Monday 18 December 2017

Boyce steps out from under Heffernan's shadow

Brendan Boyce. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Boyce. Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

All athletes, the ambitious ones at least, can pinpoint a moment in their careers which defined their future success.

For Brendan Boyce, it was in 2012, shortly after the he finished 26th in the 50km race walk at the London Olympics.

For three years before that, the Donegal man had trained in Leeds with a British race-walking group, but having seen Rob Heffernan's fourth-place finish in the same race - which was eventually upgraded to third due to a doping disqualification - he couldn't help but feel the Cork man had what he needed, what he wanted.

After returning home, he texted Heffernan, asking if he would coach him, but there was just silence. Six weeks passed before Heffernan finally responded, but he agreed to coach Boyce under one condition: he had to move to Cork and do exactly what he said, day in, day out, year after exhausting year.

"A week later I was down in Cork, living with a guy I didn't know," says Boyce.

At first they clashed, Boyce given a rude awakening by the professionalism which Heffernan demanded in all areas of life.

"I looked at him and said, 'You're not a f***ing athlete,'" recalls Heffernan. "You're after getting a qualifying standard in an event that's really weak, where the standard is four hours and it's won in 3:40. You're too heavy."

Two years - that's how long it took before Boyce did what he needed to earn Heffernan's respect, a rough breaking-in period where he realised that at the highest echelons of sport, a 24-hour commitment was required.

"Now look at him," says Heffernan proudly. "He's ripped, you can see veins all over his body and he's really strong."

In his first three years under Heffernan, Boyce hacked his 50km PB from 3:55:01 down to 3:48:55. "It was a bit of a shock at first," says Boyce. "I had already been top 30 in the Olympics but Rob sat me down and said, 'You need a lot of work, this is high-performance sport and you need to be fine-tuned in every area'."

Athletes who occupy the start line of a 50km race walk are rare folk. While only a minority of high-level athletes could truly be considered normal, a striking number of 50km race walkers are decidedly… abnormal.

For Boyce, those early years in Cork were laced with loneliness, his typical day involving a long and painful walk with Heffernan in the morning, a gym session in the early afternoon, then 20 hours of sitting around his house recovering, where he usually wouldn't speak to a single person.

Things are better now, and Boyce's routine is closer to what most would consider socially acceptable, though the financial constraints of living off a grant of €12,000 for the year means he can't afford his own place, so he lives with his girlfriend Sarah and her family.

It's all worth it, though, and earlier this year Boyce got a flicker of his potential rewards when finishing fourth in the European Cup of Race Walking in the Czech Republic.

On Sunday morning he will take to the streets of London alongside Heffernan for the 50km event.

"If I'm outside the top 12 I'll go home disappointed," says Boyce. "I feel like I'm in shape to go fast."

Irish Independent

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