The most improved track and field athlete in Australia has taken the road very much less travelled to the world championships in Beijing.
Since returning to running almost by accident a couple of years ago – having retired in a similar fashion back in 2006 – Madeline Heiner has set so many personal bests she has lost count.
It’s probably 17. Maybe 18. And could well be even more at the conclusion of the August 22-30 world titles, as the 28-year-old has Donna MacFarlane’s 3000m steeplechase national record of nine minutes 18.35 seconds firmly in her sights.
Heiner also plans to contest the 5000m at the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium, but it is in the steeplechase where she is best-placed to mount a serious challenge.
Heiner is 12th on the 2015 world rankings, courtesy of yet another PB of 9:21.56 set in Rome in early June.
Nine of the 11 runners above her are from Africa, headed by Tunisian Habiba Ghribi, and not all of them will be on the start-line in Beijing.
“If I find myself in the final I’d love to be in the top handful, although the very top positions are obviously very hard to get,” Heiner told AAP.
“But I’d really like to be right up there when the final move is made with a lap or a lap and a half to go, gritting my teeth and holding on for as long as I can.”
Heiner remains a mostly unknown quantity on the world stage, despite finishing an impressive fourth in the steeplechase behind three Kenyans at last year’s Commonwealth Games.
She had been a star junior before giving the sport away after missing out on a spot in the team for the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
“Not long after that I picked up a niggle – nothing major but enough to stop me running for a few months,” said the NSW runner.
“To help cope I started to do do other things and invest my energy elsewhere.
“Along with that you get a little unfit and the gap between where I was and where I needed to be seemed far too large.
“In hindsight it wasn’t, but the longer it went on the less likely it seemed that I would be able to get back.”
Freed from the constraints of training, Heiner took the chance to go backpacking overseas before returning home to work as a pharmacist.
It was during her time in Adelaide that she joined a running group run by Adam Didyk, who also coaches Australian marathon star Jess Trengove.
The initial plan was to get fit again and enjoy being back in the running community.
But such was Heiner’s level of improvement that she told Didyk in 2013 that she wanted to go to the Glasgow Games.
The rest is history.
Australian head Australian Craig Hilliard could not recall another athlete returning to the elite level in such a way.
“To take so much time out of the sport and come back stronger and quicker than ever before is quite remarkable,” he said.
“There is no ceiling on it.
“Obviously distance events are tough, but Maddie is the sort of athlete that will just keep improving if she keeps working hard.”
Heiner admits there are times when she wonders how her career would have panned out had she not stepped away from competitive running for so long.
“But the honest answer is that if there had been a tough few years in the middle, would I have stuck it out?” she said.
“I’m very comfortable that I got to explore other things in my 20s and I’m very happy to have found my way back to running.”