SAN DIEGO — There are moments when John Walker begins to sound as if he's some yuppie in shiny tights and $100 waffle-sole shoes murmuring about "runner's high."
It's real and it's religious, Walker says. Runner's high is like prayer. Do 10 miles a day and you get a spiritual feeling that satisfies and cleanses.
When Walker starts talking like that, his friends have to fight off the impulse to dump water balloons on his head, something they did once in Oslo.
"We have to bring him down a notch now and then," said Steve Scott, a companion and rival for years.
Their relationship is a symbiotic one that began a decade ago when Scott, as a collegiate runner at UC Irvine, sacrificed his chances to win races by serving as a pacesetter for Walker.
Later, they shared training secrets, and sparred for the distinction of becoming history's first runner with more than 100 sub-4-minute miles.
The honor went to Walker, a former world record-holder and Olympic champion who ran a 3:54.57 mile last February in his native Auckland.
Unwilling to pass up a chance to puncture Walker's vanity, Scott made light of the accomplishment. He said that Walker, in his rush to get to 100, had entered a string of noncompetitive races last winter in New Zealand.
"That was really the only time there's been friction between us," Scott said.
"I felt it would be more beneficial if we both got to 99 and then had a showdown, but John was so keen to be first, he entered some meets that I considered to be rather Mickey Mouse. I think he did it because he was afraid of losing to me (in a showdown)."
In Friday night's Times/GTE meet at the Forum, Scott barely got under four minutes, placing third in 3:59.59. Walker was fourth in 4:00.26, leaving both runners with 104 sub-4-minute miles.
"If nothing else, we have endurance," Scott said. "We're like the Lou Gehrig of the mile."
Their rivalry will be renewed today in the Michelob Invitational at the San Diego Sports Arena.
Walker, who hopes to be running 3:59 or faster when he turns 40 six years from now, no longer sees himself as a candidate to set a world record. He is attempting to rebound from an off year in 1985.
"I put so much effort into being the first with 100 sub-4:00 miles, I was drained," he said. "It took its toll. I hurt my Achilles' tendon in Europe and wound up having to take seven weeks off."
Ten years earlier, he had lowered the mile standard by 1.6 seconds, and he became the first man to break the 3:50 barrier when he ran a 3:49.4 mile in August, 1975.
Scott, who is five years younger than Walker, still views himself as one of the world's top five milers and believes that a record is within his grasp. He's also hoping to appear in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, a goal beyond Walker's horizon.
"I was No. 1 in the world for four years, but it's harder for me to train now," Walker said. "Once you've done it all, you tell yourself a day off from training won't make any difference.
"I'm just as fast as I ever was, but not as dedicated. The competitive desire isn't as strong. I've mellowed. I'd run people into the ground when I was 22, and I never expected to be running after the age of 26. I never gave an inch in my younger days."
Both runners agreed that Walker is less cocksure than he was in his heyday.
"John used to be \o7 very \f7 arrogant," Scott said. "He had a very narrow view, focused on himself. Injuries and age have brought him down to earth."
Scott cited an example of his pal's tendency to be self-centered.
"In 1977, I was traveling in Europe with Arnie Robinson, who'd won the long jump in the Olympics the year before," Scott said. "One night, we ran into John and had a couple of beers with him.
"You can imagine our surprise when John asked Arnie how he'd done in Montreal. After we left, Arnie said he couldn't believe someone in the track world could ask such a stupid question."
Walker has matured, it seems.
"I'm certainly not as cocky as I was at 22," he said. "There's still the hope of the odd win, but I know there won't be any more records. There will come a time when I can't compete. But I'd never race if I might disgrace myself."
Walker's world view extends past the tip of his nose now. He has adopted a cynical view of his profession.
"Track is extortion," he said. "Peter Ueberroth made $1 million from the Olympics, and track gets big TV fees. But look at the money we earn. I'd be a multimillionaire in another sport. If you're the best in the world, you should be paid like it."
Scott's view is less radical.
"Maybe I'm not greedy enough, but I'm happy with my income," he said. "The money in track is a lot better than it was 10 years ago, and it's way ahead of sports like cycling, gymnastics and water polo. I also like the fact that I control my own destiny, unlike the athletes in team sports."
Money isn't Walker's only gripe. He also frets about the softness of the younger generation, both in America and in New Zealand.