Ireland’s race walking Olympian, Brendan Boyce, on his life long chase for medals and how his training relationship with Rob Heffernan has brought him to new heights in his sport.
Four of us went from playing at lunchtime to going on to being All-Ireland champions. That kind of competitive environment can breed success.
No one wants to be outside during the winter and the school had just got a new table tennis table. All of a sudden everyone wanted to play table tennis. So, we created a ‘winner stays on’ system and it got pretty ruthless. We only had 25 minutes or so for lunch, so it was full on. For a year, every lunchtime, we played table tennis.
Naturally, over the year we developed pretty good skills, so we decided to enter into the Irish Youth Club Games, and we qualified for the final. The people we played against could have been playing their whole lives, we’d no idea.
We played away for the year and when it was all over – after we won the All-Ireland – we all went our own ways again. It was a short burst of success as there are no structures for Table Tennis in Ireland. There were a couple of All-Ireland medals in the house growing up. My brother had won the Under-8 80m and also the Under-10 100m, so it was only natural that I added one of my own for one thing or another sooner rather than later.
In Milford, the Community Games was huge. It was bigger than the GAA. I remember one year, over half the competitors from Donegal came from Milford, a bus load. Everyone else had to head to meet in Letterkenny and go from there, but we’d enough competitors to fill our own bus.
”If anyone came back from Mosney with a medal they came back to a parade in the town. It was incredible.
So, even at that underage level you were held up to high esteem at home. Everyone just waited around for the Community Games in the summer.
We’d a lot of good athletes coming through. Karol Duggan was in our club and he competed for Ireland in Cross Country. He even gave Mo Farah a scare at a schools international race. James King competed in the European Youth Olympics in the 3,000 metres. We were all coached by Karol’s father Hugo Duggan, who was a World masters Long Jump champion and held the Irish senior record for decades. Mark English and Darren McBrearty used to come and train with us because in Milford we were the best in the county. They both ended up in the 800m at European Indoors at senior level, and now Mark has three European senior medals. We’d a great group of motivated athletes around that all wanted success.
To be honest, I was probably the runt of the litter. Those lads would have crushed me every day, so it was a bit demoralising. I just loved athletics, so I kept coming back. It didn’t matter if I won or not.
That was before social media and all that, so you were only exposed to events that were actually on TV. I’d no idea that we had world class race walkers in Ireland. Jimmy McDonald finished 6th at the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992. By the 2000 Olympics we had four race walkers on the team, with Gillian O’Sullivan going on to finish 2nd in the World Championships in 2003. The first global success for our walkers in my era.
At the time, I didn’t even know that these people existed. I think the first time that I saw an Irish person race walking on TV was when Rob was 6th in 2007. To me, it was mad that Irish people could be in the top eight in the World Championships.
I started doing sprint events initially to try and beat my brother. He was four years older than me and he had a Gold medal from the All-Ireland Community Games in the Under-10s 100 metres.
” I just became obsessed with winning medals.
I was at Under-13 level before I discovered race walking. Someone was just like, “There’s another race going on over there”, and I just jumped in. It happened to be a walking race, so I was just trying to copy everyone else in the race because I’d never seen it before. I ended up winning the race and qualified to the next level.
I thought, “This could be another event where I could win some medals.” So, I tried it for another year. I was winning in the Under-14 All-Ireland and I got disqualified with 80 metres to go. I was devastated.
Looking back, it probably made my career because race walking was hard. I had a plan to win that race and get the Gold medal and move onto something else. Then, when I got disqualified, I said, “There’s no way I’m giving up now.” I came back the following year and came second so I had to go again. I came back, and back, and back – but I didn’t win that All-Ireland Gold medal until Under-19. At that point, I realised I’d been at it for seven years, so I thought I may as well keep going.
Fast forward to September 2011, and I’m taking part in a 50km race in Germany. Rob Heffernan and Colin Griffin lined up alongside me. All three of us were going for the Olympic A standard. Of course, Rob was well able for it. He qualified with over 10 minutes to spare. I was so focused on the splits in my race. Every lap was like, bang! I was half a second inside the target for every lap. Then on the last lap, confusion.
People were starting shouting at me, “You’ve to make up 30 seconds.” I was confused. My body went into panic mode and I turned it on for the last kilometre.
”For the whole race, for 49 kilometres, I thought that I was doing great. Then, for the final stretch, I had to tell myself, “Right, kick for home.” It was madness.
I came in just under 3:58 and the standard was 3:59, so all along I had nothing to worry about, someone had just confused the standards.
That race was a big one for me.
It wasn’t until the following May that I found out that I’d been selected for London 2012. It was a tough few months waiting around. Then they just email you and say, “You’re on the team.”
Everyone was patting me on the back telling me how great I was for qualifying for the Olympics, and then I’d go training with Rob and he’d just crush me. Part of me hated that.
I trained every day with Rob in Spain in the summer before London. It was an eyeopener.
A lot of the training is tough, both physically and mentally. A lot of the training we do for a 50k is done in a tired state of mind. Your body would be constantly tired when you’re training, so when you step on the line for a race your adrenaline is going and you’re feeling great. That would get you through the first 30k maybe, then you’ve to rely on your training to get you through the last 20k. That’s when people are going to be making moves and being competitive.
