One Step At A Time

'A lot of the guys will keep going until they collapse, I've done it myself' - the agony of 50km racewalking

Brendan Boyce talks to The42 about the rigours of his craft and his hopes for Tokyo 2020.

AN ELITE RACEWALKER has a lot of factors to consider during their long journey to the finish line.

brendan-boyce-celebrates Brendan Boyce coming taking sixth place at the world championships. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland’s Brendan Boyce specialises in the 50km event although he is also a back-to-back national champion over the 30km distance. He’s no stranger to 20km or 3km jaunts either.

But the 50km will be his poison of choice at the 2020 Olympics, and for the Donegal native, that’s a four-hour slog through a 2km loop circuit.

Managing pace, fluid intake, and walking technique are just some of the many things that Boyce must think about about during his races. Four hours is a long time. And when you have to walk within strict rules to avoid disqualification, the task is all the more grueling.

Participants must have one foot on the ground at all times while also keeping the supporting leg straight. And on and on they go for lap after lap. Not all the racers make it to the finish line.

In short, it’s an assault on the senses.

Boyce has a whole team of people helping him to plan out his race with all the aforementioned factors in mind. Any miscalculation could derail him or possibly even ruin his race.  

“When you’ve been doing it for this long you’re conditioned to that movement,” Boyce reasons about the excruciating pursuit.

“You wouldn’t be thinking about your shins or anything during the race. It’s just about the general conditions and you’ve to go through that for nearly four hours.

“And then mentally, to have the preparation and the tactics ready for the race. And then just delivering something on the day. It’s quite similar to the other events like the 400m hurdles where tactics and technique are important.

“If you miss your stride pattern in the 400m hurdles that could wreck your race. You see people die in the last 50m in those races so it’s kind of similar but a different extreme to other events.”

brendan-boyce There are a lot of factors to take into account during a race. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Boyce has never collapsed in the middle of a race. He has fallen to his knees after the finish line on a few occasions, including the London 2012 Olympics when he was “carted off in a wheelchair.”

He also succumbed to the fatigue after the European championships in Zurich and was “lifted back into the dressing room after the race.” But he has yet to crumble in the middle of the race.

Not every walker has been so lucky. Boyce estimates that around 10% of the field fails to finish in racewalking. Of the 80 athletes who started the 50km in the Rio Olympics, only 49 made it to the end. Disqualification and fatigue took care of the rest.

There were 46 entries for the 50km at the World Championships in Doha this year. That race began at 11.30pm due to the sweltering conditions, and on that night, 18 failed to finish in the heat.

Boyce came home in sixth place, crossing the line in a time of 4:07:46. He even managed to fit in a moonwalk at the finish, although his team jokingly doubted that he would make it that far.

It just depends. In Doha, I felt fine at the end where maybe everyone was expecting you to need the wheelchair. That’s what team management was talking about, they said ‘we’ll get the wheelchair ready for you.’ I was like, ‘yeah, no bother.’

“It’s an easy event to get wrong because you can feel good [but] if you push too hard early on you’re going to hit the wall and suffer badly. I’ve seen guys pull out of races before the two-hour mark or even half-way, just they got it all wrong.

“Some people refuse to give up in their mind. A lot of the guys are so mentally strong, they’ll keep going until they collapse. I’ve done it myself.

“Luckily I’ve made it to the end of all my races before I collapsed so you’re not really thinking, you’re just happy you’re finished. You know you’ve got all the time in the world to recover. You’re not too bothered about what happens next.

“There’s good medical support at all these big events so you know you’ll be looked after even if you do collapse. It’s just something you have to be prepared.”

As for that moonwalk celebration:

brendan-boyce-celebrates Boyce moonwalking to 6th place in Doha. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“I hadn’t planned it,” he laughs.

“I generally don’t plan celebrations because you don’t know what you’re gonna look like coming into the finish.

“You could be just happy to make it over the line. So there was definitely no pre-meditation in that. It was just something that happened.”

