The World Mile Record Holder, John Walker, Tries to Come Back After a Crippling Leg Injury
The performance seemed to be a signal that Walker at 27 threatens once again to become the best middle-distance runner in the world. In 1975 he ran the mile in 3:49.4, the first human ever to cover the distance in less than 3:50. Walker's record stands to this day. Then, in 1976, he won the gold medal in the "metric mile" (1,500 meters) at Montreal.
Yet within a few months disaster struck. Walker's right leg began to hurt and soon became so painful he had difficulty running. "It was as if a giant hand had grabbed it and was twisting," Walker recalls. "A lot of people wrote me off."
Doctors diagnosed his difficulty as "muscle entrapment"—medical jargon for what happens when the calf muscle expands and cuts off the flow of blood in an artery. Two operations to cut sheaths around the muscle were only partially successful, and Walker did not resume training until spring 1978. Even then he could manage only short-speed workouts instead of his usual 80 miles a week. "Sometimes I'd go out running and the leg would just cut out," he recalls. "My wife would have to come get me, or I'd walk home."
Last winter, dramatically, he began to show his old form. At the Muhammad AM track meet in Long Beach, Calif. he broke the 1,500-meter indoor record with a 3:37.4. This week he returns to the U.S. and will enter three more meets if his Achilles tendon is healed. "Lately I've been running 70 miles a week," he says, "and I know what my coach says is true—I'm in the best shape I've been in for two years."
The son of a New Zealand building contractor, John grew up on a sheep farm in rural Papakura. When the family moved to Auckland, he took up cross-country, competing barefoot. When he turned to track running, he recalls, "I'd go out like a madman, then fold in the straightaway because I hadn't been doing any training." With the help of renowned coach Arch Jelley, he mapped out a five-year plan to become a world-class runner. In August 1975 in Sweden, Walker smashed Tanzanian Filbert Bayi's mile record by 1.6 seconds.
Two reasons for Walker's speed, doctors have told him, are his well-developed lungs and his abnormal heart capacity. His pulse is a remarkably tranquil 34 at rest (72 is normal), and a jackhammer 200 under extreme exertion. In 1977 a research team, which included a former champion New Zealand miler, Peter Snell, declared Walker, then 26, "one of the three fittest men in the world."
Home for Walker and his wife, Helen, 20, who is expecting their first child in August, is a timber house in an Auckland suburb. An outspoken critic of amateurism ("It's horsecrap"), Walker has worked out an American shoe endorsement that will become financially advantageous when he stops running in amateur competition. For 10 months each year at home he sells advertising time for a local radio station (easy listening—no hard rock).
Like all celebrities, Walker has found that fame has its price. "My phone rings from 6 a.m. till 10 p.m.," he complains, "even though I've got an unlisted number. And people sometimes pull up to me on the highway and gawk." Since he did a commercial for apple juice (all fees to amateur athletics; sales up 98 percent), he's also heard occasional catcalls of "Big Head." "The New Zealander is naive and geographically isolated," Walker says. "In Europe a successful athlete is treated as a hero and gets looked after for the rest of his life. Here they try to pull you down to their level."
The 1980 Olympics may provide a showdown between Walker and Bayi. Tanzania was among the black African nations boycotting the 1976 Games. Both men will have to contend with a new crop of young runners, including Americans Don Paige and Steve Scott, Englishman Steve Ovett and Ireland's Eamonn Coghlan, the new indoor-mile record holder.
"While I readjusted my training, my coach never lost faith in me," says Walker. "This is the year to reestablish myself."