Long walk to Rio

FOUR years ago in London, in the warm-up area on the morning of the 50km walk, Brendan Boyce’s mind was in a perfect state of peace. He was the kid who had gotten his teacher to wheel a television into the classroom so he could watch any big race involving Sonia O’Sullivan. He was the man who stayed up every night during the Beijing Olympics soaking up each event. Now he was the athlete walking to the start line. Living it. Feeling it.

“My heart rate went up to 120,” he says. “That was just walking out onto the course.”

He had already experienced that moment where the Olympics staggers you. The opening ceremony, Danny Boyle’s chaotically glorious celebration of Britain, had taken his breath away. “The energy in the stadium wiped me completely. I was traumatised mentally for a day. I had eight kilometres to do the next day and I couldn’t finish my training. I couldn’t do eight kilometres, thinking I’ve got 50 kilometres to do in two weeks.”

For an athlete the Olympics is the ultimate paradox, living the dream but unable to experience it. Boyce had free tickets for every event, a 24-hour canteen and access to free stuff at every kiosk in the Olympic village, but his mind was obliged to tune everything out. He knocked around with Rob and Marian Heffernan and stayed at the training base in Lansbury. The night Usain Bolt won the 100m Boyce was crossing the city to meet his sister, oblivious. “Me and Rob went to the stadium once to see Marian running in the (4x400m) relay. Mo Farah was running the 10,000m final the same night. We didn’t even stay.”

Qualifying had been a huge breakthrough. Recording a personal best was the next target, but the last 10 kilometres were reduced to a battle between broken body and stubborn mind. “It was unbelievable. I was fist-pumping people I knew in the crowd, just trying to motivate myself. They managed to pull me through. I was in a lot of pain. I was very happy with the result in London, but I’m a different athlete now.”

He finished 28th, his personal best secured. Now? In 2012 Boyce’s best time was 3:57. Now it’s 3:48. He has qualified for every major championship since London. He moved to Cork nearly four years ago to work with Rob Heffernan and see how a walker could make himself a world champion. Last year he was closing in on a top 10 position in the final stages of the 50km race at the world championships in Beijing when he got disqualified. Apart from that, Boyce has recorded a personal best in every 50km race he has ever run.

Persuading Heffernan to coach him after London was the start. What followed was a brutal exposition of everything Boyce needed to adopt to become an elite athlete: physically, mentally, culturally. Heffernan’s work was unremitting and unrelenting. He kept a certain distance, too. “He wanted to see the whole package,” says Boyce, “see how I’d survive.”

They went to Morocco that summer to train. Boyce needed something to happen. They walked a 20km race. Boyce recorded a personal best. Hope. “If I hadn’t gotten that result, it would’ve been devastating. To do six months of training and not be any better than I was before? It would’ve been hard to take. But then I was thinking I was training so hard I wasn’t anywhere near my best and I still got a result out of it. It turned it all into a positive.”

He had often invited pressure before when no one was looking. He followed his older brother Manus as a sprinter to Community Games, always gauging his times and medals against what Manus had done a few years before. In September 2011 he went to Germany chasing a qualifying time for London giving himself no margin for error.

“That was a make or break race. If I qualified for the Olympics I’d go full time with the athletics. If I don’t qualify, I’ll probably give it up and get a job. It was only my second ever 50km and I put so much pressure on myself. No one else knew about it. Twenty-four years old, just after finishing college and I’d have retired without even making it.”

The separation would have been painful. He came home to Donegal from one Community Games with a notion about race walking. Hugo Duggan at Milford AC gave him the basic techniques. He sometimes went walking with James Gibbons, a seasoned walker. “He’d kill me in those sessions. He was in his 40s. I was 18. You’re thinking this shouldn’t be happening.”

The rest he did by himself. Nothing new there. When his school bought a table tennis table, he practised hard enough to win a national under-18 championship. There was an unusual tradition of volleyball in Milford. He took the game on for a couple of years and was part of a team that won a national silver medal.

That self-reliance and obsessive quest for excellence wherever he applied himself also matched the psyche of the elite race walker: the solitary battle of body and mind, matching physical fitness with the complex skills of racewalking and the unbreakable concentration to maintain rhythm and perfect technique regardless of tiredness. “It’s the peak of human potential. To be a world champion at 50km is the best event you can do.

“Anything that was competitive, I’d take it to the extreme. If I’m going to do this, I want to be the best. With walking there was no structure. I had no coach, so I went to the UK (in 2007). It was only when I got to the UK and got a coach and training partners the vision closed in from this dream of being an Olympic athlete to a pathway that showed the actual steps to achieve that.”

Boyce gets some help now in Cork from the Kingsley Hotel and the Fota Island resort while making loaves and fishes from his €12,000 Sports Council grant. Being able to train with an athlete of Heffernan’s standing and the elite group of walkers in Cork is a rare bonus in Irish athletics. The simple structures to develop young walkers he saw in the UK is the glaring gap.

“We’re missing that in Ireland — getting athletes at 18 and educating them on how to train professionally and what it means to dedicate your life to it, not just seeing someone as talented, throwing some money at them and hope they get a bit of success. You have to know the pathway to success. It’s too hit-and-miss: go to university, spend a couple of years there, then they might go somewhere else. You can see talent coming through every year. There always seems to be a crop of new athletes but myself and Rob are the only two athletes to compete in every major championship between London and Rio. You need to be consistent year on year to make those improvements.”

Sometimes that’s not enough either. Nothing about the revelations of systematic doping among the Russian walkers surprised him. It didn’t demoralise him either. They already knew. Everyone knew. For Boyce and Heffernan, working in Spain with former walker Paco Fernandez has occasionally brought its own heat. Fernandez was banned in 2010 for possession of EPO. In a climate of increasing public scrutiny about doping, truth and perception can easily mingle into one. That brings its own frustrations.

“I never saw it as an issue. He was world junior champion. He was competing for well over 10 years. He never failed a test, so for me it’s not an issue. His knowledge of performance is embodied in the way he works. His eye for physiology and technique is spot on. There’s no risk with us. There’s no packages being handed over.

“When I line up in the race I don’t think about anyone, even the Russians. You block the part of your brain that knows they’re on drugs. We’re leading the way in Ireland anyway with anti-doping. Rob’s probably the most tested athlete in the country — like 20 times a year. It’s impossible to get away with doping in Ireland. It’s for other countries to match that level of funding for anti-doping and not allow the corruption.”

While doping hangs over the sport like a weather system, the work between now and Rio is the clean athlete’s escape. Sonia was writing before Christmas about Irish athletes needing to think bigger and work harder. That clicked with Boyce. He will attack the qualifying time for the 20km walk in March and feels good about his chances. He needs to develop that speed over shorter distances to challenge for places in the 50km. That’s how thinks now. How he must think.

“Over the last year my mentality started to change. Even with Beijing, people look at the results and see a disqualification. I see an athlete challenging for a top-10 place. That’s what I prepared for. It’s what I’m preparing for in Rio – to finish top eight.”

The sums are adding up. The timing feels right. He reckons 3:45 will get him into the top eight. Three minutes to make up. Eight months to whittle back the seconds. Step by step.