Imagine if you hadn't baked a cake in eight years and decided one day to enter yourself into a high profile cake baking competition – and you absolutely smashed it. That's kinda what Aussie steeplechaser Madeline Heiner did, and now she's off to the biggest cake baking competition there is.

The world was a very different place back in 2006. The 100m world record was only 9.77, a recession was something that only happened in the 1920s, and Disney Pixar had only got as far as Toy Story 2.

Why the history lesson? Because up until January last year, 2006 was the last time Australian steeplechaser Madeline Heiner, who is currently ranked number twelve in the world this year, had run competitively.

“It wasn’t really a planned break. I did get injured as a junior when I was about to turn 20 [which led her to withdraw from the 2006 World Junior Championships].

“I suppose just that time off led me to other things,” admits Heiner, who competed at the 2004 World Junior Championships, and in the junior races at the 2005 and 2006 World Cross Country Championships.

‘Other things’ included studying for a pharmacy degree at Sydney University and travelling the world with her fiancé; basically living the life of a non-athlete with a sense of adventure that seems engrained in the Australian national psyche. Heiner fell in love with Africa, braved the cool climates of Tasmania, and also became acquainted with the classy wines produced in the Barossa region of her native Australia.

Sounds like a great way to spend your early 20s, and Heiner admits that the longer she spent away from the sport, the less of a priority it became. Making a return, she says, seemed like a burden.

Madeline Heiner Commonwealth Games ()

Only seven months after her return Heiner finished fourth at the Commonwealth Games

Her return began with fun runs, which moved on to progressively bigger races that she couldn’t help but win. Latent talent had been readily roused. It led her to training once a week with coach Adam Didyk’s group in Adelaide.

“I’ve always loved to run. I think it was just getting over that barrier of feeling like people expected me to do something if I started again. That was the big thing coming back, that people are probably going to say it, but I don’t really care.”

Heiner’s first race was last January. Just seven months later she was competing in the 3000m steeplechase at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. She finished fourth in a personal best 9:34.01, ten years on from winning 3000m gold and 1500m bronze at the Commonwealth Youth Games.

That’s pretty remarkable given Heiner’s admission that “I couldn’t say I kept fit” and that she never “managed more than [runs of] 30 minutes a few times a week”.

Since Glasgow, things have only improved for the 28-year-old. She spent six weeks in Europe during the spring, competing in five races and setting four PBs. The highlight was a dazzling display at the Rome Diamond League, where she finished fifth in 9:21.56 to make her the second fastest Australian woman of all time at the distance.

She puts that remarkable run down to her feeling calm on the start line. Controlling her emotions is one thing that she is having to learn.

“I’ve gone from absolutely wanting to cry on the start line and being so overwhelmed to almost having to switch myself on. In Rome I was calm. I’m getting better.

“In Doha [where she finished sixth in a then PB 9:28.41] my legs were like jelly. I’m starting to get the process and understand how to approach it.”

Physically, she is also still learning. Heiner works as a pharmacist and is also studying for a “Riley” master’s degree in international public health. It makes for a busy schedule that requires “early morning alarm clocks” and “all-night study sessions”.

It sounds tough, but Heiner says having to keep that many plates spinning has actually helped her stage her return, limiting the risk of overtraining (she is still only at about 80km/50 miles a week) and thereby picking up injuries.

Following her European jaunt, she is now back down under and training ahead of the Beijing World Championships and only last week she won the Sydney Harbour 10k. If she can stay fit and continue on her upwards curve, a medal seems a genuine aspiration. Those goals aside, Heiner is clearly enjoying running well and experiencing a life that so few can enjoy.

“Even a year ago I thought Commonwealth Games was enough of a box to tick. I wasn’t too fussed about the other two [Beijing and the 2016 Rio Olympics], probably because I thought they were too far away and goals I probably wouldn’t reach anyway.

“But that’s all been reset obviously. Beijing will be a good experience. Hopefully it will be a heat and final scenario, learn what that’s all about.”

Rio might not have been on the radar last summer, but it certainly is now – being in the form of her life is not something she wants to let slide away.

“I’ve got to stick around next season and see how it goes,” she says. “There’s certainly no desire to stop at the moment.

“I think even to have the chance to say I might be there is cool. Whether it happens or not, there are still very few people who can say that they realistically have the opportunity.”