Chris Heffernan vividly remembers going to watch the Stawell Gift as a kid.
He's played football and cricket at Central Park too, its very picture still fresh in his mind.
But close to three decades on from his last visit, the former Essendon premiership player is set to return for the prestigious event, this time as a competitor.
"I used to go as a kid all the time, so it will be really cool to get there and race," the Terang product said. "I'll just do the 300 metres in the masters.
"It's over 35, I'm 43 so I guess I'm in the sweet spot."
Taking up distance running to stay fit and social in his post-playing days, Heffernan said recent conversations with cousin Jacob Densley started to put ideas of shorter distance running in his head.
"Basically since football I've jogged for exercise, mainly distance running. I've done a few half marathons and marathons," he said. "But I started doing some strides down at the oval and then speaking to Jake, he was always encouraging me and said if you're doing some short stuff, why don't you enter an event or two?"
Running at the Dockland Gift in February, it was then that Heffernan starting thinking seriously about Stawell.
"I thought, I'm doing the training and the body is okay, so why not," he said. "I went to school with a guy, Mark Carroll, who is a very good running coach and runner himself. I spoke to him and said I was looking to do a bit more of this, can you give me a program?
"So basically for about three months, I've dropped all the long stuff and thought it would be great to get to Stawell."
Drafted second overall to Essendon in 1996, Heffernan went on to play 11 seasons in the AFL system.
A member of Essendon's 2000 premiership-winning team, Heffernan was later traded to Melbourne before returning to play his final two seasons with his beloved Bombers.
However retiring in 2007 at 28 and with 170 games under his belt, Heffernan never did go on to feature on the football field.
"I started playing with Terang (in 2008), I played the first three or four games coming from Melbourne, Matthew Irving was the coach," he said. "But then I ended up going overseas in about May and that was it, I didn't play again.
"After that it was running, and basketball, golf, tennis, I was always doing stuff. I always intended to play another season but just checked my watch and I'm 43 so that's probably not going to happen."
I always intended to play another season (of local football) but just checked my watch and I'm 43 so that's probably not going to happen.- Chris Heffernan
In his stint overseas, Heffernan and then-girlfriend and now wife Emma found themselves living in the United States for three years.
"It was great fun," Heffernan said. "I'd studied accounting before I played, so I worked at Deutsche Bank in New York.
"Then we came back here in 2011 and I joined Ernst & Young and I've been there ever since. I work in the Mergers and Acquisitions team.
"That's sort of my focus now, work and family."
He and Emma are raising three children, Ella, 9, Ava, 7, and Tom, 3, with his eldest showing early signs of following in the footsteps of her dad's recent endeavour.
"I think Ella fancies herself a runner, she thinks she's got me covered," Heffernan laughed. "She's getting a bit harder to beat so I'll keep my eye on her, but I've got the others under control for now."
Though Heffernan never did step across the white line again, he's remained active in the game, first holding a position on the Essendon board for six years before joining the board of the AFL Players' Association.
"It's a nice little involvement in football and across the whole game," he said of his current role with the AFLPA. "The Players Association is about both player and past player issues and ensuring their education and training and player safety, all that sort of thing.
"It's quite interesting and it fits in around work with a board meeting about once a month. And with AFL Women's growing, the association represents both men and women which is quite an interesting angle as well."
Heffernan said he sought to bring a long-term perspective to board meetings.
"The majority on the board are current players, but they also have a couple past players or independent directors to provide a bit more balance," he said.
"Players, clubs and managers are often focused on the short term, and sometimes probably to the detriment of some long-term career decisions.
"So we're probably the few parties involved worried about the long-term interest of players. It's part of the role of the association to try and help the players get balance in their lives and positions themselves for the future."
Joining Heffernan at the Stawell Gift this weekend will be Densley and fellow Terang export in Anna Kasapris, a former world champion in the masters' 1500m.
"If Jake wasn't running, I wouldn't have started or wouldn't know where to start," Heffernan said. "I've done a few runs now so I should be competitive.
"My handicap is pretty conservative and when you haven't run before they start you right at the back until they've had a good look at you. So I haven't got a lot of chance but I've probably improved in the couple months I've been doing it."
Despite looking forward to running on the weekend, Heffernan said the Stawell Gift was likely his swansong in competitive running.
"That will probably be it I'd say," he said. "I'm not sure I'll push on with it, it was more getting there and ticking the box."
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