Topping up their fuel levels is essential for racewalkers as well. Boyce says walkers burn around 4,000 calories during a race, which is almost twice what the average man is advised to consume per day in a balanced diet.

But taking on the water is a tightrope effort. Under-fueling leaves an athlete running on empty and could lead to a mid-race collapse. There are consequences to over-fueling too, and it requires a trip to the toilet.

There are some high-profile incidents of mother nature getting the better of the competitors on the course. 

It’s not against the rules to tip out to the bathroom briefly before resuming the race, but Boyce has resisted the urge so far in his career.

There was definitely one of the Olympic qualifiers for 2012, I was desperate and I needed to go. But I just had the splits in my head [and they] didn’t allow for me to stop so I had to keep going.

“If I lost any seconds, I would have been outside the qualifying time so I just had to suck it up and keep going. A lot of the time, some people will stop. It’s common for people to jump into the toilets for 30 seconds because you’re taking on so much fluid.

In Rio, we were taking on like a litre every hour. You’re taking on a lot of fluid and it can definitely happen.

 ”Luckily for me it hasn’t happened in any of the big races.”

brendan-boyce Boyce in action in Rio. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Boyce has a drink strategy in place that he has been refining with his team since his first Olympics at London 2012.

There’s some wiggle room in there to tweak the tactics, depending on the temperature and other changeable factors that can crop up on race day. But the overall plan is pretty much set in cement.

Walkers are able to communicate with their coaches during the race too. The intimate setting of the 2km loop allows for them to talk through their race plan or even just take a sip of water. 

Boyce’s mentor is Olympic bronze medalist Rob Heffernan, and between them, they’ll decide when it’s time to push on through the gears, and when it’s time to hold back.

“You’re always trying to manage your effort levels because sometimes you can’t really rely on your own feelings sometimes,” Boyce explains.

The adrenaline can make you feel good when maybe you shouldn’t feel good. 

“It’s important to have coaches there as well. They can either back up what you’re thinking or tell you to do something different. Whenever Rob is giving me information, I’m pretty good at trusting him because he’s been through everything.

“The walk is on a 2km lap so I get to see Rob twice on a lap. I’ll pass him on one side of the course and then I’ll pass him when he’s giving me my drinks. He gives me information twice per lap but it might only be one or two words at a time.

“When you have that trust and he might only say two words to me and I know it means whatever it means whereas the guy next to me mightn’t understand it.”

In the early days, Boyce couldn’t train for three weeks after completing a race, such was the trauma it left on his body. With practice though, the toil has lessened over the years. 

Two years ago, Boyce was up to do an easy 6km walk after completing a 50km race the day before. But with Tokyo on the horizon, recovery time is still crucial.

brendan-boyce-and-rob-heffernan Rob Heffernan is Boyce's manager. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

He has a few races earmarked for his calendar in 2020 as part of his Olympic preparation, starting with a road race at the end of January.

2019 has been an excellent year for Boyce. He achieved a string of PB times and picked up the Endurance Athlete of the Year award at the National Athletics awards last month to cap off a solid campaign.

His sixth place finish in Doha is an encouraging result on the world stage as he turns his attention towards the Olympics. A medal is a genuine prospect for the Donegal man, who is living in Cork at the moment to train with Heffernan.

But as he discovered long ago, racewalking is a delicate craft. A lot of things can happen to throw you off your stride.

“Probably even before Rio, we were always targeting Tokyo as the big one and I think I was saying that 2019 would be an important year,” says an excited Boyce.

 ”Even back in 2015/2016 we were targeting 2019 as a year to really try and put myself out there to get some results and have people take notice. Hopefully not go into the Olympic year as a big shock that I’d be in the lead group or challenging for medals.

“It does take a long time to build up that experience and get those results that people can relate to.

You just have to put yourself in a position where a medal is a possibility. In the last four decades, we’ve only had three medals in athletics at Olympic level so it’s not something that I want to say ‘I want to go to Tokyo to try and win a medal.’ It’s so hard.

We’re definitely going to put everything we can in place to do that. And then if it comes off on the day, we’ll look like geniuses then.”

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