BONSALL, Calif. — America’s best race walker is standing in the corner of his kitchen kneading three bags of buttered microwave popcorn into a lumpy mound of yellow dough already thick with malted milk balls, peanut butter and toffee.
But that’s not the main part of this cookie recipe — or any of the others John Nunn has thrown together. Because standing beside him is the secret ingredient he says makes his unusual concoctions work: his ponytailed 8-year-old daughter, Ella.
“She taste-tests it. She runs the show,” Nunn says. “If Ella says no, that’s the end of the cookie.”
She recently nixed a bacon-flavored cookie that tasted just as bad as it sounds. But the popcorn-and-chocolate treats, a marshmallow-and-graham-cracker cookie and a butterscotch-coconut blend all made the cut.
Nunn will be the only athlete representing the United States in the 50-kilometer race walk at this summer’s London Games after winning a stirring duel with Tim Seaman in January’s Olympic trials. That in itself is an achievement worthy of its own cookie, given Nunn’s circuitous two-decade-long journey from high school distance runner to two-time Olympian and rising cookie entrepreneur.
Along the way he served a Mormon mission in Las Vegas, got married, joined the Army, got divorced, was promoted to staff sergeant, learned to cook by working part time as a pantry chef at a San Diego diner and moved with Ella into a garage-sized guest house on a cousin’s ranch in the hills above Oceanside.
Race walking demands the same pain, sacrifice and dedication as long-distance running, but it comes with few of the benefits since the sport, popular in Eastern Europe and parts of Latin America, is largely maligned and misunderstood in the U.S. And if that’s not bad enough, because competitors must maintain contact with the ground at all time, their gait looks off-balance and comical, with a circular hip rotation and an exaggerated arm swing that is frequently ridiculed.
Until he perfected that technique, Nunn was among those who laughed the loudest.
“I thought it was ridiculous,” says Nunn, whose mother and father were avid race walkers in Colorado. “I couldn’t do the form. I didn’t know what it was. And it was painful.”
Turned out he was good at it, though. So after Nunn peaked as a runner in high school, where he ran the mile in 4 minutes 34 seconds, his father talked him into enrolling at Wisconsin Parkside, one of the few colleges where race walking is practiced.
A couple of years later, he made his first U.S. national team, competing in the Junior Pan American Games in Cuba.
“It was amazing,” he remembers. “You get these uniforms, you get all this cool stuff. I was like, ‘I want to make the Olympic team.’”
That took seven more years, with Nunn finishing second in the U.S. trials to qualify for the 2004 Athens Games, where he placed 26th in the 20-kilometer event.
The next four years were a struggle, though, with Nunn narrowly missing out on the 2008 Beijing Games while dealing with the acrimonious breakup of his marriage.
“That was a hard time for him,” says Enrique Pena, a former Colombian race walker who has coached Nunn for nearly a dozen years. There were times, Pena remembers, when Nunn would simply stop in the middle of a workout and sit down in the middle of the road, exhausted physically and mentally.
“The race walker, the most important thing really is a very strong head,” Pena says. “If you’re weak in your head, you are not going to do well.”
Looking back, Nunn, 34, considers the episode a defining moment — not just in his race walking career but in his life. Because while the divorce was proceeding, Nunn often busied himself in the kitchen, something he continued even after his ex-wife remarried and relocated to Washington state, leaving Ella to spend the school year with her father.
The girl was 3 then, too young to be around a hot stove. So the two turned to baking, first with breads and cakes and eventually moving on to cookies, where they soon began blazing their own trail.
“All the recipes were horrible,” Nunn says. “So I just started messing with different stuff. And people started liking them.”
Over the next two years, Nunn estimates, he gave out more than 1,200 cookies, mostly to friends, and the feedback was all positive. So he started passing them out to strangers, hoping for unbiased opinions. When those came back positive as well, “Ella’s Cookie Co: Decadent Cookies by Daddy and Daughter” was born.
“He makes the best cookies in the world,” says Swedish race walker Andreas Gustafsson, who pushed his training partner into selling boxes of cookies on the Internet (they’re available at ellascookieco.com). “The recipe he has and the way he makes them, nobody beats them. They’re a little more dense, not so airy like regular cookies. It just tastes gourmet.”
That the whole endeavor is more about fun than fortune is obvious from the fact Nunn has given his creations names such as Ella, Let’s Go to the Movies and I Want S’More. And he has made so many batches of each that he no longer consults the recipes, baking from memory.
That leaves him free to catch up on news from his daughter’s life — which is why he prefers to do his cooking on weekday afternoons after picking the second-grader up at school.
“Usually we start off by talking about school because I haven’t see her all day,” Nunn says. “So I’m like, ‘How are you? What did you do? How’s everything?’”
“We don’t,” he adds, “talk about race walking.”
Ella, her round face dotted with freckles, stands about chest high to the kitchen counter. She, too, works from memory as she pulls on a pair of plastic gloves and begins measuring the salt and baking powder, mixing it into a large stainless-steel bowl.
Her favorite cookie is the Ella — a doughy mix of toffee and milk chocolate — which is how it got its name. And her favorite activity is, not surprisingly, baking.
“How do we do this?” she marvels after taste-testing a cookie.
“It was a lot of trial and error,” Nunn answers as he moves another sheet of cookies from the oven to the freezer, a trick he says stops the baking process and leaves the cookies soft and fluffy instead of brittle.
From start to finish, a 30-cookie box takes about 20 minutes to make — which makes it a cakewalk compared with what Nunn will be attempting in London. The 50-kilometer race walk is the longest and most grueling event in Olympic track and field — and it’s one in which the U.S. isn’t particularly good. Larry Young, who finished third in both the 1968 and 1972 Games, is the only U.S. walker to win an Olympic medal — and that isn’t likely to change this year since Nunn’s winning mark at the U.S. trials, 4 hours 4 minutes 41 seconds, is nearly 26 minutes slower than Russia’s Sergey Kirdyapkin, a two-time world champion.
Longshot or not, Nunn didn’t want to go to London without Ella. But taking a daughter and baby sitter on a two-week tour of Europe can be expensive for a single father living on a military salary. So Ella took matters into her own hands last spring, donning a red apron and chef’s hat before hoisting a sheet of cookies in front of a video camera to record a YouTube plea to talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, her favorite TV personality.
“Every day Ella would be like ‘Did you hear back? Did you hear?’” Nunn says. “‘No, Ella, I didn’t hear from Ellen. She didn’t call.’”
Nunn’s mother eventually came to the rescue, volunteering to make the trip with her granddaughter. When the Games are over, though, the focus will go back to cookies. A new lemon treat — grown with fruit gathered from Nunn’s frontyard — is already in production. And there is talk of taking the entire operation into a brick-and-mortar bakery.
“Race walking breeds weird people,” Nunn says, chuckling at the irony of a world-class athlete with 6% body fat hawking sugary, high-calorie cookies. “This is just fun. It would be really fun if all of a sudden it took off and it’s like Mrs. Fields.”