SI Vault
Kenny Moore
August 25, 1975
He had promised to go for the mile record, and New Zealand's John Walker delivered, smashing the old mark by 1.6 seconds
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 25, 1975

The 3:49.4 Special

He had promised to go for the mile record, and New Zealand's John Walker delivered, smashing the old mark by 1.6 seconds

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

As Roger Bannister had 21 years earlier, John Walker worried about the wind. He had talked the officials at the meet in G�teborg, Sweden into changing the distance of his race from 1,500 meters to a full mile, promising an attempt at the world record of 3:51.0 held by Filbert Bayi. "It was the one night I was going to do something," Walker said afterward. "Throughout this European tour I had been annoyed with myself. I'd won a lot and accomplished nothing. But then in the morning it began blowing quite hard. I watched the flags, the trees bending. It worried me."

Before the 8:45 p.m. race on Aug. 12, Walker spoke to G�ran S�wemark, a Swedish 800-meter runner who was to be his pacemaker for the first two laps. Walker wanted the half-mile run in 1:55, and he wanted it done smoothly, without a nervous sprint over the first half-lap. Two weeks earlier, the 23-year-old Walker had run 1,500 meters in Oslo, blazing the first 200 in 25.4, the first 400 in 54 seconds, and had held on well to clock 3:32.4, only .2 from the world record (also Bayi's) for that distance, and according to track statisticians the equal of a 3:49.4 mile. Now, he reasoned, a more economical distribution of effort ought to yield a good mile. Since he had run a 3:52.2 in Stockholm in July, defeating Marty Liquori, and did not consider it much of an accomplishment, a good mile had to mean a record.

As Walker warmed up, the wind began to die, falling off to five meters per second. At 7 p.m. the temperature settled at 75�, pleasant for the 10,000 spectators but uncomfortable for Walker. "I felt hot," he said. "I was sweating when we went to the line." Starting from the second lane at the gun, Walker ducked in behind S�wemark, the two of them followed closely by Australians Ken Hall and Graham Crouch. Their positions were fixed before they had run 80 yards and they did not change for 800, saving Walker from expending extra energy on tactics or jockeying for position. The quarter was passed in 55.9 by S�wemark, 56.3 by Walker, one second faster than he thought ideal.

Walker is a big man, 6'1" and 182 pounds, with the heavy thighs some people feel are characteristic of New Zealand runners, a meat-eating race. He makes noise when he runs, his feet audibly striking the track. But in the second lap the sound of the crowd began to gather and boom, drowning out footfalls or labored breathing. Walker seemed eager, moving up on S�wemark's shoulder. When the pacesetter, tiring as he approached the half-mile, swung to the outside to let Walker through, the New Zealander was forced to cut rather sharply to the inside to avoid being hung up in the Swede's spikes. The 880 time was 1:55.5, a 59.2 quarter.

Walker glanced back at his pursuers, then quickened the pace, running with noticeably greater effort, his high arm action more vigorous, his head beginning to bob. Hall stayed right with him, looking smoother than Walker. Crouch, in third, began to slip grudgingly away. With 500 meters to go, Walker again snapped a quick look back at Hall. They passed three-quarters in 2:53.5, a 58-second 440. On the first turn of the last lap Walker began to move away, not with a sudden burst but with a lifting drive, accelerating, it seemed, all the way down the backstretch and through the last curve. In the final 100 meters he may have slowed slightly, concentrating on controlling his form. As he neared the finish Walker was obviously very tired but running without undue strain. He beat Hall's 3:55.2 by more than 40 yards.

Once Walker was across the line, the spectators could see his legs grow heavy and uncontrollable as he swayed to a stop; one could imagine the tearing in his chest. But there it was: his time of 3:49.4, a world record by 1.6 seconds, a full 10 seconds faster than Roger Bannister had run when he went through the four-minute barrier in 1954.

Once the time had been made clear to him, Walker clutched his head with both hands, then hugged the nearest officials and athletes, among them Rod Dixon, Walker's countryman, the 1972 Olympic 1,500-meter bronze medalist, who leaped and shouted and momentarily forgot about the 5,000, an event he was to win later that evening. Alternately dazed and exultant, Walker took a victory lap, and the crowd pressed down from the stands, people wanting to touch him, to make solid with a handshake or the grip of a shoulder the memory of what they had witnessed. He was brought before a microphone to address the crowd. "This is the night I'll always remember," he said. "Thank you all."

Later, it must have been difficult for John Walker to sustain his thankfulness. Like Bannister before him, he found himself suddenly doomed by the brute statistic of his run to endure the sapping attentions of the media. In the days following the record run he spent an average of 12 hours a day on the phone, finding the reporters an extension of an awed, perplexed public, eager to approve, maddeningly curious, but essentially failing in understanding. "Now the 3:50 barrier has been broken with this man Walker's shocking unexpected performance," proclaimed Howard Cosell on television. In fact, said Walker, the mile could have been run under 3:50 as much as two years ago. "I've probably been capable of it for that long, certainly since the Commonwealth Games in February of 1974 [where Bayi set the 1,500 record of 3:32.2 and Walker, improving his previous best by almost six seconds, also finished under Jim Ryun's old record with a 3:32.5], but I've been too frightened, concerned too much with winning, with conserving energy for a kick. Now with maturity and experience, I'm much more confident in the last half of my races. I'm freer to just run, without holding anything back."

Walker, who works as an advertising salesman for an Auckland radio station, is a patient, articulate man, but he has the distance runner's need for solitude, and he sought relief from the jangling phones with long runs through the forest near Stockholm. Still, in the way of most Kiwi runners, he values the camaraderie of his sport, the beers lifted together after the fury of competition. He enjoys particularly good relations with-Bayi, and he was unsettled when he read Bayi's quoted response to the new record, issued out of China where Bayi is touring with a Tanzanian team. "I am neither surprised nor upset," Bayi was quoted as saying. "I have been expecting the record to fall at any time. World records are like shirts; anyone can have one if he works for it. I beat Walker in the mile in America this year and I do not see him as a threat to me at all. Walker had a poor finish and I am going to beat him on that when we meet again."

Walker reacted thoughtfully. "I know Bayi," he said. "We've had long talks, for hours on end sometimes. He is extremely intelligent, very shrewd and when speaking with the press he covers himself very well. So I can't imagine him saying what has been attributed to him. I guess that it has become garbled through translation. Perhaps since he's in China, that stridency has something to do with politics."

Continue Story
1 2 3