Many an international race walker, after having been introduced to a stranger, has experienced a similar reaction, along the lines of ‘Oh, you’ve walked at the Olympics...but how fast can you run?” For some, the reply comes easily, but for the vast majority there is no immediate answer as the training required to compete at the world level demands that there is little room in the schedule for competitive running.
Presumably with that conundrum in mind, and despite the smorgasbord of collegiate cross country action this weekend, it was Saturday’s British Columbia provincial cross country championships, held at Nanaimo’s Beban Park on Vancouver Island that caught the pre-race attention of Canadian 1500m champion Charles Philibert-Thiboutot. He stated on Twitter that he was “most excited at [the prospect of] Mat Bilodeau, Ben Thorne, Evan Dunfee, and Inaki Gomez racing [as] runners.” Philibert-Thiboutot went on to predict a victory (of sorts) for Bilodeau, whom he described as “a man of obscure past in all sorts of sports.” Indeed, the peripatetic athlete who hails from Quebec City and has made his way to his current residence in Vancouver via Guelph, Ontario, and Calgary, Alberta has (en route) tried his hand at endurance sports ranging from cross country skiing, marathon running to triathlon before discovering his talent for race walking some three years ago.
Until Saturday, only once had the four members of Canada’s 2016 Olympic race-walking contingent raced together as a scoring team. In May of this year, they combined to garner the silver medal over 20km at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in Rome. Exactly 25 weeks later, they toed the line in Nanaimo and had some trepidation at the prospect of not only squaring off against one another, but also the likes of defending Canadian cross country champion, Ross Proudfoot, Rio Paralympic 1500m silver medalist Liam Stanley, and fellow Rio Olympian (over 5,000m) Luc Bruchet. Bilodeau deflected Philibert-Thiboutot’s confidence in his running abilities by pleading “don’t bet on me, moving to Vancouver was my primary activity since Rio...bet on Ben.” Thorne retorted “I went for one run to train for this. It was back in August” and that he would only accept the results “if I win...otherwise it’s rigged.” Dunfee was more staid in his pre-race demeanour, proclaiming “I’m excited to get into a no pressure race where I can have some fun” and, as befits his current status as an articling law student with the firm Borden Ladner Gervais, preparing to take the British Columbia Bar exam next month, Gomez analytically claimed that he would “work on the mental side” and wanted to “replicate racing behind the leaders” as he embarked “on the pathway to Tokyo.” On hearing that Dunfee had managed to borrow a pair of spikes for the race (from Bruchet), the quartet’s coach, Gerry Dragomir gave his blessing for the Rio 50km 4th place finisher’s choice of footwear. This was in stark contrast to the time 15 years ago when the coach had to convince his protégé that spikes were not conducive to race walking. Commenting on his charges’ prospects prior to the race, Dragomir diplomatically predicted that “four race walkers will be muddier than they’ve ever been” and confided that this event was all part of his plan to prepare the group for “total world domination.”
The race itself was held over four laps each of flat grass playing fields and packed dirt, gently rolling through stands of trees. This offered a stark contrast to the pancake flat 2km road loops with which these athletes are more familiar. Perhaps unaccustomed to the stampede starts and narrow paths typical of Canadian cross country races, the race walkers ran at a steady pace near the back of the pack, and slowly worked their way through the field. Dunfee led the charge by steadily passing competitors as he found his rhythm, eventually finishing in 38th place and immediately exclaiming that “running hurts.” He was precisely 2 minutes behind Proudfoot, the race winner. Dunfee was followed, some distance behind, across the finish line by Gomez (60th) who lamented “I am old”, a hurting Bilodeau (61st) who cried “I can’t feel my calves anymore”, and Thorne (73rd). The latter muttered “I reject the results of this race” and, in doing so, perhaps presciently used a phrase that will be repeated south of the border on November 8th. Each of them clearly enjoyed the experience but, to a man, within minutes of finishing they were already looking forward to beginning their walking training build up for the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London.
It is evident from Saturday’s result that there is some work to be done if the “total world domination” moniker is to apply to Race Walk West’s participation in future hare and hounds events. The quartet may not have ‘owned the podium’ on this day, but they continued to earn broader respect of the wider athletics community both on and off the trails. Dunfee recounted afterwards that he and his team mates had received considerable encouragement during the race from both spectators and fellow runners. On the 90 minute ferry ride back to the mainland after the race, they spent their recovery time enthralling and motivating a gaggle of excited young runners and their families with tales of training, racing, and representing Canada around the world. The quartet has started its campaign in earnest as it begins preparations for another assault on the podium in London next August. Based on Saturday’s race, it will be difficult to choose a favourite (or favourites) from the foursome who is most likely to bring some hardware back to the Canadian west coast from England’s capital. For the record, Dunfee covered the 8km course in 26:10, Gomez ran 27:38, Bilodeau 27:41, and Thorne 28:40.
(Once ran 15:09 for 5,000m indoors, also race walked in a few Olympic Games)
One of these is not like the other three - Evan Dunfee (far right) was the only member of the Race Walk West team to wear spikes during Saturday’s British Columbia cross country championships. L- R: Ben Thorne, Mat Bilodeau, Inaki Gomez, and Evan Dunfee (Photo credit BC Athletics)