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13 Miles Before Breakfast

Local Olympian John Nunn on racewalking

By Erin Meanley

13 Miles Before Breakfast

13 Miles Before Breakfast

Photo: USATF

John Nunn, 35, is a two-time Olympic racewalker living in Bonsall. In the 2004 games, he competed in the 20K, but in 2012 he jumped to the 50K—that’s a 31-mile race, or about five miles longer than a marathon.

As I was writing my story about walking and working on a treadmill desk, I was feeling a lot of pain and also feeling alone in my complaints. So I thought I’d talk to someone who was walking way more than me.

John Nunn will walk an entire marathon just to train for his races. What’s more, he can finish in 3.5 hours, which means he’s walking faster than most participants are running. In fact, he’ll come in in the top 10 percent of the entire field of runners.

Here are some more wow facts, anecdotes, and tips from our racewalker. Hopefully you feel as inspired as I did!

How did you get into race walking?

I ran cross–country and track in high school in Indiana. I was up in Wisconsin and my dad talked to a coach. He asked me, “What are your times?” I thought it was totally a joke. There’s no way I’m going to race walk. That’s the worst event I’ve ever heard of. But the coach offered me full tuition. I did it for a year at the University of Wisconsin, Parkside. Then I wanted to see if I could make the 2000 Olympic trials, and I made the team in 2004.

On a typical day, how far do you walk?

I did 13 miles this morning. I have another workout this afternoon, but it’s plyometrics and weights. Tomorrow I have a 40K, so 25 miles. It’s awful. I do about 90-100 miles in a week. I train six days a week and take Sundays off. Yes, I’ll listen to an iPod when I walk, but usually I’m not listening to anything, I’m just focusing on what I’m doing. You can’t use an iPod in races, so if you start depending upon them, you’ll run into a problem.

How do you motivate?

This morning I was exhausted. I woke up and did not feel like doing it. You go through the motions and hope your body will start to kick in. Then you go home and sleep.

Tell us your worst war story.

I had World Championships in Moscow this past August. In the race, around 22k, I wasn’t even halfway done. My hamstring started cramping and I slowed, but it didn’t loosen. For the next couple kilometers, I kept having intense spasms and everyone was looking at me. The coaches were like, “Is he going to stop? This is awful.” But once you stop, it becomes so much easier to stop the next time. I made the decision that eventually, either my body would cramp up so bad I would fall over, or I would cross the finish line and whatever happened, I would accept it. I knew I wasn’t going to die so I thought, well, I’ll just keep going and hopefully this eventually will all be over.  I finished. They had to put me on a stretcher and cut off my clothes. It was an hour, hour-and-a-half before I could move. They tried to move me and I would scream. There was so much cramping. It was the worst experience I’ve ever had. There were definitely times that I was thinking maybe I should just retire. But after I finished and reflected, I thought, I’m not going to go out like that.

Do you tend to get a lot of foot pain? What are your footwear recommendations?

Have special orthotics made because regular running shoes are generic. Everyone’s physical body is different and will land different. Orthotics keep the rest of your body aligned. If you’re landing with a low heel and your foot’s banking (rolling) to the outside, you’ll get knee pain, overcompensate and become overworked, then cause hip pain and it works its way up. One little injury in the foot can cause a chain reaction. Orthotics keep the rest of your body aligned. They cost a couple hundred bucks, but they last for a good couple years.

Do you know anyone with a treadmill desk? Do you see walking as a trend?

I know a few people who use them. They say it’s beneficial. They don’t just do an hour in the morning. They take breaks, sit for 15-20 minutes, but the other part of the hour, they walk. You have to break up sitting throughout the day so it’s not a constant strain.

You visit schools around San Diego. What do you tell the kids?

We’ll go to grade schools and talk to the students about accomplishing goals. They can’t wrap their head around 50K. I’ll be in Chula Vista and say, “You guys know where Poway is? That’s like walking from here to Poway.” Their faces are like, “What?” And then they’re like, “Why?”

What’s your take on the current state of physical fitness?

Yes. The new generation coming up is out of shape and lazy. There’s childhood diabetes and obesity. In a lot of schools, they’ve taken out P.E. and it’s up to the individual teacher. Maybe they ask the kids to do 10 minutes of jogging around the track twice. But as far as intense games, dodgeball—now everyone says they’re dangerous, or, “Everyone’s a winner, nobody’s a loser.” We’re building wimpy, self-centered children. Parents say, “It’s okay if you’re not good at this, we’ll just go home and you can play.” I don’t get it. What ever happened to going outside? As a kid, I played outside until it was dark and I couldn’t see the ball. Kids at the schools ask me, “Well, what’s outside?”

I’m a single dad with a 9-year-old daughter. She gets this idea where she just wants to play video games. I sit down at the beginning of every season for sports teams and say, “Here are your options.” She might say, “I don’t like any of them.” My answer is, “That’s fine, but you can choose one.” She’ll pick her favorite of all of them. She’ll do it and eventually she starts to enjoy it.

What are the benefits you’ve noticed from walking?

I sleep really well at night. I find myself wanting to eat healthy, too. I look at things from a fast food standpoint. Rarely do I go. I’d rather go home and make an egg white omelet or have salmon and rice. It raises your metabolism and encourages you to start consuming better foods.

And as for dessert…?

I have a cookie company with my daughter, Ella’s Cookie Co. We sell at farmers markets in San Diego and we were excited to be mentioned in the November issue of Everyday with Rachael Ray.

What’s next for you?

I’m good for one more Olympic team, maybe two. I’ll always be active in my life. I look forward to the day I can join the soccer league. Right now, I can’t do that for fear of injury.

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