Evan Dunfee's profile has risen since last year's Whistler 50 Relay, but the 26-year-old is excited to return to the resort to race for the second year in a row.
Dunfee rose to prominence at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, nearly medalling in the men's 50-kilometre race-walking event and setting a new national record while finishing fourth.
After enjoying his debut in the Whistler event in 2015, Dunfee jumped at the chance to hit the trails again for the race this Saturday, Oct. 15.
"It's just a fun event, being part of it last year for the first time," said Dunfee, explaining that he got caught up in the event after university friends asked him to take part when others were unable to do it due to injury or other commitments. "...every year, one by one, there's one more person that says 'I'm too injured this year, I can't do it."
"(So) they had to resort to asking a race-walker to run.
"I had a blast last year and I'm looking forward to it this year."
Though still competitive, the Whistler 50 represents a step down pressure-wise from the Olympics, something Dunfee eagerly embraces.
"After Rio, I've just been mentally burned out from race-walking, so I've done a bit of running and I've been having a bit more fun with it. It's been so much easier for me to go for a last easy, nice run and not have to worry about my paces," he said.
Dunfee helped the Royal Flush #2 team to the relay win last year and feels the team could be even better in 2016.
"We've had to bring in a few ringers that we weren't planning on having to run because of injuries, but it actually strengthened our team, I think, so I'm just hoping to not slow them down too much," Dunfee said.
At the Olympics, the Richmond resident was temporarily upgraded to the bronze medal position when Japanese competitor Hirooki Arai was initially disqualified for bumping Dunfee, but Arai was reinstated on appeal. Dunfee had the opportunity to file his own appeal, but after considering his options, felt that Arai had earned the bronze fair and square and declined to continue the saga.
"I've definitely replayed the race in my head a number of times and watched most of it again once. I definitely had second thoughts about the tactics that I used and I definitely shouldn't have gone off the front when I did midway through the race," he said. "That's what I think about and go, 'If I hadn't done that, I might have been able to win that race.'
"But not once have I thought about what happened between Hirooki and I and the fallout from that. It's such a non-thought in my head that I even could have made the wrong choice."
Observing that the top two finishers in Rio have passed the age-30 milestone, Dunfee feels he'll still be well within his prime for a podium challenge at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
In the roughly two months after Brazil, though, he's just been happy to take a little time to decompress.
"It's been a really enjoyable experience to take my foot off the accelerator a little bit because of training, and I've spoken to a number of schools now, I've spoken to over a thousand kids sharing my journey and sharing my story a little bit, hanging out in the community and doing some of the stuff I wanted to do before but was just too busy with training," he said. "It reinvigorated me to get ready for the next four-year cycle."
Whistler 50 race director Tom Skinner was thrilled to have strong competitors like Dunfee in the running this year, noting that the relay should be an intriguing race.
"We have the winning relay team coming back. They've done it pretty much every year and a couple of the teammates have just come back from competing in the Rio Olympics, so that's going to be pretty exciting," he said. "They win pretty consistently, but there are a couple other teams out there that are probably going to give them a good run for their money."
In the ultra event for individual competitors completing the full 50-mile (80-kilometre) circuit, roughly 70 people are expected to enter. Last year's winners, Jesse Booi and Catrin Jones, hadn't registered as of Monday, though Skinner noted he had heard from some other past champions who are pondering coming back for another shot at the title.
Skinner expects roughly 1,000 people to take part in the race again this year.
"It's been pretty steady around 1,000. We've seen a couple of slight increases over the years, but mostly, that's a regular number for us. Mostly, it's relay runners, so people doing it as two-, four- or eight-person teams."