For the first time in his 42 years, John Campbell has nothing to do but run. The former milkman, shopkeeper and fisherman from New Zealand has found a place to stay in Charlotte, N.C. There is a golf course across the street on which to jog and miles of hilly roads. No longer must he be on the water at dawn or stocking shelves long after dark.
Campbell sounds somewhat surprised at his situation, at once pleased and a touch defensive. "It seems a bit unreal," he says. "But then the effort I put into running is the same as I put into any job. I'm not scared of the work."
If anyone has earned this life of unaccustomed focus, it is Campbell. In the past two years he has established himself as the best masters (over-40) distance runner in the world. During an astounding 1990 season, Campbell went undefeated as a master in 22 races, including the Los Angeles, Boston and New York City marathons. He set masters world records at four miles (18:31), 10K (29:04), 10 miles (47:55), 15K (45:10), the half marathon (1:02:28) and the marathon. He has started off '91 just as impressively. In February, Campbell set a masters world record for the 5K (13:55), and on March 3 he won the over-40 division of the Los Angeles Marathon in 2:14:33, a time that placed him fourth overall.
"John is forcing us all to rethink the whole notion of what aging means to a runner," says Don Kardong, 42, a former Olympic marathoner, now president of the Association of Road Racing Athletes and himself a masters runner. "I mean, my god, he's on a new level."
Never was that more clear than at the 1990 Boston Marathon. Gelindo Bordin of Italy, the '88 Olympic champion, won Boston that year in a near-course-record time of 2:08:19. Campbell finished fourth overall, in 2:11:04, the fastest marathon ever by a runner over 40.
Campbell's time, run on an unseasonably warm day over a demanding course, broke by 15 seconds the record set by Jack Foster in the 1974 Commonwealth Games, a record that during its 16 years of existence had come to be viewed as unmatchable. " John Campbell did it. He actually did it," began the article on his race in National Masters News, a monthly publication for over-40 athletes.
Campbell admits to being impressed with his Boston run. "To know that I did it at Boston, on a day that wasn't perfect, is quite pleasing, actually," he says. Campbell, however, is anything but content with his accomplishments. "I'm not ready to lay down just yet, thank you," he says. "You do what you do, but then you get on with the job."
You get on with the job. One suspects that those words are branded on John Campbell's heart. In a sport ruled by the work ethic, Campbell may be the ultimate toiler. The second of a factory foreman's six children, he was born in Ravensbourne, a hard, hilly town on New Zealand's South Island. As a boy, he juggled a newspaper route and three different milk routes. "I don't remember playing much," he says.
He does remember running: first, every morning with the papers and his old wooden milk cart; later, at King Edward Technical College in nearby Dunedin, for sport. He kept at it, even after he left school at 14 to work full time. By the time he was 19, Campbell seemed headed for a world-class career. He qualified for the 1969 New Zealand cross-country team that traveled to Glasgow, Scotland, for the world championships.
For Campbell, it was to be a disillusioning trip. "Here I was with all these older guys, guys I'd looked up to, and they just wanted to go out and get drunk," he says. "They got me drunk for the first time in my life. I remember thinking it was all pretty silly."