A forthright iconoclast, Walker can be blunt with people; he favors the unvarnished truth. "It's so refreshing talking to someone who actually has strong opinions," says Craig Masback, 36, a former 3:52 miler who is now a TV commentator.
Flexibility? "I have none at all," Walker says. "I'm hopeless. I tried stretching for a year and got injured."
The shoe business? "I see gimmicks in running shoes today that are absolute crap," he says. "You know they're not going to work. They're just a gimmick to sell the shoe, like a spoiler on a car or some fancy stuff on a boat. Basically, all you want is a hull that's not going to sink."
The expiring U.S. indoor circuit? "I think TAC, with all its money, should come to the party and say, Look, for the good of track and field, we're going to prop it up until we get a sponsor, and we're going to make sure it gets on national TV, because, sure as hell, Mr. Network, if you don't take it, you're not going to get the next Olympics."
Walker lives on a 10-acre horse-and-cattle farm a few miles south of Auckland with his wife, Helen, and their three children, Elizabeth, 12, Richard, 8, and Timothy, 3. In January, at the height of the New Zealand summer, pink bougainvillea form a brilliant canopy over the front porch. A tangled heap of running shoes lies on the porch, as if an entire cross-country team had been invited in for lunch.
Walker, barefoot and dressed in faded jeans and a pink T-shirt, leads the way into a living room that contains few mementos of his running career. He owns only a single copy of his autobiography, John Walker, Champion (co-written in 1984 by Ron Palenski), and he has trouble finding it. "I've never read it to this day," he says. "I don't read Track & Field News or other running magazines. We don't talk about running in our house. There are no trophies or pictures of me running. I think that's why I've stayed in the sport so long."
Walker owns another 56 acres 13 miles away, where he grazes 65 head of cattle. He often has Helen drive him to the other pasture and leave him there with nothing but his running gear, so he is forced to run home.
"I just haven't got idle time," he explains over lunch at an Auckland hotel. "This morning we did the horses at eight o'clock. The blacksmith arrived at half past nine to shoe them for the sales next week. Then I came here. While I'm away, my wife is washing the horses. They'll be beautiful and clean when I get home. This afternoon I've got to go out and shift the cattle, and the horses have to be done again. If I hadn't been coming here, there's a big cattle sale today, and I would have been there."
The farm is not a large operation. Walker never has more than four or five thoroughbreds. "That's about all we can handle, Helen and I, without outside help," he explains. One of his horses, a 3-year-old colt named Running John, has finished in the money in 12 of 14 races so far. "His destiny is very exciting," says Walker.
Walker would much rather talk about horses than running. "They get hosed down and put back in a little box, 12 feet by 12 feet. Twenty-three hours later they're taken out to run again. Even if they don't want to run, they still have to. No one praises them for winning. They get a carrot, maybe feed if they're lucky. They get accused and abused when they lose. An athlete gets praised, he gets publicity, he gets rewards."