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A Master among Masters
Richard O'Brien
June 17, 1991
From 5K's to marathons, John Campbell has been making a shambles of the over-40 record book
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June 17, 1991

A Master Among Masters

From 5K's to marathons, John Campbell has been making a shambles of the over-40 record book

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Campbell was so encouraged by his performance that he sold his fishing interests to concentrate on running. Of course, he continued to work full time in the milk business just the same. In 1985 Campbell made his second world cross-country team and also ran a 2:12:38 marathon, at Invercargill in New Zealand. That performance qualified him for a spot on New Zealand's 1986 Commonwealth Games team. Suddenly, 13 years after walking away from running, he was back at world-class level. For the restless Campbell, though, that status was far from secure. He went out too fast at the Commonwealth Games in Scotland, and after he was left off the New Zealand team for the '87 cross-country world championships ("They said I was too old," says Campbell with disgust), he packed it in yet again. He had remarried in '86 and, with his new wife, Sarah, he bought two new fishing boats and went back to sea.

Campbell might be there still, but for an invitation that came to run the Manila in January '88. It was comeback No. 3. Though 20 pounds overweight and again undertrained, Campbell ran well enough to be inspired to resume serious training again. Two months later, in the world cross-country championships in Auckland, he finished 37th overall. As a result of being the best finishing Kiwi, he received an invitation to the 1988 Boston Marathon.

At Boston, 10 months before his 40th birthday, Campbell ran 2:11:08, good enough for sixth place and selection to the New Zealand Olympic team. Campbell's time convinced many people—including Campbell—that, as soon as he turned 40, he would have a real shot at Foster's record. "I felt then it was part of my destiny," says Campbell. "For all the years I'd put in, here was my chance. All of us have a little niche in life, and maybe this was mine."

After placing a solid 12th in the marathon at the Seoul Games, Campbell gave up his fishing boats. He and Sarah bought the White Heron Dairy—a 1,000-square-foot convenience store—in Parnell, a section of Auckland. There, around 16-hour days spent stocking shelves and waiting on customers, Campbell fit in the hardest training of his life, preparing for his 40th birthday, Feb. 6,1989.

What has happened in the 32 months since Seoul seems to have left Campbell a bit stunned. Not the races themselves or the records—Campbell knows the work he has put in behind them—but the attendant changes wrought in his life. There is the money, which has made it possible for him to devote himself full time to running. His masters victories in the L.A., Boston and New York marathons, a hat trick he scored in both '89 and '90, brought bonuses of $25,000 each from race sponsors. "Although there really isn't a fortune to be made in running, I guess I'm making as much as anyone," he says.

There have been other, less happy, changes. Campbell's schedule has kept him away from New Zealand for months at a time. After a year of struggling with a long-distance marriage, he and Sarah separated. Their 2�-year-old son, Damian, remains with his mother, and the rupture in Campbell's family clearly hurts. "You feel a bit of a failure," he says.

Finally, there is the attention. "Every race I go to," says Campbell, wonder in his voice, "heaps and heaps of people come up to me just to say hello. They say things like, 'You're my idol.' " He laughs. "God, what am I, the Beatles?" It is obvious, though, that Campbell has given some thought to his stature in the running world. "I know that I'm inspiring a lot of people out there," he says. "That makes it worthwhile. You get a lot out of your sport. You want to put something back." The normally taciturn Campbell has even begun an autobiography. "It's tough sorting through your life," he says.

Campbell would prefer to run. And he is doing so—better than ever. Two weeks after his 2:14:33 marathon in L.A., he won the Shamrock Masters 8K in Virginia Beach in 24:05. In late April, Campbell won the masters division at the London Marathon in 2:17:22, despite being forced to stop three times because of stomach problems.

Campbell hopes that with Sarah's blessing Damian can visit for a couple of months in the U.S. this summer. "Damian can run for 15 minutes without stopping," says the proud father, before adding, "but we don't push it." A moment later, though, Campbell is talking of his summer racing plans and of bigger events beyond. He wants to run in the '92 Olympics. By then he'll be 43.

Even Campbell can't hope to continue improving forever. One wonders what this old runner will do in real retirement. "One of my dreams has always been to sail around the world," says Campbell, sounding surprised at himself even as he says it. "Maybe when I finish on the road, I'll buy a yacht and tear off into the sunset." There is a pause. "Or maybe I'll go back to New Zealand and open a store. Or do some farming. Some fishing...."

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