John Nunn: “It was like the death march”

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At SPIKES we pride ourselves on speaking to the winners, but occasionally we like to chat the guys at the back of the pack, too. US 50km race walker John Nunn finished almost an hour behind the gold medallist Robert Heffernan, writhing in agony on the track here at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. The Army staff sergeant tells his story… 

“The 50km walk is a bit of a beast. In the Army I have a lot of people behind me supporting me. We have a never quit attitude, we have to finish the mission. That has been ingrained in us for 13 years.

"The horrible situation for me [in Wednesday’s 50km race walk], was I just had to finish the mission. I went through the first half in about two hours but at around 23km my legs started cramping. I thought I could just slow back and they would start loosening up, but they got progressively worse.

"They started to spasm and locked up. I would then stop for a second: they would loosen up and then lock up again. It was like the death march. I could see the looks on the faces of the USA Track & Field staff. It was like: ‘stop, you don’t have to do this, just quit.’

"But for me it was like: ‘listen, you guys have paid for me to come over. I can’t drown, I can’t quit.’ It was very hard. One of the most mentally taxing things I’ve ever done, because of the amount of pain I was in.

"I knew I would either quit if the body completely seized up and I couldn’t move any more – or if I crossed the finish line. I was willing to accept whichever one came first.

"Fortunately, it was the finish line. The moment I crossed the finish line everything seized up. It was so painful, I was screaming. They cut off my uniform because I couldn’t move. It was miserable.

"The day after, it felt like I had been run over by a truck. The 50km race walk must be the most gruelling event in track and field, so you know what you are going into.

"Yet if you start quitting 50km walks, it becomes so much easier to do so again. I didn’t want to quit."