This article was originally published on the Toronto Star website.
Canadian athletes say race walking is misunderstood and unfairly criticized. And they are setting out to change that as they focus on making the Pan Am Games.
Ask Evan Dunfee what he does for a living and, until quite recently, he’d say “track and field.”
Push for a little more detail, and he’d offer up “longer distance stuff.”
The 24-year-old would delay as long as possible before providing the final bit of information: he’s a race walker, covering long distances with that distinctive hip-swinging and stiff-legged gait.
Go ahead, cue the laugh track.
But, as Dunfee points out, he and his teammates are generally passing the laughers who are running. “So really, we’re the ones who should be laughing.”
Together, Dunfee, a Canadian record-holder, Inaki Gomez, a London Olympian, and Ben Thorne form a small Vancouver-based training cadre for this often misunderstood sport.
Race walking has received a slight bump in attention lately because of numerous doping violations, particularly among the dominant Russian walkers. It turns out the sport that’s so easy to make fun of also happens to be so difficult that the past two 50-km Olympic champions have been caught doping.
“In a way, that’s not all bad,” Rachel Seaman, Canada’s fastest female race walker, says of the attention.
It is bad, of course, that athletes are cheating, but she means that it’s an indication of just how physically demanding her sport can be.
Seaman, an Olympian who just set a Canadian women’s record, dropping under one hour and 30 minutes for a 20-km race, regularly gets dismissive queries along these lines: “What do you do for training, just go walk?”
“People wouldn’t think there would be doping in race walking because people’s perception of it is that it’s not hard. So in a way, it shows it is hard, so much so that people are doping to try and get an advantage.”
Seaman knows her sport with its stiff-legged waddle looks a little goofy to the uninitiated. She used to be one of them.
She grew up running in Peterborough, Ont., and was at track practice one day making fun of her older sister, Rebecca, who had started race walking.
Then, much to Rachel’s horror, the coach saw her technique and said, ‘oh, you’re good at this,’ she recalls.
“I really didn’t want to do it . . . I was 15-years-old and making fun of my sister for doing it.”
But, after some “kicking and screaming” and convincing by a friend who also took up the sport, she relented and, as with most things, success led to a newfound passion.
Today, the 29-year-old holds just about every Canadian women’s race walking record possible, and is focused on winning a medal in the 20-km event at this summer’s Pan Am Games in Toronto, along a familiar route through High Park. Then it’s on to the world championships and the Rio Olympics next year.
Just to qualify for the London Olympics, Seaman had to drop the Canadian record considerably, and her new record of 1:29:54 set with a third-place finish in Japan last month is another leap toward international relevance.
“My mindset about what I am capable of has completely changed,” she says. “I now know that I belong at the top of the field.”
Like Seaman, Dunfee also switched from running to race walking because of a sibling, but he needed much less encouragement.
As soon as his older brother started race walking, he decided, “if he can do it, I can do it.”
He learned the basics of the technique just before the 800-metre race at the B.C. championships when he was 10 years old. He then promptly smoked the kid beside him who suggested he’d never succeed in his first attempt.
“I got a medal and a plaque and that was all I cared about when I was 10, so I kept doing it,” Dunfee recalls.
These days his races are much longer. He does the 20 km and the men-only 50-km Olympic distance. Winning is much more difficult.
Only two men will get to compete for Canada at July’s Pan Am Games, and in their training group of three, Dunfee notes, “our 20-km times are all within six seconds of each other.”
Right now, Dunfee has the top qualifying time but Gomez, who is returning from an injury, and Thorne are both looking to better it.
They can all walk four-minute kilometres; most people don’t run four-minute kilometres.
Dunfee’s 20-km best is 1:20.13. And when he’s race walking the 50-km event he goes through the marathon point (42.2 km) in just over three hours.
That means he could walk his way into a Boston marathon qualifying time, something most serious recreational runners struggle to achieve.
Elite race walkers do run much faster than they walk but are not necessarily working any harder.
“People have this misconception that just because we’re going slower we’re not working as hard, and that’s really annoying,” said Dunfee.
“My heart rate averages 190 beats per minute the whole time.”
And that, of course, is why performance enhancing drugs come into play in race walking just as they do in cycling, running, cross country skiing and a myriad of other physically demanding sports.
Dunfee doesn’t shy away from telling people he’s a race walker anymore and he’s passionate about improving his sport. In a blog earlier this year, he exposed Russian race walkers who were competing while under doping suspensions, and contributed to the ongoing international athletics governing body’s investigation into Russian athletics and possible doping infraction cover-ups.
“I’m at the point still where I’m finishing top-16 so, okay, if there are a couple Russians ahead of me who are doped I’d move to top 14, it’s not the biggest thing in the world for me,” says Dunfee.
But his race times are still improving and he expects to be in the fight for medals before long. And for friends of his, like Australia’s Jared Tallent, who won silver in the last two Olympics behind men later caught doping but never stripped of their medals, the doping scourge has been devastating.
“It sucks,” Dunfee says. “Hopefully it will get fixed.”