With the World Championships starting tomorrow, athletes are in their final preparations before representing Great Britain. Some are seasoned veterans, well versed in the intricacies and oddities associated with competing at major championships. For others this is their first World Championships, the biggest stage they have performed on. Issy Boffey is one athlete in the category. Ahead of the biggest race of her career, the 800m athlete spoke to James Rhodes about her season to date, breaking two minutes for the first time – including advice on how to celebrate from her coach Luke Gunn.
Running, a sport so frequently characterised by numbers. It is funny, in a way, that career-defining moments are often determined by a matter of milliseconds. The difference between a finishing time either side of an arbitrary value can be almost imperceptible; yet it is the most frequently used measure of success.
In the 800m, that value is two minutes. The barrier many women set out to achieve, one that 33 British women have achieved. Issy Boffey is the latest to do so, two laps of the track changing the course of her season, perhaps her career.
A hot and dry Saturday evening in Madrid. Saturday 22 July, to be precise. The racing gods aligned, tactics executed perfectly and goals realised. 1:59.30. Sub-two. An Olympic standard and, significantly, a World Championship qualifier on the penultimate day to set one. It was, it is fair to say, a long time coming.
Early Season Success
Issy’s year got off to a good start, running a 2:00.99 PB at the BMC Sheffield Grand Prix just nine days into 2023. It was particularly impressive given it was a race without a pacemaker and run entirely solo.
She improved to 2:00.25 the following month at the World Indoor Tour Final in Birmingham, having won the British Indoor title on the same track a week earlier. It secured a spot at the European Indoor Championships in Istanbul, her first senior GB vest. Easy qualification from the heats (2:03.24) was followed by a messy (and in her own words disappointing) semi-final that saw her finish sixth.
“It was a difficult one. You can’t really see it on the video, and if you weren’t there, you wouldn’t know, but I absolutely stacked it on the back straight. I was really expecting to get to the final. I’d gone in with the second fastest season best or something like that. It was a big shock and I was really emotional afterwards. But, ultimately, it was another learning curve”.
The outdoor season opened at the Belfast Irish Milers Meeting in May. Another personal best, this time 2:00.18. It was undoubtedly a good performance, but perhaps overshadowed by that of her training partner Abbie Ives. Ives ran 1:59.92, going in to that race with a 2:01.56 best. There were a range of emotions in the immediate aftermath:
“I ran a PB, so I was super happy with that. I was a little bit disappointed, but I also hurt my hamstring, so I was very stressed about that. At the time I actually didn’t focus on the fact that I hadn’t run sub-two or anything, I was like; ‘Have I just pulled my hamstring? What have I done?’. But I was so happy for Abbie. We train together and, I mean, if she could do it, I knew I could do it as well”.
A flurry of races faster than she had ever run at the start of the year followed. Five in the space of a month culminated with a second-place finish at the European Team Championships (2:00.39). Many people, whether it be in person or online, had said that it was only a matter of time before the formality of sub-two was ticked off. Whilst a goal, there was never a temptation to solely focus on that one arbitrary mark:
“Obviously I was trying, but I didn’t want to put that pedestal up there where the only way I’d be happy would be running sub-two. At the end of the day, the majority of races I have done this year have been quicker than my PB was last year. So I can’t really then complain too much. I think having that perspective sometimes is important, but it’s hard when people are going in your ear and they don’t necessarily know as much as my coach
In every race where I maybe could have run it there was one thing that I’d done wrong. It was never that I was trying really hard to get it and I had the perfect race. I was like it will happen when it happens”.
Last month’s British Championships did not go as hoped, finishing fifth in the slowest time of the season. It was not one to dwell on, however, as focus quickly moved to a positive response:
“Luke [Gunn, Issy’s coach] and I know what happened. There were many behind the scenes reasons why that race just didn’t really go very well. I was really upset on the day, obviously, you’ve been working towards that for the entire season and I really did not perform well in terms of the rest of my season.
We sat down the week after and Luke said ‘this is what happened, we know why that happened, let’s be done with it and move on. Let’s concentrate on trying to run well and having a really positive end of season’. It was definitely difficult but I bounced back pretty quickly”.
The Perfect Race
Bouncing back is perhaps an understatement. Acutely aware that the window for Olympic qualifying (1:59.30) opened, Issy headed to Madrid to act on that guidance from her coach. It was the perfect race. She recalls the moments immediately afterwards.
“When I crossed the line, I saw the girl in front of me had run 1:58. When the time came up on the board I was like; ‘what have I done?!’. I was beyond happy. I was a bit shocked, I wasn’t really expecting it to happen. But it was tactically one of my best races this year. I just made the moves that I’ve been meaning to make at every single other race this year. At the end of the day, I got it right. I ran the race that Luke and I had talked about.
Luke had asked me that week how i was going to react when I run 1:59. He said ‘you know you’ve got be dramatic for the cameras!’. So that was kind of all that was in my head. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I just ran the Olympic qualifying time!’. It creates some great pictures and videos of me, you see me screaming in the background of the live stream. I was very happy”.
It has provided plenty of confidence for the future (“it’s something that now I’ve done it once, hopefully I’ll have that confidence to be like, right, this is how you run 159. You can do it. Just do it every time!”).
I‘ve been working up to sub-2 for a long time – the support from everyone means the world https://t.co/QsJs3sDPOL
— Isabelle Boffey (@IsabelleBoffey) July 22, 2023
As well as confidence, it secured a spot at the World Championships. After the disappointment of Manchester, the phone call from British Athletics came as quite a surprise:
“Genuinely, when I got the call, I was so surprised. I hadn’t even considered Budapest. I was like; ‘it’s over, there are other people with the qualifying time, it makes sense for them to go’. Then everyone saying it on social media and I was like… no. I really didn’t think it was going to happen.
I’d already had my being-really-upset-about-it moment after the British Championships, so if it doesn’t happen, fine, if it happens, great. It’d obviously be amazing, but I’m not going to get my hopes up. Which is why, again, I was so surprised when they called me and said you’re going”.
Enjoying the Experience
It’s an experience Issy will be relishing, whilst not getting distracted from the most important part – the racing:
“It’s definitely a big deal. I’ve done the junior champs before, but this is the world stage. It’s definitely completely different, it’s a whole experience as well as just the racing. I’m going on a holding camp, you have a lot more British Athletics staff around you, there’s the big security and all that stuff. That’s definitely really exciting, but I’m quite lucky that my race is not until five days in so I have a lot of time to let that settle down and then focus on the races as if it is any other race.
I have targets and goals, but I’m very aware this is my first champs and I’m not really sure how it will go. I’m treating every race like it is a final and I think that’s the best mentality to go in with for someone in my position because it’s not going to be easy, it’s the World Champs! I want to enjoy the experience, but I don’t want to get too caught up in it because I want to race well. It’s a great opportunity to run another PB, if I could, and put a good marker down for the rankings next year, so the racing is important”.
There’ll be many people in Budapest (and at home) rooting for Issy. One of those is Hannah England. Husband of Issy’s coach Luke Gunn, she knows a thing or two about the World Championships, having won silver over 1500m in 2011, and finishing fourth in 2011. The pair have been able to share tips and advice on how to make the most of the occasion:
“She’ll be there commentating so hopefully I’ll be able to see her. She was so, so happy for me when I got the call and she just wants me to soak up the experience and enjoy it, as well as racing well. She’s my number one supporter. It’s really nice”.
Whatever happens, making the start line in Budapest is a deserved reward in a breakthrough season. The women’s 800m heats take place on Wednesday morning; Fast Running will be on the ground in Budapest providing coverage throughout.