Search

A Master among Masters

June 17, 1991
June 17, 1991

Table of Contents
June 17, 1991

Books
Perspective
Reporter-At-Large
Reminiscence
Design
Focus
On The Scene
The NBA Finals
French Open
College World Series
World Bowl
The McRaes
Thomas Hearns
Lanny Wadkins
Horse Racing
Women Sportscasters
Environment
Point After

A Master among Masters

From 5K's to marathons, John Campbell has been making a shambles of the over-40 record book

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.

This is an article from the June 17, 1991 issue Original Layout

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."

The race, he says, was an almost forgotten issue. Campbell finished 69th. He quit running. "I had to start thinking about other things, about making money," he says.

Back home, Campbell married, fathered two children and got divorced. He jogged occasionally, but always he worked—as a janitor, as a milliner, as a deliveryman. He bought his own milk business. And he became a fisherman. For 15 years he worked the seas off South Island, first as a crewman, later with his own boats.

He made a brief comeback to competition in '73, inspired by the fact that the Commonwealth Games were to be held the following year in Christchurch. After a crash training program, Campbell came within a second of qualifying for the New Zealand squad at 5,000 meters, then promptly quit running again in frustration. "Well, I'd given it a go," he says.

Campbell was a spectator in Queen Elizabeth II Park arena when his countryman Foster, 42, finished second in the marathon to Ian Thompson of England, and set the masters record that would last for 16 years. "It didn't really register," says Campbell. "I might have thought, Good on ye, Jack. But I didn't know anything about masters running. No one did. Anyway, I was an ex-runner by then."

Ask Campbell to recall the date of an an event in his life, and his response is more than likely to come in the form of a question—"I don't know, 1977? 78?"—like a kid guessing on a history test. But there are incidents that demand recall, if not precise dating. Like that midwinter morning—"I don't know, 1976? 77?"—Campbell and his skipper, Colin Gamble, were on a 35-foot steel trawler three miles off South Island, hauling lobster pots. One of the pots snagged, and the boat overturned, dumping the two men into the 50° water. Gamble drowned. "I never saw him," says Campbell, who was able to scramble onto the upturned keel and stand there until the boat sank beneath him. Now with no choice, he began to swim toward land.

He took one last look behind—"just saying goodbye"—and there was the life raft. It had worked free from under the boat and popped to the surface. Campbell spent nine hours shivering in the raft before he was spotted and picked up by a rescue helicopter.

"What was I thinking?" says Campbell. "I was thinking about bailing."

You get on with the job. Two days later, he was back fishing.

Campbell's second retirement from running lasted nearly a decade, until the day in '83 when he decided he had to turn things around. "I'd been doing some maintenance work on a fishing boat and I was sitting there on the dock, a hamburger in one hand and a beer in the other," says Campbell. "A woman friend of mine said, 'Well, John, you're about due for a heart attack.' " The 5'10" Campbell had ballooned to 190 pounds—45 more than his running weight.

"You lose track," he says. "You're working hard, fishing or whatever, but it's not the same, kind of effort. I knew I had to get back." Typically, Campbell went all out on his return to the sport—"really flogging myself," he says—and within six weeks, after losing most of those excess pounds, he ran a marathon in the startling time of 2:22.

Campbell was so encouraged by his performance that he sold his fishing interests to concentrate on running. Of course, he continued to work full time in the milk business just the same. In 1985 Campbell made his second world cross-country team and also ran a 2:12:38 marathon, at Invercargill in New Zealand. That performance qualified him for a spot on New Zealand's 1986 Commonwealth Games team. Suddenly, 13 years after walking away from running, he was back at world-class level. For the restless Campbell, though, that status was far from secure. He went out too fast at the Commonwealth Games in Scotland, and after he was left off the New Zealand team for the '87 cross-country world championships ("They said I was too old," says Campbell with disgust), he packed it in yet again. He had remarried in '86 and, with his new wife, Sarah, he bought two new fishing boats and went back to sea.

Campbell might be there still, but for an invitation that came to run the Manila in January '88. It was comeback No. 3. Though 20 pounds overweight and again undertrained, Campbell ran well enough to be inspired to resume serious training again. Two months later, in the world cross-country championships in Auckland, he finished 37th overall. As a result of being the best finishing Kiwi, he received an invitation to the 1988 Boston Marathon.

At Boston, 10 months before his 40th birthday, Campbell ran 2:11:08, good enough for sixth place and selection to the New Zealand Olympic team. Campbell's time convinced many people—including Campbell—that, as soon as he turned 40, he would have a real shot at Foster's record. "I felt then it was part of my destiny," says Campbell. "For all the years I'd put in, here was my chance. All of us have a little niche in life, and maybe this was mine."

After placing a solid 12th in the marathon at the Seoul Games, Campbell gave up his fishing boats. He and Sarah bought the White Heron Dairy—a 1,000-square-foot convenience store—in Parnell, a section of Auckland. There, around 16-hour days spent stocking shelves and waiting on customers, Campbell fit in the hardest training of his life, preparing for his 40th birthday, Feb. 6,1989.

What has happened in the 32 months since Seoul seems to have left Campbell a bit stunned. Not the races themselves or the records—Campbell knows the work he has put in behind them—but the attendant changes wrought in his life. There is the money, which has made it possible for him to devote himself full time to running. His masters victories in the L.A., Boston and New York marathons, a hat trick he scored in both '89 and '90, brought bonuses of $25,000 each from race sponsors. "Although there really isn't a fortune to be made in running, I guess I'm making as much as anyone," he says.

There have been other, less happy, changes. Campbell's schedule has kept him away from New Zealand for months at a time. After a year of struggling with a long-distance marriage, he and Sarah separated. Their 2½-year-old son, Damian, remains with his mother, and the rupture in Campbell's family clearly hurts. "You feel a bit of a failure," he says.

Finally, there is the attention. "Every race I go to," says Campbell, wonder in his voice, "heaps and heaps of people come up to me just to say hello. They say things like, 'You're my idol.' " He laughs. "God, what am I, the Beatles?" It is obvious, though, that Campbell has given some thought to his stature in the running world. "I know that I'm inspiring a lot of people out there," he says. "That makes it worthwhile. You get a lot out of your sport. You want to put something back." The normally taciturn Campbell has even begun an autobiography. "It's tough sorting through your life," he says.

Campbell would prefer to run. And he is doing so—better than ever. Two weeks after his 2:14:33 marathon in L.A., he won the Shamrock Masters 8K in Virginia Beach in 24:05. In late April, Campbell won the masters division at the London Marathon in 2:17:22, despite being forced to stop three times because of stomach problems.

Campbell hopes that with Sarah's blessing Damian can visit for a couple of months in the U.S. this summer. "Damian can run for 15 minutes without stopping," says the proud father, before adding, "but we don't push it." A moment later, though, Campbell is talking of his summer racing plans and of bigger events beyond. He wants to run in the '92 Olympics. By then he'll be 43.

Even Campbell can't hope to continue improving forever. One wonders what this old runner will do in real retirement. "One of my dreams has always been to sail around the world," says Campbell, sounding surprised at himself even as he says it. "Maybe when I finish on the road, I'll buy a yacht and tear off into the sunset." There is a pause. "Or maybe I'll go back to New Zealand and open a store. Or do some farming. Some fishing...."

PHOTOVICTAH SAILER/AGENCE SHOTCampbell's emergence over the past two years has made runners rethink the notion of "aging."