We republish Juliet Collins’s 2002 interview with Serpentine founding member, John Walker, who sadly passed away in April of this year.
So – a life-long runner? No, he says. Son of a professional footballer, who played for Motherwell and trialed for Blackburn Rovers, John was born in Portsoy, north-west of Aberdeen. He always played lots of football at school, but didn’t really start running until 1961, soon after joining the army. Although it was “mainly to keep fit for rugby and football”, he managed to clock up a 4:17 minute mile in the Army Finals when he was nineteen. That was less than a decade after Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile. Not bad for a beginner…
John had some of his happiest times in the army, in which he stayed for over twenty-two years, though he’s quick to add that there were obviously bad times too (most notably the Falklands conflict). From 1970 to 1973 he ran an adventure training centre for army personnel near Aviemore. They did crosscountry walks, pony trekking and skiing. A bit of R&R? No, he says, fixing me with a very serious look. This was hard training. He sailed for the Falklands on the evening of the 1982 London Marathon – the second ever – having been given a special dispensation to board the ship a few hours late so that he could run. Prior to the marathon, fifty people had started meeting in Hyde Park to run every Saturday and elsewhere in London during the week. The group (the first incarnation of what was to become the Serpentine) called itself the “82/50 Group”. John completed his membership application while he was out in the South Atlantic, joined on his return that August and… well… the rest, as they say, is history.
The club’s monthly handicap race started in 1983 and John’s only missed a handful. He still holds the V40 record of 22 mins (and that was on the old course; it’s the equivalent of about 21 mins on the present route). He’s only won once, but he did it in style; he was the last person to start and the first to finish. No one’s done that since. Some people were on the second lap before he’d even started. It was, he admits, “a tremendous feeling”. I bet.
He reels off an impressive string of personal bests: 1K-2:40, 5k-16:45, 10k-34:00, 10 miles-55:00, half marathon-1:12:20, 20 miles-1:58:30 and marathon-2:37:25. Last year  he came first in his age group in the 3,000m steeplechase at the World Veterans’ Championships in Australia, which made him second UK man in his age group for the year. He’s taking a year off track and field at the moment, but he’s done everything except the 110m hurdles, which, he says candidly, are “too high”.
John’s taken part in pretty much every event in which the club participates and has been men’s captain three times. He organises the Last Friday of the Month 5K, started by the London Road Runners Club, of which he was an employee. As such, he helped to organise the Great British Fun Run in 1985 – a relay round Britain with legs varying between 5 and 14 miles. And, of course, there’s the newsletter, which he says he finds fulfilling and comments that people keep sending material in and seem to like it.
It’s been quite some running career. I ask him what he’s gained from it. He says running’s improved his health and, crucially, helped him make the transition from leaving the army to being a civilian. John left the army in 1984, having taken in a three-year posting in south-east Asia and spells in Germany, Kenya and Belize. By that time, he’d been in the club for two years, meeting a wide variety of interesting people.
Needless to say, there’s been lots of fun. He recounts a trip to Châteauneuf-du-Pape (the club was twinned with a running club there in the late 1980’s. The chairman owned a vineyard: perfect). John, Chris Stagg, Sue McGinlay and Bob Davidson, among others, were left stranded when the coach didn’t turn up.
Not to be deterred, they marched to the coach depot, retrieved their money in a brown envelope and set off in a convoy of cars. They arrived in time to run in a half marathon, as planned. But the adventure wasn’t over. By the time they set out to return, French lorry drivers were blockading the roads and they had to make their way along forest tracks, not meant for traffic. It took them two days and an inordinate amount of driving to get home.
What’s so special about the Serpies, does he think? He considers for a moment. Well, the club seems to attract a mixture of people who all gel together. “It doesn’t seem to attract undesirables. Everyone’s happy to get on and do their own thing, but at the same time, they all help each other”.
His tip for new runners? Join a club “because it’s heartbreaking to run on your own”. Take it steady and don’t try to run before you can walk. Listen to your body. As with most runners, John’s had his share of injury. He had a bad hamstring problem for about 18 months. He could still run to some degree, but it was always painful. He says it was seeing club members at races that kept his spirits up.
I ask what he enjoys when he’s not running, organizing races, producing newsletters, etc. Drinking wine tops the list. He also likes all sorts of music, but “no heavy metal, no rapping – nothing like that”. And dancing? Yes, he says. I tell him I couldn’t resist asking as I have wonderful memories of him prowling the dance floor at the winter party, blowing into an inflatable saxophone with a look of gleeful mischief. “Oh don’t!” he says, and rolls his eyes. “I got enough stick about that at the time”.
Ah, yes – and what’s been his most embarrassing running moment? He admits he once split his shorts in a race. It was “some 10k somewhere”. He can’t remember where and confesses that he probably doesn’t want to. And once he got lost running the Hyde Park Corner to Clapham North leg of the London to Brighton relay. That, he says, was really embarrassing, given that he knows the area well. His team went from being five minutes in the lead to being ten minutes down.
I feel a bit foolish asking, but I just have to: is he anything to do with the whisky? Not actually such a stupid question, as it turns out. John spent a year running as Johnnie Walker. The distillery approached him through a friend in the London Road Runners. Among other events, he ran the London and Glasgow marathons in costume, complete with top hat. In Glasgow he managed 2:51 in the pouring rain. He got “absolutely sopping wet” and the costume weighed a ton by the end. “I nearly gave myself a hernia trying to get it off afterwards”, he says cheerfully. They gave him a case each of Black Label and Red Label at the end of the year and, for four years after, he appeared in the London Marathon credits, doffing his hat at the Cutty Sark.
John lives happily in south-west London with his partner, Sue, a fellow Serpie, who he met in the Churchill Arms in Kensington after a Saturday morning run. A father and grandfather of three, he’s passed some of his athletic prowess on to his daughter; she became the youngest ever national coach for gymnastics. I ask what his plans are for the future. Well, he might emigrate to Australia; probably somewhere north of Noosa. He’s been twice and seen how cheap accommodation is and “the sun shines all the year round”. He’d plan to get into the Australian national steeplechase team. If not Australia, maybe France or Spain.
His idea of perfect happiness? He doesn’t hesitate for long and it’s quite precise. “Sitting outside at a fish restaurant in the south of France with a glass of red wine in my hand, in the sun, with Sue and other friends”.
And after all these years and all that he’s seen, what’s his hope for the future of the club? He hopes that it continues to grow as it has done in the last few years (the growth’s been “phenomenal”, he says), that club members stay and enjoy themselves and that the club’s “treating them correctly”. He thinks it must be.
He’s being urged to go for lunch, a quick window between officiating at the handicap and helping organise track and field. I’ve enjoyed our chat. Wow; what can I say? That’s a pretty amazing collection of PBs, John, but wherever you are in the future; doing steeplechase down under or relaxing at that fish restaurant in the south of France, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that there are hundreds of runners all over the world who have benefited from your hard work, enthusiasm and encouragement. Now that really is something to be proud of and I, for one, would like to say thank you.
Juliet Collins became a Serpie one dark November evening in 2000. She moved to Bristol in 2013, but keeps in touch with her many Serpie friends, and occasionally appears at the club’s monthly handicap. When she’s not running, she’s singing, reading or travelling.