James Sullivan has been chatting with Irish race walker Brendan Boyce, 25th at the recent World Championships in Moscow over 50km.
Brendan Boyce is an elite race walker from County Donegal, Ireland, who competes mainly over 50km. He finished 29th at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. At this year’s World Championships in Moscow he bettered this performance, crossing the line in 25th place, with a new PB clocking of 3:54:24, ranking him 4th on the Irish all-time list. He is currently coached by World Champion Robert Heffernan.
James: Thank you for taking the time to talk to The Running Review. So to begin, how did you first get involved in athletics?
Brendan: Well I’m the youngest of seven kids and they all did athletics so I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t involved in it. I think I got my first medal in a local sports event when I was four years old.
James: Did you have a particular athletics idol growing up?
Brendan: I fancied myself as a sprinter in those younger days and Michael Johnson was the athlete I wanted to be growing up. I read his autobiography a few years back and that confirmed to me that his greatness was in his mind more than his body. His practical application to his events and his meticulous preparation is what I strive for now in race walking. It’s a book I think every young athlete should pick up.
James: What drew you to race walking over other track and field events?
Brendan: I pretty much did every event expect the pole vault as some point. I won a national medal in the 60m sprint at U8 but when I was 11/12 I was being run out of it as I was born in the last quarter of the year and that age gap was becoming a problem. I tried the race walk for the community games U13 but was still only 6th at nationals, but I felt that the technical aspect of the event would give me an advantage over time as I felt that nobody would train as much as me. That’s really what drew me to stick with it over other events.
James: At last year’s Olympic Games in London you finished in a highly credible 29th place over 50k in your debut senior major championship. Can you put that experience into words? Did you expect to perform so well?
Brendan: The Olympics were really a whirlwind for me and it was always my dream to compete at that level ever since watching Michael Johnson in 1992. I really had no pressure other than to perform for my family who had funded me up to that point. Walking has such a good tradition in Ireland at the top level that I felt it was normal for us to be good. I had achieved two ‘A’ standards and I knew my training was good so I was expecting to walk the time I did but I thought that would have actually got me a higher spot, but as we have seen it was the fastest Olympic 50km ever.
James: The race walk events in London attracted record crowds along the Mall and Buckingham Palace. Did you expect to see so many people lining the streets? How did you cope with the pressure of performing in front of such massive numbers?
Brendan: We were aware that the tickets were in high demand and I got to go down to the course for Rob’s 20km race the week before so we saw what that was like. I also competed in Saransk that May in the World Cup. It’s the area of Russia all their walkers come from and there were twenty thousand or more there. But having said that, the fact that about half the crowd in London were screaming for the Irish meant it took a few laps to get used to it. At one point the whole upper side of the crowd was chanting ‘Boycie, Boycie’ I don’t think we’ll have anything like that in Rio or Tokyo. I felt honoured to be an Irishman that day for sure. It made the performance feel almost easy, the pain was drowned out by the support.
James: At the recent World Championships in Moscow you bettered your performance from London, finishing 25th in a new personal best time of 3:54:24. Can you describe that experience?
Brendan: I was expecting a big crowd in Russia after what we saw in Saransk the year before and because the Russians were favourites for all the race walk events. So it was a bit of a surprise to have such a small crowd overall but it made the small number of committed Irish supporters easy to pick out. My whole year wasn’t as good as last year as I was sick for two months in Feb/March which put most of my yearly season out of sync with what Rob had planned. But once we got past the European Cup in May I was able to get back on track for the build up to Moscow. We had spent six weeks training in the heat of Spain and Austria so I knew the conditions wouldn’t hurt me that much, but to get another PB was a big deal for me as my funding depends on that one performance each year.
James: Your performance was somewhat overshadowed by fellow Irishman Robert Heffernan claiming gold in the same race. Can you describe the emotions you felt when you witnessed your friend and coach create history? Was it difficult to stay concentrated on your own race?
Brendan: After London I asked Rob to coach me as I knew from spending a few camps with him before that if anyone could get me to the top it was him. He had some injury issues last year going into London and this year he only missed six days of training since November and I knew his training was better, so I was telling everyone back home that he was going to win but I never told him. On the course there were big screens on each side of the 2km course so I was able to keep track of what was going on up front. When he was coming passed me after about 35km I was able to look at the Russians in the eyes and I knew he was too strong for them. I turned to them and said ‘he has you’, which is a catch phrase in our group. I saw him cross the line and I still had 3k to go. I was just celebrating and screaming to the Irish supporters who had stayed out on the course and I lost focus on my own performance for a bit so I had to regroup and just get into the stadium. I was just looking around trying to spot him. After I crossed the line I ran over to some of the Irish in the crowd with our support staff there and they threw me a flag and then I went looking for Rob and I just started crying. I never thought I would see it happen. It was more magic that I lived the last year with him and he was just as happy to see that I got a PB.
James: Were you disappointed that there was no Irish broadcaster in Moscow for the championships, especially given the success of Rob Heffernan?
