Thursday 23 January 2020

Dark humour helping Boyce pound the pavements all the way to Tokyo

Blood, sweat and tears: Brendan Boyce feeling the heat at September’s World Championships in Doha, where he finished sixth. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Blood, sweat and tears: Brendan Boyce feeling the heat at September’s World Championships in Doha, where he finished sixth. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

It was one of the quotes of the sporting year, summing up so much of who Brendan Boyce is along with the dark, delightful humour of our rain-sodden nation.

"Being Irish, we just love misery," he said, his legs constricting as if in a python's hold, his green vest drenched in a deluge of sweat. "Being out there and being miserable for four hours: misery is happiness for me."

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It was late September, and the 32-year-old Donegal athlete had just finished a superb sixth in the 50km race at the World Championships. It was Sunday morning in Doha, just before 4am, when he turned and moonwalked across the finish line.

That meant it was almost 2am back home, and most of the country was fast asleep or out on the town. That scenario, in many ways, proved a microcosm of Boyce's career: putting in so much toil, aware that few would even notice and fewer would care.

To succeed as a 50km race walker requires many things, but pain tolerance and patience are right up there. In his teens, Boyce was never any great shakes as either a runner or a walker.

"We had a serious group - James King, Dan King, Mark English, Darren McBrearty. They'd come to Milford to train with me and I'd be left for dust. There'd be no mercy. I was the black sheep of that group. Mark is five years younger than me but he'd run the legs off me.

Brendan Boyce moon-walking his way across the line. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Brendan Boyce moon-walking his way across the line. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

"But I'd never give up in training. Those lads would have me pinned every session and I was getting no praise or attention for what I was putting in, but I got a bit of grit from that."

While at Carlow IT, Boyce would train at 6am and 6pm each day. Few, except himself, ever envisioned him as an Olympian but he realised that dream in 2012, finishing 26th in the 50km race walk at the London Games, after which he moved to Cork to work full-time under Rob Heffernan.

"If he wasn't there I'd have filtered out of the sport because there was no real support network," says Boyce. "It's so important to have that. Rob has been through all the highs and lows and he understands how to race."

Training - and living - like Heffernan took him to the next level. Boyce was 24th in the World Championships in 2013, 19th in the Olympics in Rio. Chipping away, a few places at a time.

It's a thankless pursuit. In 2017 Boyce put in nine months of training only for it to go awry when he got to London for the World Championships - forced to withdraw with injury shortly before the race.

Yet back he came, putting in gargantuan loads of training. At this time of year Boyce logs 130-140km per week, while in the summer it's closer to 200km. If he's lucky he might have someone there for half of it, otherwise it's him and the open road, and not a set of headphones in sight.

"I definitely don't listen to any music," he says. "You have to be connected with your body and your mind, and if you're listening to music it's a disconnect from what's going on. I have to concentrate on technique all the time. You have to be really disciplined."

The drill-sergeant discipline spills into every area of his life. As he planned his wedding with his fiancée, Sarah, Boyce could only find one weekend in the first half of 2019 that was suitable. That was in late May, a couple of weeks after he finished fifth in the European Cup of Race Walking.

As for the honeymoon? That was postponed for five months until after the World Championships, the couple flying from Doha to The Maldives, then later to Sri Lanka, before returning home in mid-October.

At the start of November Boyce sat down with Heffernan to plan out the most important year of his career, with every workout, every training camp, every race, pointing towards August 6.

The 50km race walk will set off at 5.30am in Sapporo, 830km north of Tokyo, with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) keen to avoid a repeat of Doha, where World Athletics faced criticism for staging the marathons and race walks in stifling heat.

Weather

Boyce is not a fan of the move. "It doesn't make any sense," he says. "The weather was the same last year in both places, and even for the sake of a couple of degrees it creates so many other problems. You're going to want support (staff) there so there'll be a massive conflict: who (in the Irish team) is going to be the big dog? Who's going to get the best support? When the IOC talk about athlete welfare they're not talking sense.

"They probably thought, 'we don't want this negative story that happened in Doha to happen to us,' but it's a different scenario. Doha should probably have never had the World Champs in the first place."

If he learned one thing in Doha, it's that he's now a contender. Boyce was less than three minutes off the medals - not a whole lot in a four-hour race - and few events see the favourites falter as much as the 50km race walk.

He knows the heavyweights of his event like Matej Toth, Jared Tallent and Yohann Diniz will be back and on form, and Boyce admits if they get it right there is little he can do about it, but his job now is to give himself the greatest chance.

Over Christmas he'll be in the Canaries on a warm-weather camp, then Boyce will sharpen his speed with some shorter races indoors. In March and April he'll go to altitude to prepare for the World Race Walking Team Championships in Belarus in early May. His plan is to be 95 per cent there, then he has 12 and a half weeks before Tokyo/Sapporo 2020. After the year he's had, he sees no reason not to dream big.

"I'm not as fast as everyone else but I can just grind, grind, grind for 50k so bring it on," he says. "I want to win that medal."

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