Having previously chatted to Claire Bergin, James Sullivan is back with an interview with another of the Irish women’s 4x400m relay quartet, Marian Heffernan.
Marian Heffernan is an elite sprinter from County Cork, Ireland. She is currently a member of the Irish 4x400m relay team which finished 12th at the recent World Athletics Championships in Daegu. Her PB of 53.10 seconds places her 5th on the Irish all-time list over 400 metres. She is married to elite Irish racewalker Robert Heffernan.
James: Thank you for taking the time to talk to The Running Review. Easy question first, how did you first get involved in athletics?
Marian: I got involved quite young, at the age of 7. At our local club Mahon A.C. it was 50p to train twice a week in the boy’s school. Most of my friends were involved too so I have great memories starting off in the sport.
James: Did you have a particular athletics idol growing up?
Marian: Sonia O Sullivan was a huge hero of mine growing up. Being from Cork she was an inspiration. She had a simple background but was just a really hard worker and an even harder racer. Growing up I had it in my head that she was from Cork and she was doing it, so why couldn’t I.
James: At what moment in your life did you realise that athletics would become more than just a hobby for you?
Marian: After I had my son Cathal, I realised that I had taken my foot off the gas and if I was going to keep it up, the sacrifice would need to be worth it. Rob put me in contact with a very good friend of his Stuart Hogg. His programme along with his high performance approach has given me steady improvements each year.
James: At the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, you were a member of the Irish team which finished 12th in the 4x400m relay, and smashed the national record in the process. Can you put that experience into words?
Marian: One word, “Magic”. I couldn’t have shared it with a better team. It’s a great feeling going out on the track knowing that all the girls wanted it just as much as I did.
James: Are there any specific races the team is targeting in the lead-up to the games to help secure qualification for London?
Marian: We are looking to race in Europe in June and we also have the European Championships in July. Both these races will be big factors in getting to London.
James: How strong is the competition for places in the women’s 4x400m relay at the moment?
Marian: It’s pretty strong across the board. Europe is probably the strongest continent in the world, but Olympic year is huge so countries will pull out all the stops in order to make it to London.
James: Away from your event, how did you enjoy the experience of being part of the Irish athletics team in Daegu?
Marian: It was great. The team were predominantly older so everyone was in their own groove and were well experienced, making it really relaxed. The management team also were a great help to myself and Rob and made a really hard time a lot easier.
James: Were you disappointed that there were no Irish broadcasters in Daegu to cover the championships?
Marian: It’s always nice when you come off the track to meet the Irish broadcasters, especially when you have performed well. I think it would have been better for athletes like Deirdre Ryan and Ciaran O’Lionaird who performed above and beyond where they were expected to be.
James: You recently spent a couple of months training in Albury, Australia. What were your reasons for basing yourself there? What facilities did you have access to?
Marian: My brother lives there so we were able to spend Christmas with him. It was a bit of a long haul to travel but the main thing with Robert and myself when we are training is that we are happy. We spent a month there last year and it worked very well, so we went back this year for two months.
The facilities were great. We had full use of the track, the gyms were great, there were plenty of bike paths for Rob, and the weather of course was brilliant. We also had a great physio in Scott Hargraves who was really good to us and kept us in one piece throughout the camp.
James: What particular aspects of your training did you focus on when in Australia?
Marian: All my winter work is just a lot of hard graft. I worked a lot on my base fitness conditioning and strength.
James: Nutrition obviously plays an important part in the life of an elite athlete. What would be your typical dieting habits in the lead up to a big race?
Marian: I try not to change my diet that much building up to a race. I use Kenetica supplements and take on fish oils, multi-vitamin, protein and other energy bars and recovery drinks. The day of a race I would be very careful about what I eat and would work backwards from the time of my warm up so that I wouldn’t be full or hungry starting my warm up. I would stay away from fruit and wouldn’t take on a lot of dairy. I just keep it simple.
James: What are your favourite and least favourite training sessions?
