at the races Evan Dunfee is Gold

Evan Dunfee is Gold

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Evan Dunfee is a 31-year-old race walker from Richmond, B.C. and his magnetic personality and fun social media feed has made him something of a phenomenon in our sport. Over the weekend, competing at the Commonwealth Games, Dunfee earned a gold medal and set a Canadian record in the 10,000 metre race walk, an event he competed in because his preferred distance—fifty kilometres—was eliminated, despite his protests. With an amazing kick in his last lap, Dunfee wowed spectators and family and friends watching back home. iRun editor Ben Kaplan caught up with Dunfee, who was still on something of a race walker’s high, deservedly, after his race.

iRun: Explain your kick at the end. Was it a concerted attempt to speed up, was it something you planned, and did something trigger in your mind?

Evan Dunfee: Going into the race I knew the pace had to be fast to give me the best chance of getting a medal. I wasn’t sure how fast I was able to go. I didn’t really think a PB was possible because when I walked 38:39 last year I was just in phenomenal shape and the conditions were perfect. But I wanted to go for sub 39 at least, hold on and hope that that was enough. But I was also fine letting others do the work so long as the pace stayed quick. So off the gun the Kenyan went straight to the front and I thought, “sweet, tuck in.” The Kenyan and the Indian exchanged the lead a couple times early on and we went through 1km in 3:50 and I thought that was a little too quick, but whatever we were all together and willing to take it on.

iRun: Were you nervous?

ED: At one point the pace started to slow a bit so I moved to the front, but quickly got passed again and the pace stayed hot. We came through 2k in 7:41 and it was warm (27 degrees) and we didn’t (to our knowledge) have water on the track. So I think it started to slow a little bit after that: 3, 4, 5 were all 3:54 (39 min pace) and it felt pretty comfortable, but I lost a bit of confidence on pushing the pace on so was okay sitting back.

iRun: And what’s going through your mind?

ED: This was the part of the race where I found myself counting athletes in the pack and saying, “Well, I only have to beat x to win a medal.” We came through half way in 19:24 and we had discovered there was a woman standing in lane 5 with water bottles (not making it obvious at all), so being able to keep my mouth wet definitely helped me calm my breathing and brought back some confidence that I could solider on. At that moment Declan kicked off the front. I thought it was a decisive move and had a lap where I thought it was his.

iRun: Wow.

ED: I was at the back of our group in fifth just hoping two guys would crack. By 7km the first guy had cracked and we had started to pick it up going 3:52. I felt great, but the two in front were clearly slowing. I moved around one and, 200m later, I moved around the other and was in second place—chasing, 40m or so back. I felt great and put in a small surge and saw the gap shorten quite a bit so I settled in with lots of laps left too reel him in.

iRun: You were rolling!

ED: By 8km I had gotten on Declan’s shoulder, but was gassed. We had dropped the other racer by a decent gap, but I wasn’t confident that he wouldn’t charge back. The pace slowed again to 3:54 on the 9th km and I was just tucked in trying to hang on. With two laps to go it became clear that Declan might not have a kick in him. I spent the penultimate lap telling myself this was my race, that I could do this, I’ve kicked like this in training I can do it here. We hit the bell and the pace increased—but I found it easy to accelerate. So coming off the bend I kept going, put my head down and said: ‘just get to 200m to go and then you’re clear.’ Coming around the final bend I just tried to keep my feet low and with twenty metres to go started to celebrate.

iRun: What did that last lap feel like?

ED: Honestly, the last lap there wasn’t much feeling. The race had all gone by in what felt like a blink of an eye. 38 minutes—long for some, but incredibly short for me. I had my blinders on. 25,000 people in the stands was crazy and I didn’t want to let it psych me out so I was so zoned in that I never really got the moment of “holy crap you’ve won this thing” until after crossing the line. Tokyo had this hugely raw and guttural reaction that was incredibly overwhelming… this was more subdued. I smiled to myself because everyone else was right: “I just have to believe in myself.” I always write myself off on the shorter stuff. Partly because I love the longer stuff and I think it is a safety mechanism as my body has never tolerated anaerobic training as well as it has threshold work. But I went into this race telling myself I was just going to believe as much as all my supporters believe.   

iRun: You’ve been vocal about the 50k, about it being scrapped, and had a tough season all around. When racing, is everything else outside of your mind?