Brendan: I’m a massive athletics fan from the outside of the sport as well. A lot of the country is and athletics has a big presence and history in most counties. Regardless of Rob’s chances of getting a medal, it’s about individual performances and giving those athletes who have worked so hard to wear the Irish singlet at a World Championships a chance to give their best with the country watching. Across all sports we don’t have many athletes competing on a global stage. For our national broadcaster to miss out on these moments it’s as disappointing for the fans as it is for the athletes.
James: What are your goals for 2014?
Brendan: I feel I need to take another big step forward next year. The full calendar for next year is still to be set so there are a few minor things for us to sort. I’m qualified for both the 20k and 50k for next year’s European Championships, and there’s also the World Cup in May next year. So we have to decide if I should take a season to try and develop my overall speed and focus on the 20km, and basically use next year to try new things. I will still do at least one 50km to make sure I’m qualified going into Worlds again in 2015, where the focus will be firmly back on the 50km. So you’ll have to keep an eye out for more on this on my website www.brendanboyce.co.uk and my twitter account @brendanboyce
James: Can you give us an insight into the training schedule of a race-walker? What would an average week of training be like, specifically in terms of key sessions and total mileage? How does winter training differ to summer?
Brendan: We don’t really work on a weekly timetable. I only had one day off in July, which is sometimes annoying because I’m constantly asking what day it is. People think I have early onset dementia. In the summer months, for the real hard training, we try to hit something hard every 3/4 days. The hardest sessions for me were 10 x 2km and 8 x 3km. We will do a rhythm session with short intervals on the track the day before to get the body ready for the big sessions and to keep in touch with that top end speed. The key is that nothing is typical. We won’t replicate any sessions in the last 12 week block leading into a major championship, but overall we will still hit 170-200km a week.
James: What are your favourite and least favourite training sessions?
Brendan: That really depends on how I feel once the sessions are over. I think the short intervals can be just as hard as the long sessions. I did a 40km this summer and felt great, yet after the same session last year I was wondering why I do this to myself. But having said that I do have to think more about the big intervals so mentally they are tougher.
James: Technique is obviously a huge aspect of race-walking. What sort of technical work do you incorporate into your training?
Brendan: Technique is worked on every day. Marian is out with us every day and is making sure we are looking good. She takes videos also so we can see ourselves afterwards. What I think I look like in my head is generally not what’s going on in reality. So video feedback in very important for patterning your brain right. We also do a lot of gym work with Robbie Williams in Fitnessworx and he has worked for years with Rob and is very tuned into the requirement of the race walking technique. Emma, our physio, is also right on point with our needs. So our whole team is responsible for getting us walking efficiently. We do some technical drill sessions as well which tops off what we do day to day which is the important thing.
James: The current world record for the 50km walk is a staggering 3 hours 34 minutes, which equates to well under sub 3 hours for a marathon, quicker than most people can run such a distance. Do you feel that some people do not appreciate the athletic ability of race walkers?
Brendan: I’ve always found this question difficult to answers because you don’t really need to appreciate the speed to get the event. It’s not a questions other athletes get asked. To me I find an 8.95m long jump staggering. 3 hours 34 minutes for 50km walk in ridiculously fast and even I find it hard to get my head around, but like any sport athletics is built on competition. I think winning a world championship is more important than records because you know you are the best.
James: Generally race walking events take place on a 1 or 2 kilometre lap circuit. It is great for spectators, but can it be boring for competitors doing, for example, 25 laps of the same circuit during a race? Can keeping full concentration be an issue?
Brendan: I like the 2km loops because they provide a good mental window between 8-9mins depending on 20k or 50k. If I was doing 50km out on one loop around a city I would feel disconnected from the race as I’m not in a position to get out with the leaders yet, and as you said it is better for spectators which feeds back into the athletes as well. If I was to pass spectators at the race on a big loop I would think “you don’t know what I’ve been through” but when they see you all the way through, you have a chance to connect with them over the course of the race, and that support at the end means a little bit more.
James: Given the length of the events, race-walking isn’t integrated into the Diamond League programme with the rest of the track and field events. The discipline has its own circuit but it fails to gather much publicity. What do you believe could be done to increase the profile of race-walking outside of the major championships and what changes would you make if you were president of the IAAF for a day?
Brendan: I think the current walking challenge series is a good format for what it is. I see why it’s not viable to have it with the Diamond League series as it’s mainly built for TV and most events are run off in 2 hours or so, but I would like to see maybe a 3k or 5k walk feature on a few programs. The 3k walk in the Cork City Sports is always a crowd pleasure. They also have a 5k walk in the program at the Sydney track classic which is a high quality race. It brings the event to the masses rather than trying to get them to come to some obscure park somewhere. It’s hard to close down public roads for races outside major championships for walks because you don’t have that public participation like with big marathons.
James: When not competing, do you enjoy watching athletics? What current athlete do you like watching the most?
Brendan: I’ve always been a massive fan of athletics. It was very hard in London last year to stay away from the stadium and just focus on myself. but this year I found the men’s 800m pretty exciting with Rudisha missing and the Americans coming into contention, and also from an Irish perspective with Mark English and Paul Robinson coming through. The 110m Hurdles is always a bag of excitement too. You can never call it. Also the women’s discus with the utter dominance of Perkovic all season.
James: That’s great Brendan. Thank you for your time and the very best of luck in 2014.
Brendan: Thanks. It was good to get that off my chest.