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SirJohnWalkerSir John Walker of New Zealand was the greatest middle-distance runner of his era and had few peers during the eras that followed. Although there were great competitors during his time like Sebastian Coe, Eamonn Coghlan, Steve Cram, Steve Ovett, and Filbert Bayi, for example, none established the consistency and longevity that Walker did. Some might argue that Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco was better, based solely on his ever-so-slightly faster personal best performances over the same distances; however, they competed under very different conditions.

During two different generations, they both won Olympic gold medals that happened 28 years apart. El Guerrouj was a product of professionalism and was a highly-supported athlete by a well-oiled national athletics machine, whereas Walker’s career existed mostly in the amateur period, with little to no outside support. Their training was very similar as were their results, but Walker’s career was much longer than El Guerrouj’s.

To run a sub-four-minute mile is a benchmark of quality. It is a right of passage for elite runners even 40 years after Walker first accomplished the feat in Victoria, BC’s Centennial Stadium. He went on to run 135 sub-four-minute miles and was the first man to run under the unimaginable (at the time) 3:50 barrier. There is every likelihood that if the 1500m distance was not contested, he would have run well over 200 sub-four-minute miles.

It was July, 7th 1973 during a five nations meet between Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the USA, that Walker ran his first sub-four-minute mile. Three years later, he won gold during the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games in the 1500m distance.

Christopher Kelsall: Having grown up on a farm, did the lifestyle lend itself to you building a strong aerobic engine? Did you unwittingly take advantage of it?

John Walker:  Yes. I ran everywhere. When my family shifted to Manurewa I used to run 10 miles there and back to the tennis club in Papatoetoe twice a week with my tennis racquet in my hand. I ran to school because I was always late. There was no transport.

CK: Besides tennis and athletics, what other sports did you compete in?

JW: Badminton, junior rugby and cricket, but only at a low level.

CK: Your first sub-four-minute mile was run in Victoria, BC. Apparently you were put into the B-section, which didn’t sit well with you at the time. Did you run angry that day?

JW: No, I never ran angry. Running angry is not conducive to winning. I did think I should have been in the A race though. I would have run a sub-four in the A race too.

CK: Out of Filbert Bayi, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram or Sebastian Coe, who was your toughest challenger?

JW: They all were for different reasons. They were all equally great competitors.

Bayi revolutionised running and could never be overlooked. Ovett came of age and took my mantle. At his best he was awesome. Steve Cram, unfortunately, was very young and had injuries that robbed him of showing his true form. He was equally as talented as Ovett and Coe. Coe was an intelligent runner and he had a plan.

CK: Have you watched the past few Olympics, Athens, Beijing and London? What do you think of the spectacle that it is in comparison to when you won gold during the 1976 Montreal Games?

JW: It is impossible to compare those eras.

CK: You have been quoted as saying that your 2000m world record was likely your best race. After having raced mostly in the 1500m and mile and some 800 events, where would getting into the finals of the Olympics and Commonwealth Games in the much longer 5000m stack up?

JW: I didn’t rate the 5000m. I didn’t like the event. I had no interest in it and didn’t train for the distance. I underestimated how different I would have had to train and I was too heavy. I didn’t recover well between heats, semi’s and finals at the Olympics. At the time I thought I had a better chance of a gold medal in the 5000m. Commonwealth Games was a straight final and once again I thought I had a good chance. I was wrong. I ran badly on the day. I had left a big gap between my last race and Commonwealth Games due to the heats being cancelled. I needed constant racing to be at my best. After the Games, I ran really well.

CK: Apparently Arch Jelley was very exacting with the details of your program. How tightly did he manage your training? Can you describe how that manifested?

JW: I followed his schedules exactly. We kept in close contact and Arch used to write very long letters. We spent a 20-year period as athlete and coach and we worked well together. When he set schedules, I set out to better them. I always tried to impress him. I trained really hard.