I ended up going to London and taking three-minutes off my PB in the heat. I was delighted with the result. It was only Rob and me who got PB’s in those games. He ended up smashing the national record by eight minutes and he got his upgrade to a Bronze, which he rightly deserved. He had a phenomenal race, and I was delighted with what I achieved, coming 29th and eventually getting upgraded to 26th.
After London, I asked Rob to coach me.
I’d been living in England up until London 2012. I was moving back to Donegal and I knew I couldn’t live a professional life living at home. Between Mam cooking me dinners, and me just not having the motivation to go outside, life at home was too comfortable, and I needed to be uncomfortable to get results. I decided I wanted Rob to coach me.
I waited until the games were finished and let him enjoy his time. There was a bit of radio silence for a while, but then in the October I got a text saying, “If you want me to coach you, you have to move to Cork.” Three days later I was living in a spare room in a fella’s house I’d never met before. I was out training with Rob every day. It was probably more of a mentorship at that stage.
At the European Championships in Zurich in 2014, Yohann Diniz broke the world record and blew everyone out the water. Rob was a bit depressed after that. He maybe had a sense of his number of chances running out and at the same time I was coming through, so there was a bit of friction that winter. He wanted to focus on himself again, so I was basically in Cork coaching myself.
There was only seven seconds between us in the Rio qualification race in Slovakia in 2015. That was the closest we’d ever been in a race. Thankfully we both qualified, and qualified early. We had a chat after that and he was impressed that I was able to do it on my own. Since then I feel like we’ve been on the same page and have developed a great relationship built on mutual respect.
The dynamic between us has developed over the years. When he retired, he was able to put more focus into solving some of the challenges I faced. Before, if there was a problem with me, he would just have to drive on with his own training, but now if there’s any problems, he wants to fix them straight away. He puts a lot of energy and time into me now.
The conditions at the World Championships in Doha were like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Rob and I always tried to put a positive spin on everything and be prepared for everything. I landed a couple of days before him and I was trying to explain to him how bad the heat was, but he wasn’t convinced. He said he’d know better when he got there and got a feel for it himself.
Two days before the race, Rob landed. He’d raced in crazy hot races in Beijing and Osaka, but this was something else. He knew this was different gravy.
We could kind of tell from the other athletes that they were starting to panic a bit about the conditions. I wouldn’t be the fastest athlete so we knew a slow race would suit me better. Rob convinced me that it was going to be my day. We’d a plan in place that we were going to be conservative and we kind of hoped that everyone else would just crack, which is eventually what happened.
It took a lot of mental energy to not go faster. The pace was so slow. Frustratingly slow at times. There were points around 15/20k into it when I felt that I should be going faster, but he convinced me to hold it until the 40k mark and see if I was feeling good enough to push on. By the time we got to the 40k I was already in the top eight without even thinking about it. At that stage it was just about finishing out the race.
My last 10k was my fastest and probably, if there had been another couple of kilometres, I could have gone again – but that was it. That’s racing. You have to believe in your strategy. We got the most out of the day and to finish 6th in the world was incredible.
I never plan anything for the finish line or the time after a 50k, because you just can’t predict how you’re going to feel. I have been dragged and wheeled off courses in the past. I don’t know what it was about that race, I just felt great coming into the last few hundred metres and felt the celebration coming on as I crossed the line.
”I don’t know what came into my head, but a moonwalk came out of my feet!
Finishing 6th in Doha was probably my way of paying Rob back for all the effort that he’s put in. It was a good way to pass the baton. In the last four World Championships, we’ve had a top eight finish in the 50k walk, so it’s probably the only event in Ireland that has such a legacy.
Cheating is a problem that athletics has to solve. At the moment I think the credibility of the sport is at an all-time low.
Kenyans are failing tests all the time. Russia is completely banned as a country. Instead of getting solved, cheating has reached unprecedented levels.
Back in 2017, I was fourth in the European Cup and the Ukrainian who was second in that race served a ban since then, but it wasn’t backdated. Did I miss out on medals? Maybe. I feel like I was the better athlete that day.
That’s why I felt so bad for Rob that time in London. His times would have won medals in every other Games. You can see how much it hurt. It’s tough.
You don’t know who’s the culprit until they’re caught. You just have to go into every race thinking that it’s fair game and everyone has a crack at it. But we’ve all seen that sometimes, that’s just not the case.
I know that the sport is doing its best to ensure that everyone is on a level playing field. How do you wipe it out? It’s a difficult question, and there’s no easy answer.
Despite the cheats, I definitely notice there is a bigger interest in race walking now than when I started out.
It’s the kind of event where the athletes only compete to be the best. It’s like a lot of technical events in athletics like the high jump or long jump; its all about the high-performance aspect of it.
”You won’t find someone doing high jump a few nights a week because it’s good craic.
I do a programme with the Olympic Federation of Ireland, going into schools and chatting to kids trying to motivate them to take part in sport. I kind of had three careers in Athletics. When I was eight or nine, I was winning loads with my sprinting, then between 10 and maybe 19 I wasn’t winning much at all. I’d loads of years where I just enjoyed being an athlete and training and trying to get better.
I always tell kids to just enjoy the sport, so they won’t be too disappointed when they don’t win. That’s what it probably was for me, I enjoyed the process.
The failures stopped me from retiring because I had to come back and do more. Do better.
I didn’t compete for Ireland until I was 24, so there is always hope.
Finishing sixth in the world gives me hope.
I’m going to Tokyo as a medal contender.
If you enjoyed Brendan’s piece you might like to read Chloe Watkins’ – “High Hopes”
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