Women of Cork - put your best foot forward

Sportswoman Marian Heffernan is no stranger to taking part in the Evening Echo Women’s Mini Marathon, for various causes over the years. EMMA CONNOLLY chats to her ahead of this Sunday’s event
Women of Cork - put your best foot forward
Marian Heffernan, Louise Corrigan and Shonah Stark, running the Evening Echo Women's mini marathon in aid of Fèileacàin, in recent years.Picture: Jim Coughlan.

FORMER professional runner Marian Heffernan is refreshingly honest when she admits she’s only been to the gym three times in the past year.

The 36-year-old mum-of-four says she’s like all women who are busy managing households, work, and also trying to find time for exercise.

But the former professional athlete, who until recently managed the logistics for her world champion race walker husband Rob, is far from ready for life in the slow lane.

Having recently completed Physical Therapy in UCC, qualifying last December, she’s now working in a clinic in Douglas while Rob has joined Bank of Ireland in Cork city as Retail Banking Ambassador in the Munster Region.

It’s a new pace of life for the family, which comprises Meghan, aged 15, Cathal, aged 13, four-year-old Regan and three-year-old Tara. And it’s one that Marian says they’re all really enjoying.

And while Marian, who retired from professional sport in 2012, doesn’t get to the gym often, she’s not about to become a couch potato any time soon and is committed to fitting in three exercise sessions a week, be they a 5k/6k run or a Youtube HIT session if she ‘can’t get out the door’.

Like thousands of other women throughout Cork right now, she’s looking forward to the 37th annual Evening Echo Mini Marathon which takes place this Sunday, September 16.

“When I was still involved in sport, this would have traditionally been my time off so I would have used the event to start off some pre-season training. The 6k suited me perfectly as I’m not a fan of distance,” she said.

“I’ve taken part with a group of friends, starting when Regan was around nine months when I ran with her in her buggy. I didn’t finish in any major time, but I still did it!”

For the last few years, she’s used the event to fundraise for Féileacáin (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Association of Ireland) after a friend sadly lost a baby.

‘This year I’m doing it for Bumbleance, Rob and I are ambassadors for the charity, and the Alzheimer Society’s Bessboro Day Care Centre.’

Rob Heffernan, World Champion race walker, and his wife Marian are patrons of BUMBLEance (the Children's National Ambulance Service). Pic: Brian Lougheed
Rob Heffernan, World Champion race walker, and his wife Marian are patrons of BUMBLEance (the Children's National Ambulance Service). Pic: Brian Lougheed

Marian isn’t following any particular training regime for the mini marathon — but is approaching it with her trademark common sense approach and of course her love of running. That love, and special talent, has her looking forward to a return to sprinting this winter, albeit purely for her own enjoyment.

“I’ll try to fit in some track sessions, I miss that. I’m not geared for distance and you always have to play to your strengths.”

Has she any regrets after retiring from her own career to support Rob?

“Only that I didn’t start younger. I had five professional years — I missed the Beijing Olympics in 2008 by one spot; that drove me on to London in 2012 where I went with Rob, which was a dream come true.”

In fact, Marian and Rob are Ireland’s only husband and wife team to represent the country at an Olympics.

“But after that, I knew if I did another Olympic cycle I wouldn’t have more kids,” she said by way of explanation.

Marian Heffernan at Cork International Airport before travelling to London for the Olympics. Picture: Darragh Kane
Marian Heffernan at Cork International Airport before travelling to London for the Olympics. Picture: Darragh Kane

She announced her retirement after London and became Rob’s ‘go to person’ and together they were a formidable force —and still are.

She strongly encourages girls to participate in sport, particularly team sport, as it’s something she feels they can always fall back on.

“From the age of 14 up, it’s a time when girls start to feel a little awkward and self-conscious but they shouldn’t limit themselves. It’s really important to stick with a team sport, have a focus and participate from as early an age as you can.”

Rob won the nation over when he took part in last season’s Dancing With The Stars, something Marian said organically led to his retirement.

“After the way things panned out in the Worlds last year in London [he finished eighth in the 50k walk], he got the opportunity to do Dancing With the Stars and decided to just go away and do something different. We thought he’d be kicked off after a week or two but he was there until March. When he went back training, it just wasn’t there but it was really healthy that it all happened on his own terms — nobody pushed him out and nobody cut his grant.

‘For every sports person who retires there’s a sort of feeling of ‘Is that all I am?’ but with Dancing With the Stars, people got to see another dimension to him beyond his stoney face at the start line; they got to see the Rob we have at home.”

And what about the dreaded Dancing With the Stars curse that’s hit both here and in the UK — was she worried?

‘Not at all!’ she said, laughing.

The couple have been together for 13 years and married for nine and Marian says as Rob adapts to different challenges and grows, he becomes more attractive.

His plans include immersing himself in his new Bank of Ireland role which will see him undertake exams, and there are also some talks going on with RTÉ.

Going forward, she’ll continue to balance work, currently two days a week, and home life.

Regan has just started school, Tara is in pre-school; Meghan has just finished her Junior Cert and Cathal is going into second year.

The couple have the help of a childminder who lives nearby and Marian’s mum and while things are busy it’s much easier, ‘like a holiday,’ compared to when Rob was competing.

Don’t forget to keep an eye out for Marian as the starting line on September 16 – she could sprint it home, but something tells us she’ll be one egging the rest of us on.

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