Evan Dunfee ()Evan Dunfee () © Copyright

Evan Almighty

For someone who normally runs no more than 15km a week, a 1:10:44 half marathon debut isn’t too shabby. Canadian 50km race walk record holder Evan Dunfee talks about his running exploits. 

“Since Rio I knew I wanted to take a little bit of a break from walking,” explains Evan Dunfee. “Just mentally I needed something else to focus on and running seemed like the obvious outlet.”

At the Olympics, the 26-year-old set a Canadian record of 3:41:38 in the 50km race walk and finished a narrow fourth behind Japan’s Hirooki Arai after the pair got tangled up during the penultimate kilometre of the race. Dunfee collapsed at the finish line, physically and mentally exhausted. He needed time off.

“September was my ‘train if you want to month’ and I think I did five walks before the Tour of China races at the end of that month. October was a ‘train if you have time month’, where if I had nothing else to do, I would kick myself out the door and do a run.”

During a fundraising dinner in November, Dunfee got talking to Canadian team pursuit cycling bronze medallist Jasmin Glaesser, who mentioned she was racing the 10km at the Fall-Classic Half Marathon in Vancouver. She encouraged him to run. They made a bet and Dunfee signed up for the 21.1km race.

He got in a couple of runs ahead of race day including a 34:15 for 10km two days before the half because he “wanted to know how that pace felt”. His ambition was simply to have fun and run sufficiently hard to “scratch the running itch” that had been nagging him since Rio.

On race day the Olympian received no special treatment. He struggled to find parking and was running slightly late. His warm-up consisted of a “three minute jog from the parking lot to the toilets and then a couple leg swings”. No call room, no strategy talks with coach.

As the race started he found himself alongside David Eikelboom, who said he was aiming for a 1:10. Dunfee decided to stick with him and see how long he could keep up the pace, fully expecting to “die a slow death”.

“I went through 10km with a PB [33:46], but was feeling good so I decided to try to pick it up a little bit, thinking all of a sudden that 70 minutes might be do-able,” recalls Dunfee.

“But by 17km the hills had taken their toll and while aerobically I was feeling okay, my legs had been shredded and I slowed marginally over the final few kilometres.”

Shredded legs aside, he finished in 1:10:44 and won the race. Itch scratched.

Evan Dunfee is helped off the course after finishing fourth at the Rio Olympics ()

 What's a half marathon for someone who can survive a 50km race walk?

The attention Dunfee has received since his victory on Sunday makes him laugh. He describes it as “a little overblown”.

“I mean 1:10:44 is good, but it’s nothing to write home about,” he says modestly. The sudden peak in interest could, however, have something to do with the realisation that race walkers are serious athletes, as tough as they come. The complexity of the event is often misunderstood, and race walkers often underestimated as athletes.

“I think it is tough with the 20km and 50km distances that those times don’t relate much to people,” Dunfee offers by way of explanation. “When I tell people I went through 42km in Rio in around 3:06, that always gets way more shock and awe than 50km in 3:41:38.”

His event is without a doubt the longest and most gruelling in athletics, so Dunfee is used to pain. Running a half marathon was a different experience.

“[I run] no more than 15km a week. Usually it is just the odd afternoon run after a 40 or 45km morning session when you really don’t want to walk again. But they are usually slow, meandering runs.”

The biggest challenge in his experiment, he says, was “feeling like a runner”. In race walking you get disqualified for picking up your feet; for running it’s vital.

“For me the hardest part is still the impact. We don’t have that level of impact in the walk, so my ankles, calves, quads and IT bands are a little worse for wear,” he reflects.

His observation begs the question of what’s harder: running or walking?

“Running above threshold is certainly easier than walking above threshold because you don’t have to worry as much about technique. But for low intensity stuff, I’d way rather go out for a 45km walk at 5min/km [that’s 3:30 marathon pace 😭] than a 45km run.”

He has no ambitions of making a permanent switch from walking to running any time soon, but admits the win “planted a seed of curiosity” of what he could do with a little bit of training.

For now, his sights are firmly set on the podium at the 2017 World Championships in London. The only race he’d consider running before that is on the track – to break his 1500m 4:15 high school PB. Both look very realistic goals to achieve.

RE-READ: How to survive the 50km race walk