Marian: At different times of the year I have my favourite and least favourite sessions. Early in the year I love the 600/400/200/400/600, but before I compete I like the time trial type sessions. My least favourite sessions are the Fartlek sessions. I think it’s so non specific to sprinting and I hate them with a passion.
James: It seems that the challenge of competing on the world stage without funding is not always understood and appreciated by the general public. Do you feel that athletes in Ireland sometimes don’t get the credit they deserve off the Irish media when compared to comparable achievements by individuals and teams in the more popular and better funded sports such as rugby and football?
Marian: I think the three sports are very different in their own right. I think we will never see the day when a husband will break it to the wife and tell her he is going to the pub to watch the European or World Championships. A lot of the Irish athletes would sit higher on world rankings than the Irish soccer team but the appeal just isn’t there to go and watch races. If Ireland had athletes such as Tyson Gay or Michael Johnson the sport could be transformed but it’s a fact that in the USA certain states have no idea that the World Championships are even going on because they are consumed with American football, baseball and basketball. So American sprinters have the same battles as the Irish in some ways, give or take a few $100,000. I think athletes will be athletes by choice because it’s only certain personalities that can work for sometimes only personal gains. Joe public may never understand the speed of a 44 second 400m but to David Gillick it’s his life’s work. In soccer or rugby a lesser team can pull something special out on the day but for sprinters to do that they might run .01-1.0 faster and in some cases have the best race of their lives and finish last. Athletics is individual, there is no hiding. Your position in the world is what it is at the end of the day. Nationally the media could promote the athletes more but until the general public embrace athletics rather than athletes I think there is no change in sight. Bring it back to Sonia O’Sullivan, the county got behind her every time she ran and there was huge hype around her. She was loved by the public and still remains a household name similar to Ronan O Gara and Roy Keane.
James: What are your views on athletes with B-Standards being sent to the Olympic Games?
Marian: I think the Olympics are the biggest competition across all sports in the world. For that reason alone, no I don’t think athletes on B standards should be sent. I think the World Championships should be used as a stepping stone to the Olympics and B standards should be given the opportunity to perform on the world stage there, with the intention of getting the A standard in Olympic year. If there are exceptional juniors with the Olympic B standard plans should be put in place to develop them into exceptional senior athletes for the following Olympics. There are hundreds of athletes across other events who have put the work in and got the A standard and for someone with a B standard to be sent ahead of them and get the prestige of being called an Olympian just seems wrong to me.
James: During your time in Australia you got an insight into the vibrant grassroots athletics culture in Australia, in particular the AV Shield and Victorian Milers Club competitions which allow people of all ages, standards, shapes and sizes to compete in track and field. What are your thoughts on such a setup? Should similar competitions be organised in Ireland? What benefits could Irish athletics gain through opening up the sport and making it more assessable and appealing to the average Joe?
Marian: I think it would be a fantastic idea to get a set up like that in Ireland. I think the reaction that the general public has to road running has been brilliant. If we could turn it into a track event and get just as much numbers sprinting, throwing and jumping it would be fantastic for the sport.
James: The state of Victoria has one of the world’s most established Little Athletics programmes. What are your thoughts on the Little Aths and what lessons can be applied back home?
Marian: One thing that stuck out in my head in the Little Athletics set up was the cards they would give the kids after they compete. The card had each child’s P.Bs for the events they did that day. They got one each week and they got to see their progression. There was also a huge support network with the bulk of the officials and judges being parents. I think from an organisation perspective this would be the key to setting it up in Ireland.
James: When not competing, do you enjoy watching athletics? What current athlete do you like watching the most?
Marian: Yes I love watching it. I’d watch anything from 100m up to the marathon. I don’t think I have one particular athlete but I love watching good races, at any level. The men’s 1500m final at the World Indoors in Istanbul this year was a cracker. I love that aspect of racing.
James: That’s great Marian. Thank you for your time and the very best of luck with the preparations for London.
Marian: No problem.