It was a lifetime of work, packed into four ferocious hours, and at the end of it Brendan Boyce had his just reward. Sixth in the world in the 50km race walk, an event that seems to encapsulate his very existence.
Or as he put it shortly after 4am in Doha on Sunday morning: “Misery is happiness for me.”
It was the performance of the 32-year-old’s life, and when he turned and moonwalked across the line after four gruelling hours of toil in the low-30s temperatures and soaring humidity, he was overcome with a euphoria that soon saw his exhaustion evaporate into the night sky.
The race was won by Japan’s Yusuke Suzuki in 4:04:20 and in the four hours, seven minutes and 46 seconds that Boyce had been marching back and forth - 25 times in all around the waterfront promenade - he had come to realise something about both himself and the nation he so proudly represented.
“Being Irish, we just love misery so the 50K is perfect for me, being out there and being miserable for four hours,” he laughed. “My training was so good, it didn’t matter what the conditions were - I was going to be top six or top eight. It worked out perfectly.”
This was the kind of suffering he lives every day. The kind he loves.
“It was actually easy for 40K because I zoned out, I thought of it as a 40K training session and a 10K race,” he said.
He passed 10km in 17th and 25km in 14th, but as conditions took their toll on his rivals the Finn Valley athlete was only getting stronger, climbing to sixth entering the final 10km.
By that stage his coach, Rob Heffernan, was in a full-on frenzy, handing Boyce his drinks and imploring him to maintain focus, to leave it all out there.
“I can transcend myself through Brendan I’m still living through him,” said Heffernan, who saw the conditions as a help to his chances. “You can give yourself an out-clause with the heat, but going into a 50K you have to be 100 percent focused on your own journey. I said to him: ‘you’ve done this on your own in Cork with no attention so whether you’re in first or 20th, you follow the process.’”
Boyce missed just three days of training over the past year and arrived with the perfect confluence of fitness and a willingness to fight. “The problem with Brendan was trying to hold him back,” said Heffernan. “He’s a perfect role model and he’s dedicated his whole life to it.” And now it was time for the payoff.
Amid all the pain, Boyce found the energy to moonwalk across the line in celebration at an achievement most observers would have deemed beyond him.
Moments later he fell into the arms of his wife, Sarah, and of all the people he thanked special credit was reserved for her.
His thoughts soon turned to next year’s Olympics. “If I can put another 10 months together I’ll be in contention for a medal,” said Boyce. “I’m not as fast as everyone else but I can just grind, grind, grind for 50K so bring on Tokyo, I want to win that medal.”
Elsewhere there was no joy for fellow Irish competitors Thomas Barr and Mark English. Barr bowed out of the men’s 400m hurdles after finishing fourth in his semi-final in 49.02.
“I’m disappointed, I thought it was going to be faster,” said Barr. “I really went for it over that first 200 and maybe it cost me a little in the home straight. It’s one of those years, but I’ll use it as fuel for the fire for next year.”
Mark English’s championships came to an abrupt end in the first round of the men’s 800m, the three-time European medallist bowing out after finishing seventh in his heat in 1:47.25. “I decided to put myself in contention for one of the six fastest losers’ spots but it didn’t work out,” he said. “I’ll have to sit down and look at everything this season and see what I can do for next year.”
Irish in action today: Phil Healy, women’s 200m heats: 3:05pm (Irish time)