CK: Can you describe an out-of-season and an in-race-season typical training week?

JW: I ran 80 miles per week when not racing and 60 miles per week in race season. I was fit all year round, indoors, NZ season and European season. I hated training but this was the secret of my success.

Editor’s note.

From the book Healthy Intelligent Training by Keith Livingstone:

1.) 8 – 10 week general conditioning period

2.) 4 – 6 week specific conditioning period

3.) 8 – 10 week competition period

General Conditioning Period

Sunday – Aerobic Run 80-90 minutes steady

Monday – Aerobic Run 30-45 minutes easy

–  Aerobic Run 30-45 minutes easy

Tuesday – Aerobic Run 30-40 minutes easy

1000m x 5 (2 min recovery) @ 3k-5k race pace

Wednesday – Aerobic Run – 50-60 minutes

Thursday – Aerobic Run 30-45 minutes easy

–  Aerobic Run 30-45 minutes easy

Friday – Aerobic Run 30-45 minutes easy

Saturday – 5k – 7k Tempo run approximately 2:00 to 2:45 per km pace

Aerobic Run 30-40 minutes

Specific Conditioning Period

Sunday – Aerobic Run 80-90 minutes steady

Monday – Aerobic Run 30-45 minutes easy

–  Aerobic Run 30-45 minutes easy

Tuesday – Aerobic Run 30-40 minutes easy

Mile x 3 (3-4 minute recovery) @ 3k-5k race pace

Wednesday – 60 minutes

Thursday – Aerobic Run 30-45 minutes easy

400m x 10 (60 second recovery @ 1500m race pace

Friday – Aerobic Run 30-45 minutes easy

Saturday – 3k – 5k Tempo run @ approximately 80-90% race pace effort

Aerobic Run 30 – 40 minutes easy.

CK: Did you hate training because it was a prescribed, structured training regimen as opposed to the childhood-like running of 10 miles each way for transportation?

JW: The first step every morning was the hardest thing for me. Most of my adult life my Achilles tendons were incredibly painful and they would warm up as I ran, but the first 10 mins were agony. Once I stopped running I was so happy never to feel that pain again. When I was out there training I enjoyed the challenge and ran an average of 5.30 min per mile but the thought of training was difficult. I don’t miss the training but I do miss the feeling of running freely, fit and fast. One of my favourite training areas was in Teddington, London running amongst the deer at the parks and around the castles and on my own. It was a magic feeling and very good for the brain.

CK: How is your foundation, Find Your Field of Dreams going these days?

JW: Very well. The programs operate in poorer communities. Our swimming program has been outstanding and has given 1,000’s of kids an opportunity to become competent swimmers when most had previously never been to a pool. NZ is surrounded by water and it is imperative that our kids are educated about the water. We have found that the children in the program are happier to go to school and are more confident and easier to teach. We have had glowing reports back from the teachers. Our after school programs are equally popular and the children are becoming skilled at many sports and as a result, healthier and fitter. They also have somewhere important to be while waiting for mum and dad to get home from work.

CK: Sounds ideal. Is the potential there for all NZ schools to bring it into the system?

JW: Yes. Definitely. That is the dream. At their cost of 16 million dollars Auckland Council has recently introduced free pool use for all children under 16 years in the many public pools in the greater Auckland area. This is a start for all our children.

Our long term goal is to franchise our FYFOD strategy to other cities/ areas. Fundraising is a massive obstacle and it is an ongoing problem as you can understand.

CK: Did you connect your active childhood with the concept of Find Your Field of Dreams?

JW:  I grew up with a lot of opportunities to play sport. My family loved sport and my parents were active participants. I think all children should have the opportunity to develop a love of sport and all the benefits that follow. My name helps to add credibility to the fundraising efforts to establish the programs of FYFOD. I have a wonderful board who all have the same vision and who work very hard to make the programmes a reality. Our programmes are dependent on the generosity of our financial sponsors.

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