A few strides from the finish line, Evan Dunfee pumped his fist in the air twice and flashed a grin – a moment of pure joy in what’s been a frustrating year since his thrilling bronze-medal triumph at the Tokyo Olympics.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Dunfee said. “Coming on here today was just for testing. I’m pleasantly surprised and happy with how it went today, and now it’s continuing to build back form and hopefully take this pace from today and extend it another 15k over 35 [kilometres, the world championship distance].”
The 31-year-old from Richmond, B.C., captured his ninth Canadian race walking title on Wednesday, pulling away from world bronze medalist Ben Thorne some 18 kilometres into the 20K event at Mission Raceway – normally home to motorsport – crossing in one hour 23 minutes 28.30 seconds.
Dunfee had been dealing with a nagging hamstring injury for months, but his mental health has taken the bigger beating. He suffered from post-Olympic blues that many athletes describe – and for which an Olympic medal is clearly no guaranteed salve. There was also the blow of the elimination of his best event, the Olympic 50K, after he’d so vigorously lobbied the International Olympic Committee to keep in the Games.
“There was slew of factors there with the hamstring injury, and then not properly dealing with the loss of the 50K. And just trying to sort of power through it without actually mourning the fact that it was gone,” Dunfee said.
Athletes find solace in physical activity.
“But in those moments when training wasn’t pain-free, it became another thing that was kind of drawing motivation away from me,” said Dunfee.
He eventually reached out to Canadian team doctor Paddy McCluskey and his sports psychologist Kirsten Barnes.
“So, it’s been a struggle for a lot of that time, I definitely feel like I’m coming up a little bit from it now. And life in general feels pretty good,” Dunfee said.
He plays rec hockey as a fun diversion. He enjoys speaking to kids, and has just finished signing 1,700 autograph cards to send to the schools he’s talked at this year. And of course, there’s the election. Dunfee, who is passionate about issues such as affordable housing, is running for Richmond city council in the fall.
“Things have certainly been better the last month-and-a-half, two months or so,” Dunfee said.
Dunfee has already clinched his berth for the world championships next month in Eugene, Ore., while Thorne, who’s making a comeback after stepping away from the sport in 2018, is hoping to nab a spot.
Thorne and Dunfee took turns sharing the lead before Thorne, a 29-year-old from Kitimat, B.C., faded, finishing second in 1:24.02.64.
“Can’t complain, that’s my fastest time since 2018, which is not saying a lot,” said Thorne, who was battling a sore foot and upset stomach over the final 5K. “Once Evan went past me, it was like: bonk! Out the back.”
Joean Lu won the senior women’s 20K race walk in 1:53.00.75.
While Dunfee has been pondering the end of his career, he’s not sure when that will be. Coming into the season he thought this might be his last.
“But I don’t want to end it on a year where I haven’t been able to give it everything,” he said. “So, that’s kind of motivated me to keep going for next year.”
Sticking around for Budapest is a big draw. While the world championships are normally held every two years, this summer’s were pushed back from 2021 because of the pandemic, so the next worlds are only a year away in Hungary.
Dunfee is one of the headliners at the Canadian championships, which are being held in front of a crowd for the first time in three years.
And while fans won’t have a chance to cheer on Olympic stars Damian Warner and Andre De Grasse, there are numerous spots on the world championship team that will be hotly contested this week.
“It’s great to get all the best Canadians together again, get to compete against each other, even if the [Tokyo] Olympics were a bit strange [with no crowd], and a bit spread out with the marathon runners in a different city and all sorts of strange things,” said Simon Nathan, Athletics Canada’s high performance director.
“So, it’s really good to be back here. Nice fresh track [at McLeod Athletic Park], hope for a good crowd and some enthusiasm and lots of qualifications on the line at the moment – it’s exciting, gives it some bite.”
De Grasse, a six-time Olympic medalist, recently contracted COVID-19, while Warner is skipping the meet because of a sore knee that’s been bothering him all season. Both received injury/illness exemptions.
“Andre and Damian are short-term issues that shouldn’t impact the world championships,” Nathan said.
De Grasse’s positive test was “really unfortunate timing,” he added. Bouncing back from an early-season foot injury, he’d posted a season’s best 10.05 to win the 100 metres at the Oslo Diamond League last week.
“He hadn’t been having the greatest season but turned things around. But my understanding is it’s not too serious,” Nathan said.
Moh Ahmed, the Olympic silver medalist in the 5,000 metres, is also scratched from the trials with an injury, but it’s not expected to impact his world championships.
“There’s definitely way more [injuries] than I would like,” Nathan said. “There’s a bit of a post-Olympic effect, which happens every cycle. And then that combined with such a short season until the next Olympics [2024 in Paris], I think people have been pushing hard.
“Then again, if you’re going to get hurt, now’s the time to do it,” he added.
COVID-19 forced cancellation of the Canadian championships in 2020, and then last year’s Olympic trials were held with small fields of competitors in each event in an empty stadium in Montreal.
Some of the weekend’s highlights include Marco Arop and Brandon McBride in the 800 metres. The two world-class runners are separated by just 0.06 seconds in their personal best times.
Nate Riech, who owns three Paralympic world records, will race the able-bodied 1,500 metres. Camryn Rogers is fresh off a third NCAA title in the hammer throw. Her Canadian record toss last week is ninth all-time in the world. And high jumper Django Lovett has a gold and bronze on the Diamond League circuit this season.