ED: This race everything else was outside of my mind—for sure. I was so turned off. But I’m not the kind of person who shuts off days before to zone in. I was happily scrolling Twitter 90 minutes before the race looking at random Vancouver political and housing news. Usually in the longer stuff I keep my mind free to wander to those sorts of thoughts for the first half of the race, just treat it like a training walk and then in the second half narrow that focus towards the task at hand. But 10km is much too short to do that! I was happy to be locked in.

iRun: Do you still feel as strongly about the 50K now that you’re a gold medallist in the 10,000 metres, or are the two topics not-related? Now that you’re a gold medallist, do you think you’ll have a stronger platform? 

ED: I’ll always speak to the value and place the 50km had. On the podium, when I got my medal from one of the WA Council members, I politely told him that he should have done more for the athletes to fight for our event. So in a sense, standing on the podium gives me that bigger platform. I did the same thing in Tokyo last summer as the two handing out the awards were IOC executive board members and I told them that they got rid of an amazing event, and that I hope they feel bad about it and have to carry that with them. They then, in a moment supremely devoid of any sense of irony, complained to the COC for being disrespected. But these are people who would never look me in the eye if not for that moment, so you take your opportunities when they come, because I know I’ll never find myself in the 5-star luxury hotel they’re staying at.

iRun: You’ve been vocal about the support you’ve received from family and friends and how they help you erase your own self-doubt. Can you talk about what that means to you?

ED: The support I have, from both those closest to me to people across the country and around the world, is phenomenal. It takes that support, that team, to succeed. And when we are all on the same page it’s magic. I’m my own worst enemy so I have to lean on them a lot to build me up. Having the more broad support I think is a testament to crafting out a career built on being my authentic self 100% of the time—for better or worse. I think people have appreciated that and while it won’t build me the 400,000 Instagram followers and sponsorship that comes with that, it’s given me a really tight knit group of people who make sharing my journey so much fun.

iRun: It’s interesting hearing you say that you’re your own worst enemy. Can you talk about how, even for all of us middle or back-of-the-pack athletes, how important is it to get a network behind you, to receive community support?   

ED: Everyone needs cheerleaders. All our goals are equally important and we need people in our lives who can remind us of our goals and help us stay on track. That’s really what that network is there for. And they’ll share in the ups and the downs and they’ll be there when you need them just as you’ll be there when they need you. It’s community in the purest sense of the word.

iRun: Love that, man. I’ve always found you such a credit to our sport.

ED: My job is amazing, and my passions that fall outside of “job,” but are closely aligned, are ever shifting and evolving. Anyone who has followed me on Twitter will be acutely aware of this shift these days as sport content gets mixed in with urbanism content and municipal politics. I love it, and I don’t use social media in a traditionally productive way (I’m also terrible with Instagram and the like because I find I communicate best with words) and I struggle to be okay with how I choose to use social media and I often find myself getting anxious over not doing it “right.” Especially these days when there is next to no sponsorship coming in it makes it tough. But I think I’d lose a lot of the fun if I started forcing myself to use social media differently. And hopefully sponsors are out there, I just need to find them. 

iRun: You will, for sure. And at least you make the whole thing look fun.

ED: The thing that brings me the most joy is my school talks. Getting to put my Olympic medal in every single kid’s hand and tell them my dream to win that started when I was just like them, sitting  on the gym floor at an assembly and if I could go on to win it then what is stopping them from going on to achieve their own dreams? And at the same time doing that as a fundraiser for KidSport so that the students can directly help get more kids playing sport and maybe sparking athletic dreams, or if nothing else life long friendships that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. 

iRun: So you win the gold medal; what happened next?

ED: I celebrated the best way I know how, at the track cheering on my teammates, taking pictures with kids wearing my medal, and eating a 4-pack of doughnuts. Honestly, this is the first time I’m thinking about it, but it was 100% on brand.