Back Then

Photo illustration by Katie McBride

The first thing to know about Jim Walker, R’76, is that he competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, as a marathoner, representing Guam. 

A second thing to know is that he didn’t grow up as a runner. He wasn’t one of those children who precociously declare they’ll be Olympians someday. Never competed in college as a student-athlete. Probably still has his NCAA eligibility.

Walker began running seriously in his mid-20s. He started because his sister happened to ask him one day to run with her because she was training for the Boston Marathon. He said yes because he was being a good brother.

All of that means that the last important thing to know is that Walker’s story is the story of an unassuming Spider who gave something new a shot and found out just how good he could be. It’s the story of a nice guy who finished first, or at least near it often enough, and ended up on the world’s biggest stage.

“I always wanted at some point to excel at something,” he said. “When I discovered that I could excel via running, I took advantage of the opportunity to push things and improve. When I was selected for the Olympics, it was a dream come true.”

Walker’s Olympic experience was everything he wanted. He stayed in the Olympic Village with athletes from around the world, walked in the opening ceremony, and took in some gymnastics, tennis, and boxing. But he also stayed focused because the marathon was the last event of the games.

On race day, he felt good. He was committed to not making the same mistake he had made a year earlier at the 1987 World Championships in Rome, when he went out too fast and didn’t finish a marathon for his first and only time. He took an easier opening pace in Seoul, where his eye was on setting a new personal best, under two hours and 30 minutes.

“I wasn’t a contender for a medal, and I certainly had that perspective,” he said. “I had an A goal, a B goal, and a C goal — an A goal of a new personal record, a B goal of running in the 2:30s. The C goal was anything else.”

Seoul’s concrete roads and afternoon heat that day made it one of the most difficult races of his career. He was never at the front of the pack and slowed as the race wore on. From the 20-mile mark, he pounded out 9-minute miles but still passed other runners. After a little under three hours, he crossed the finish line in 90th place, ahead of 28 other Olympians. Goal C met.

“After finishing, I just had nothing left,” he said. “I had to be treated with fluids.”

He competed internationally for another three years and kept running recreationally for decades, including in multiple Boston Marathons after moving from Guam back to Massachusetts, where he grew up.

He thought his 29th marathon, in 2011, would be his last one, but two years later the Boston Marathon bombing happened. Walker channeled his anger into determination and, at age 60, laced up for the 2014 Boston Marathon. After more than four hours of running, he crossed that finish line, too.