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John Walker knows why no one has broken four minutes for the mile at age 40. "I just don't believe people have been stupid enough to stay around at a high-level competitive edge at 40," he says. "If you'd told me 15 years ago that I'd be trying to do it, I'd have said, Don't be stupid. It's impossible. Absolutely impossible. I didn't think I could run this long. I never intended to run this long. This is by chance."
Walker turns 40 on Jan. 12. Barring injury or a catastrophic decline in his powers, the sturdy New Zealander seems certain to become the first miler to break four minutes at age 40. "If someone else wants to be first," says Rod Dixon, 41, Walker's fellow New Zealander and longtime friend, "he'd better do it before January 12."
That's when "A Night of Miling" is planned for Walker's home track in Auckland's Mount Smart Stadium. Mile races for men and women of all ages will lead up to the evening's featured event—Walker's attempt to do at 40 what was considered humanly impossible at any age until 1954, when Roger Bannister proved otherwise. The race will feature Walker and a field of other runners, all thought capable of breaking four minutes. It will be televised live in New Zealand, and via tape delay in the U.S. and elsewhere. New Zealand Prime Minister Jim Bolger is expected to attend, as are Walker's special guests: Bannister, now 62; Steve Cram, 31, who holds the current mile world record of 3:46.32; and former record holders Herb Elliott, 53; John Landy, 61; Peter Snell, 53; Jim Ryun, 44; and Filbert Bayi, 38.
The world mile record for men 40 and over belongs to Wilson Waigwa of Kenya, who ran 4:05.39 in 1989, four months after he turned 40. "There's a big difference between 4:05 and 4:00," says Walker. "Damn big difference. We're talking about 40 meters. I get amused when I hear about people taking five years off and expecting to come back and break four minutes. There's no way you can."
That was why it was odd when last winter, for the first time in his career, Walker decided against running on the circuit in Australia and New Zealand. He was 15 pounds overweight on his 39th birthday and was set back even further over the next six months. First a lingering flu and then a pull in his right Achilles tendon wiped out his hopes of competing on the European summer circuit. Walker, who had run no slower than 3:56.4 in any year since 1973, the year he broke four minutes for the first time, has not run a single mile on the track in 1991.
"I'm not as good as I used to be," he says. "I've changed. My stride length's probably half of what it was. I probably haven't got the same desire. But I'm still pretty bloody competitive on the track."
Walker's dark blond hair is shaggy. His face is broad and bony. He does not smile readily. "He has a tough exterior, like a hermit crab," says U.S. miler Steve Scott, 35, who has been one of Walker's closest friends and fiercest rivals for years. "Once you break through it, though, he's extremely kind."
Walker is the person to whom the current crop of top milers brings their training diaries. Marcus O'Sullivan, Jim Spivey, Frank O'Mara and Joe Falcon all have sought Walker's advice over the past few years. "Everybody considers John a sort of father figure," says O'Mara, who was 16 when Walker won the 1,500 at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
He is also their favorite subject of conversation. Walker has always been able to flout the rules without paying for it. "He's not the model you'd show to an aspiring runner," says O'Mara. "He doesn't stretch, he doesn't warm up, and he's been carrying too much weight for too long. While most athletes watch themselves if they're going to be doing intervals, John will go out and work on his farm. He doesn't do the things a world-class runner is supposed to do. The only thing you'd want to emulate about John is his results."
"John Walker is, without question, the greatest miler at achieving firsts," says Falcon. "First to break 3:50. First to run 100 sub-fours. He pioneers everything."