BRENDAN BOYCE was on course for a personal best time at the World Athletics Championships in August when a race walker’s worst nightmare played out before his eyes.
Boyce had 39k of the men’s 50k walk completed when the chief judge came out at the Beijing National Stadium and put a red paddle to the face of the Milford man, disqualifying him from the event.
“That’s basically it – I had two cards on the board, one for a knee caution and the other for a lifting caution – the judge just comes out and fires a red paddle into your face, “ sighs Boyce.
Beijing was only his eighth time attempting the 50k walk. He set p.bs in each of his previous events, the most recent of those in Dudince in March when his 3:48.55 saw him secure qualification for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Boyce is just 29, which is young in race walking terms.
The disappointment from Beijing remains evident on his expression but, as he lets the mind wander forward to next summer, the Letterkenny AC is talking in 24 carat athletics currency: the possibility of an Olympic medal.
“I know if I get it right that I could be a contender for a medal, or for a top eight finish in Rio,” he says.
“Every year since my first race in 2010, I’ve improved. This was the first time that I’ve not improved.
“Everyone at the Worlds will be there next year again. It’s a direct dress rehearsal for next year.”
Things were going well in Beijing. Boyce was close to his p.b time from Dudince; a time that would have secured an 11th place finish.
But with 11k remaining, the red paddle was out and his race was over.
“If you’re DQ’d before 20k, there’s nothing that you can take out of the race – 20k is nothing in a 50k race, so I took a lot out of it,” Boyce says now.
“My heart rates were all better than they were last year. When I was in Zurich (2014 European Championships), at 40k I was struggling, but this time I was comfortable at 39k.
“I was looking for a way out in Zurich. There comes a point in a race when you’re looking for external help.
“In Zurich I was looking into the crowd to get support and energy. Everything was just starting to hurt. After the race in Zurich, I went into shock and they were in the tent throwing blankets on me.
“It’s been different since Beijing. The day or two after the race I was completely distraught. I looked at the race when I came home and everything has gone really well – aerobically, physically and mentally.
“That was the first time I’ve gone out to challenge for the top positions. I was 25th in Moscow. There’s a massive difference between the mid-20s and the top positions. In Beijing I was thinking about where I’d make a move for the last 10k.”
After picking up two early cautions, both inside the opening 12k, Boyce’s mind was scrambled as he ambled around the course – ‘tormented’ as he puts it himself.
“I was all the time wondering: ‘What am I doing wrong?’ I just had to completely refocus and race the race normally.
“The k’s ticked away and I was still in the race. I started to get a bit more confident around the 30k mark. It was all very positive and then the judge came out…”
Boyce lives in Cork and trains with Rob Heffernan, the 2013 World gold medallist and seemingly an Olympic bronze medallist in waiting.
Life isn’t a breeze, though. Funding is tight with Boyce receiving only €12,000 per annum from the Sports Council. That cheque is burst by physio bills, strength and conditioning work and by going to competition.
The slog is hard. Post-Beijing, he took the whole month of September off, but generally speaking he has just one rest day a month.
In the summer, he was in Morocco for altitude training and clocked up 170k per week. Again, there was just one rest day while in the Moroccan mountains.
“We just drove up the mountain and we went to feed the monkeys, that’s about it,” he says.
Heffernan’s wife, Marian is herself an Olympian having competed in the 4 x 400m relay in London 2012 and she aids the preparation.
“Marian would come out with us in the morning,” Boyce says.
“She’d drive around or be on the bike next to us, filming and constantly giving us feedback. If you were on your own that just wouldn’t be possible.
“You have to have someone there every day because it’s such a technical event. That support on a daily basis is essential. You can’t just go and bang in some training.”
For the IAAF Race Walking Challenge in March, when he booked his ticket to Brazil, Boyce’s girlfriend, Sarah McCarthy, did his drinks.
He first started race walking in the Community Games aged 12, but it wasn’t until he was at University in Coventry that he realised he’d found his calling. He met Andi Drake, who was coach of some of the British internationals and he began training with Daniel King.
When Drake left for Leeds Metropolitan University, Boyce – who was now showing real promise – went along with him.
Now, he’s ready for his second Olympic Games in one of the most demanding of disciplines.
“It’s very hard to get around that, in a 50k race, the thing doesn’t really start until 35k,” he says.
“Once I did my first one, I knew what I’d have to do to prepare properly and I didn’t do another one for a year-and-a-half. I got the Olympic standard the second time out.
“You have to think what the end game is. I have to always think about the end time for a race.
“I could stay with the group for longer, but I have to consider the impact. Like, after an hour you’re still warming up. It’s very tactical.
“You have to stay in control and see the whole race for what it is. That way, you can be competitive for gun to tape. I want to get stronger so I can commit more to the front group.”
There is a striking image of Boyce after a race (below). It is at The Mall in London 2012 as he sits in a wheelchair, head in hands. The tank is empty. It was Boyce’s first Olympics and he was determined to give it his all. He gave that and then some.
He says: “For me, London was the experience and my first big international event. London was everything. I managed at my level to get a positive result and do a three-minute p.b. People might look at the result and not think much about a 29th place, but for next year and all the athletes people need to look at what they’ve done before and just ask: ‘Have they finished at a higher level than they did before?’”
It is perhaps no surprise that Boyce’s best performances have come while attired in the green singlet of Ireland.
“My best performances have all been when I’ve competed for Ireland,” he says.
“When I get to a competition and put on the vest, it doesn’t matter if things have been good or bad beforehand, you’re wearing the Irish vest so you just give it everything.
“If it was just any other race you might just conserve a wee bit, but the green vest gives you a kick. People are counting on me. Internationally, people look at Ireland and think: ‘They’re going to be good’ so that’s very positive.”Tags: