Evan Dunfee in the 50km race walk at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 (© Getty Images)
“You can do this. You know this. You got this.”
When the fatigue was reaching a crescendo, when Evan Dunfee’s legs and arms and lungs and heart were held ransom by the slow, torturous pain of the 50km race walk, this was his negotiation strategy. This was his way out.
It was a hot, humid night on the Corniche waterfront, and there was 10km left in the longest event of the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019. Over the previous three hours Dunfee had sliced through the 50km race walk field, from 19th after 10km to 15th at halfway to fifth at 40km.
And now here he was, with 45 more minutes to endure before he could call himself what he so badly wanted: a world championships medallist.
“I just kept telling myself, ‘this is like training, you’ve got 10K to go, how many 10Ks have you done in training?’”
In times like that, it helps to find a higher purpose. Dunfee thought of his parents, who were watching back home in Canada. “They sacrificed so much and have always been there for me,” he says.
He also thought of Jessie, his grandmother who passed away last December.
Ten months on, Dunfee chokes up when he mentions her name, but the pain is soon replaced by a nostalgic smile when he remembers her presence, the great effect she had on shaping his life.
“This is my first big race without her here and she used to always say, ‘race with wings on your feet,’” he says. “I just kept telling myself that.”
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September 20th, 1918. How different the world was 100 years ago. You’ve seen it transform. When I asked you for some words of wisdom on how to make it to 100, you simply said, ‘keep opening your eyes in the morning’. I’ve never known anyone in my life to be as humble as you and yet you can see how deeply proud you are to have raised the family that you have! I know that making it to 100 was one of the last boxes you really wanted to check, anything now is bonus time (The only remaining unchecked boxes are seeing your last two grandchildren get married... but you resigned yourself to missing that one years ago, our bad! 😅). So, happy birthday, you made it! You’re the best Nana ever, I love you! ❤️
He thinks back to his childhood, growing up in Richmond in British Columbia and how his grandmother had always fostered his love of sport.
A native of New Zealand, she would get hilariously animated when the All Blacks played rugby, and when her beloved BC Lions – a Canadian football team – scored a touchdown, she would pick up Evan’s cousin and run around the room, holding her like a football.
“She was the most passionate sports fan ever,” he says.
And so when times got tough, when the medal he craved was within his grasp but not yet in his clutches, he thought of her and dug a little deeper.
Dunfee had fallen just short before, most memorably at the 2016 Olympic Games where he crossed the line fourth but was upgraded to third after Japan’s Hirooki Arai was disqualified for making contact with Dunfee in the closing kilometres.
Arai was re-instated to third after an appeal by the Japanese team, and though Dunfee could have appealed again to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, he chose not to, saying: “I believe the right decision stood.”
And so his wait for a medal continued, until the early hours of that Sunday morning in Doha. Dunfee had logged 4,800 kilometres in training in 2019, averaging 110-115km each week and going as high as 180km a week.
During an altitude camp in St Moritz, Switzerland, he logged 730km over the course of a month alongside Sweden’s Perseus Karlstrom and New Zealand’s Quentin Rew. “Two of the best training partners you could ever ask for,” he says. “We’re such an international bunch. The camaraderie in race walking is so amazing.”
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A Swede, a Pole, a Lithuanian, a Kiwi and a Canadian meet up in Switzerland to go for a walk. (What’s the punch line?) • True supernovian session today with everyone crushing their long walks and their Carb targets. No high fat for this crew! • 40km- 3:13:00; 88g CHO/ hour; 2.3L fluid. Busted out a 4:02 last km for good measure. • #teamtap #nuunlife #doha2019 #tokyo2020 #teamNB #athletics #fitness #fitfam #newbalance #teamcanada
He knew what to expect in Doha. Everyone did: sweltering heat, high humidity, and the tricky task of going to his limit at a time when he’s usually tucked up in bed.
Yet while he knew what to expect, he had no idea whatsoever how his body would cope.
“It was a game of chess that I came into not fully knowing the rules,” he says. “It’s really hard to prepare for this.”
He and coach Gerry Dragomir had studied the splits from the women’s marathon the previous night and figured that in the conditions, the best strategy was to go out 10 percent slower than normal. He would also go to the line with the lowest possible core temperature.
Dunfee took a 10-minute ice bath before entering the call room, then kept a towel filled with ice on his shoulders until the start.
Earlier that day, he and Canadian teammate Mathieu Bilodeau cut up women’s nylon clothing they had bought in order to create ice wraps they could lay around their necks, blaring Taylor Swift songs in their room as they did so.
“We were like, ‘are we preparing for a 50K or are we teenage girls doing arts and crafts?’” laughs Dunfee.
But their preparation paid off. In performance terms, Dunfee figured he was unlikely to be one of the three fittest athletes in the race so getting on the podium would require a gamble on a different race strategy to the favourites.
World record-holder Yohann Diniz stepped off the course before 20km, with Olympic champion Matej Toth also surrendering shortly after halfway. “They’re phenomenal athletes, some of the best ever in this event, and it just shows how tough the conditions were,” says Dunfee.
On the 25-lap course, there were 74 opportunities for athletes to pick up drinks and Dunfee used them all. At water stations he’d pick up two bottles, a sponge, and drink as much as he could stomach. At the personal drinks station on each lap he’d take his carbohydrate drink, put on a hat that had been sitting in ice, and place the ‘neck sausage’ of ice they had made over his shoulders.
One by one, he began to pick off the vanquished.
Dunfee hadn’t been most people’s idea of an athlete to thrive in the heat – a red-haired, fair-skinned Canadian who grew up in cold winters. But looks can be deceiving.
“I hate the cold,” he says. “I go to Australia every winter to avoid that so I get a lot of heat training in all year.”
The race began just before midnight on Dunfee’s 29th birthday, and a little over four hours later he got the best present of all.
As Japan’s Yusuke Suzuki took gold in 4:04:20, with Portugal’s Joao Vieira grabbing silver in 4:04:59, Dunfee powered to the line just behind to take bronze in 4:05:02.
“To finally get up there on that podium, everything we worked for all year paid off,” he says. “This medal belongs to so many.”
His achievement had been 20 years in the making, but in recent times Dunfee discovered a new way to use race walking for a greater good. In the autumn of 2018, feeling a bit burnt out by the sport, he started a challenge to walk 25km a day for 25 days to raise money for KidSport BC, which promotes participation among local youngsters in British Columbia.
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24 days behind me. 1 to go. So far, with over $8,000 raised more than 20 kids will get to experience a season of sport thanks to @kidsportbc. Can we get to 10K and help 25 kids? Dunfeewalks.com to donate today and receive your tax receipt. 📸 @eyebrows_the_internet ••• #SoALLKidsCanPlay #marathontraining #fitness #walking #olympics #nuunambassador #TeamNB #marathon #fundraise #charity
“I used my skill of walking fast – which is a not very useful skill in the real world – to try to do something good,” he says. “It completely re-invigorated why I do this. I’m no longer doing it just for me, I’m doing it for everyone else who supports me – all those kids back home who may look up to me as a role model.”
But when he felt the fire wane, did Dunfee ever think about walking away?
“Oh god no!” he laughs. “I have no idea what else I would do. This is literally the only thing I know how to do. No, the real world terrifies me so I’ll keep doing this as long as I can.”
He laughs again when he thinks back on the odds he defied to become a world medallist. “I was the shortest kid in the class, red curly hair, big thick-rimmed glasses, no one was pegging me as this,” he says. “If I can do it, everyone can do it.”
In the wake of his achievement, it almost seems unfair to look ahead, but with the 2020 Olympic Games now less than 10 months away, it’s the inevitable point of discussion.
“I wasn’t the third fittest athlete in the field [in Doha], I might have been the third smartest but this time next year I want to be at least the third fittest,” says Dunfee, who will be competing at the upcoming Around Taihu International Race Walking competition in China. “I want to be in that driver’s seat, to dictate, to be in that position where if I have a good race it doesn’t matter if anyone else has a good race.
“I can win a medal,” he adds. “That’s going to be the goal for the next 10 months.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF