Welcome to my world: Brendan Boyce walks on as everyone else joins in
Cork-based race-walker knows all about 2km circuits as he keeps up Olympic preparations
Ireland’s Brendan Boyce celebrates finishing sixth in the 2019 World Cup in Doha. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Brendan Boyce was recognised as Endurance Athlete of the Year for his performance in Doha. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Not many athletes can describe a lockdown in a time of a global pandemic as perfectly mimicking their normal training routine: seeing only the people you live with; having your whereabouts questioned; lots of walking within a 2km radius.
For Donegal race-walker Brendan Boyce it also offers some gentle amusement in the face of something as serious as Covid-19. As walking outside for exercise within that 2km radius becomes the new people’s game, temporarily at least, it also brings them a little closer to what he’s be doing for the best part of his life.
Already a two-time Olympian in the 50km walk, an event which takes place over a 2km a circuit, or 25 loops in all, Boyce is currently in one of the hardest blocks of training in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. Just because they’ve been postponed until 2021 doesn’t mean he can back off, and for now at least all this lockdown time is just another day in the life of a full-time race walker.
“Yeah, for me it’s been almost perfect conditions for training anyway,” says Boyce. “A lot of professional athletes are used to the isolation thing anyway, or being at home for most of the day. I’m also sleeping in an altitude tent, I’m in there 12 hours anyway, and training in the 2km radius is something I would normally race on too. So nothing major changed there.
“You do miss the training group though, because that’s the motivation to get out at a certain time, or place. You do slack off slightly on training times when you’re on your own. But I am really used to much of this by now, being in a massive block of training, without much competition, because I only have two or three big races every year.”
Home for the past year now has been in Midleton in Cork, Boyce sharing a house with his wife Sarah, in order to be closer to his coach and five-time Olympian Rob Heffernan, who won the World Championship 50km walk in 2013. Heffernan continues to deliver the training schedule, while Boyce has managed to find a 6km loop around his house, all which staying within the Covid-19 restriction.
“We’re living just outside of Midleton, and I have a 6km loop which just about maintains me within the 2km radius. So I can head out on that 6km loop for as many laps as required, add up the kms that way. The only option after that is whether you go clockwise or anti-clockwise.
“It’s more or less a big flat square, with my house in the middle of it, so a few right turns, and then I’m right back where I started. We’re trying to maintain the training as much as possible, up around 90, 95 per cent. Same as we’d be doing this time of the season.
“I was supposed to have a race coming up the first weekend in May, the 50km at the Walking World Cup, so if there is any relaxing on the lockdown by then, we’ll try to a time-trial somewhere. Just to have some kind of short-term goal in mind. Thankfully the weather has been picking up too, which makes it that bit easier to get out.”
After his excellent sixth-place finish at the World Championships in Doha last summer, duly celebrated by his moonwalk over the finish line, Boyce has been leaving nothing to chance in his preparations for Tokyo. At 33, his 50km best of 3:48.13, set last year too, is second only to Heffernan’s 3:37.54, and race-walkers often don’t peak until their late 30s, and Tokyo is still calling in every sense.
One of his regular training partners in the Heffernan group is the fast-improving David Kenny, only he’s currently based in Killarney, still working in the local shop. Again there is nothing new about the loneliness of the long-distance race walker, yet Boyce does miss the company.
“The wife might come out on the bike and help me with drinks on the longer sessions, if she’s free. She’s working from home, in the pharmaceutical business, a manager in the company and still busy out. Last week was actually my biggest training week this season, 170km, one day I did 34km, on the Tuesday, another 35km on the Saturday, so it’s still big volume.
“When the season comes around again and especially going into next year you don’t want to be losing any conditioning. I did buy a treadmill a few weeks, after reading about the total lockdown in Italy and Spain, no one could get out. I was getting a bit worried I wouldn’t be able to get out at all, but thankfully I haven’t needed to use it yet.”
Seeing so many other walkers on the roads around Midleton does offer some encouragement and some challenges too: “You have to be a little more observant. I’ve never actually needed to listen to music anyway, because for me, walking is so technical you do have to be concentrating all the time. There’s no such thing as going out for a stroll, drifting off. You’re always thinking about your technique, and form, and pace.
“But yeah I’d be flying passing by most people, including some of those out jogging, and I’ve had to cross the road a few times, try not to brush past them too fast. It also gives me that bit more appreciation for the life I’m able to live, and can continue to train through, essentially as a full-time athlete, being thankful as well for the grants money.
“But if people aren’t used to walking this much, it’s important to pace yourself, you can overdo it. Progress slowly. Hopefully people will be able to maintain this exercise routine when things eventually get back to normal, realise there’s a lot to be got from walking outside in the fresh air. That would be one positive to come out of it anyway.”