reason why Ireland can’t do this for generations to come. It should be a permanent process.”
This morning’s results end Irish interest at the World Championships, the fifth-place and new national record will improve the complexion overall of a week where English and Barr made the only advances through the rounds, by reaching their respective semi-finals.