Walker has been fortunate, and he knows it. "John has had a hard sort of life," says Arch Jelley, the Auckland schoolmaster who has been Walker's coach for the past 20 years. "He left school at 17 and had to fend for himself in odd jobs."
In 1974, the first of his three straight years as the world's top miler, Walker worked at a rock quarry in Auckland. "I was hired to work in the office," he says, "but I ended up a jack-of-all-trades. I drove trucks and did whatever was needed." He worked from seven to five, Monday through Friday and five hours more on Saturday, making NZ$26 ($18 U.S.) a week and shoehorning his training in wherever he could.
"I'd either run to work at six in the morning or I'd run from 11 to 12," Walker says. "Half of that was my lunch hour, and half of it was unpaid time. I used to run as hard as I possibly could within that hour. I'd run 10 miles religiously every day, in 53 or 54 minutes. Then I still had six minutes left to shower and get a bite to eat."
Those days are never far from Walker's mind. His rising fortunes have created a strong sense of obligation. "He'll stand there for hours, signing autographs and doing his bit to promote the sport," says Andy Norman, the powerful British meet promoter. "He doesn't run for the money. He runs because he loves the sport."
In the mid-'70s no group cut a more romantic figure on the European circuit than Walker and the exuberant band of Kiwis he traveled with. "They were like gods," says Scott, "with their long blond hair and beads, dressed in those all-black uniforms."
Walker would arrive in Europe after nine months of solitary preparation on the other side of the earth, intent, it seemed, on cramming all the life he could into those few summer months. He raced, traveled and caroused with a gusto that the cautious professionals of today wouldn't dream of. In 1975, at the end of an exhausting tour of Europe, Walker ran 3:53.62 one evening in London, then stayed out all night at a party. He got two hours sleep, flew to Sweden and took a shot at the world 2,000 record.
"Missed it by half a second," he says. "That was pretty dumb. But that was the way we were then. We just didn't know what we were doing. We trained hard, we raced hard, we dominated. If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have been more selective in my races. But it didn't matter, because we beat everyone anyway.
"I never set out to run miles," says Walker, who has, nevertheless, run 129 of them in under four minutes. He adds, "I've probably run 400 1,500's at an equivalent pace."
Of those 129 sub-four-minute miles:
•His first, a 3:58.8, came on July 7, 1973, in Victoria, B.C., when Walker was 21.