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Jones Steve Fv Chicago84 Trio

REDEMPTION IS
A RACE BEST
SERVED HARD

Words by Mario Fraioli
Photography by Victah Sailer

In 1984, Steve Jones, a Welshman serving in the Royal Air Force broke the marathon world record in Chicago. A year later, he came back and laid down a time that would serve as the British record for 33 years. The USA was a happy hunting ground for Jones: in 1988, when many considered his best years behind him, he ran 2:08 to win in New York City. Now living and coaching in Boulder, Mario Fraioli caught up with him to discuss his memories of fall marathon season.

Welsh marathoner Steve Jones was called “the runner’s runner” for his no-nonsense, blue-collar approach to training and racing. He won five marathons at the peak of his career in the 1980s and four of those victories were at races that are still majors today.

When Jones stood next to you on the start line, one thing was for certain: you were going to be in for a tough day. Jones’ racing philosophy for the marathon—any distance, really—was to go as hard as he could for as long as he could. It led him to a 2.08.05 world-record at Chicago in 1984. That particular effort was a race of redemption for Jones after being forced to drop out the year before with a foot injury. A year later, after running away from the pacer at mile 2 and hitting the halfway point in an unheard-of-at-the-time 1:01:42, Jones missed Carlos Lopes’ world-record by just one second, finishing in 2.07.13. He went on to win New York in 1988, running 2.08.20, a race he described as “sweet” redemption because it was the first marathon he’d won since his Chicago triumph in ’85. 

Steve Jones retired from competitive running in the early 90s. He’s lived and worked in Boulder, Colo., for the past 30 years where he coaches the Boulder Harriers, a post-collegiate group of working-class runners he’s crafted from his own insatiable appetite for hard work and tough racing. “Somebody once asked me to write a marathon program so he could get a qualifying time for the Olympic Trials,” Jones recalls. “He wanted a four month program. I said, ‘I could write a 15-year program, because that's how long it took me to get the Olympics, or to get to my trials.’ None of this is overnight. It's all about focusing, dedication, discipline, and routine. That takes a long time.”

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Chicago is where you completed your first marathon, 1984. You ran 2.08.05, which broke the world record at the time. What do you remember about that race?

It was a race of redemption, I suppose. I'd run the year before in 1983 and had to drop out at 16 miles. I promised [race director] Bob Wright that I'd come back the following year, if he was going to have me, and I would do a little better. It was about going there and proving to myself, as well as to everybody else, that I was a journeyman distance runner. And I could take the marathon under my wing, I suppose.

What happened the year before in 1983 that forced you to drop out?

I had been training in Park City for three weeks prior to the race, and training had gone well. I got into Chicago on a Wednesday or Thursday night, and on Saturday I was meant to do a 20-minute run, just a shakeout. I went out and had a nice 20 minute run, but I was crossing the street to go back into the hotel, Hugh Jones was coming out. We'd been training in Park City together, so I asked him how far he was going to run. He said, 'Oh, maybe 20 minutes,” so I thought I might as well run another 20 minutes with Hugh.

And I got into 15 minutes or so and my foot started hurting for some reason. That was the end of the story. It was sore all night, it was sore the next morning when I got up. I tied my shoes on as tight as I could to alleviate the pain a little bit, but as the race got further it started to hurt more and more and I just couldn't run. At 16 miles I had to drop out. I was very disappointed because it was easiest 16 miles I'd ever run. I was up there with the main guys, but I just couldn't carry on. There was no way I could finish a race that slowly.

And in the year between when you dropped in 1983 and then won in 1984, did you know that you were going to go back? Was that your sole focus that entire year in between the '83 and '84 Chicago marathons?

No. My focus was my next race. I never really focused on any one event. Also you want to make major Games and major Championships, but to me that wasn't the inspiration. That wasn't what kept me running – what kept me running was the next race, and the competition. I took every race in my stride, and just tried to carry on the following 12 months after that, as I did the previous 15 years.

Do you think that's what ends up paralyzing a lot of athletes today, whether it's elites or even age groupers? They put so much focus into one race, usually a marathon because it requires this big build up, and they put it on a bit of a pedestal. And then if it doesn't go well, everything else was a waste of time.

Yeah, I think that is one of the problems today. It's hard to explain, really. Because obviously I was a different animal to most of the people out there. I like to race frequently, I like to take one step at a time, one race at a time. Get that one out of the way and look forward to the next one. When you focus on one specific event for any period of time – it could be five months, it could be a year, it could be two years, it could be four years, between the Olympics or something – and you tend to miss out a lot of what the sport is all about, and [what] running is all about. And by doing that, you’re also not learning your trade. You're not racing enough, you're not doing things instinctively. You're doing it because you're trying to follow a certain path, as opposed to embracing a sport, embracing races. The more often you race, the more you're going to learn about yourself, about the sport, about how to do things instinctively. Instinctiveness is something that is lost to most of this generation, I think.


Let's bring it back to Chicago Marathon, 1985, still your personal best at 2.07.13. You just missed the world record in that race, but what I remember in my reading of it is, you went out, at the time, what seemed like an absolutely unheard of, insane pace. I think you're 61.42 or 43 through halfway. Take me through that race. What was it like to go that fast early on? Were you aware of how fast you were running? Did you even have a watch or an eye on the clock? Or are you just trying to, as you said, obliterate everyone else in the field?

Yes. All the above. I got to Chicago and once again I went to Park City and I trained up there, longer this time. I think it was five weeks. I did several races, did very well in them. I felt I was ready for a great race in Chicago. People were billing it as another world record attempt, but I never once said that. I said I was in better shape than last year, but I never once said I was going for a world record. And it's not something Steve Jones would say anyway. Rob De Castella was there again and [people were saying] that Steve Jones might've been a flash in the pan. Rob was still the established marathon runner, former world record himself, so a lot of the press, was about Rob and how he was going to run. That sort of thing puts that little chip on my shoulder. I just said to myself that I was going to run hard from the gun because I wanted to beat Rob.

We had raced against each other a few times. But I was a bit miffed, jealous I suppose, that he was getting all the press and all the recognition. I was the previous year's winner, I broke the world record. I didn't have it for very long, but I still had it.

So the gun goes, and we had a pacemaker. A guy called Carl Thackery, who was a 61 minute half marathon runner himself. He was supposed to take us through halfway, I think, pretty quick. But he caught a cold the day before, and we went through the first mile in 4:50, I think, 4:45. And he asked me if this was OK, I said, 'No, I'll take it up now.' So I really took it up from mile two. Even though Simeon [Kigen] hung on until almost 10K. When I asked him if he would help [with the pace] he said, 'No, I'm fine here. I'll stay here.' I said, 'OK' and I just pressed on. It was just about beating Rob. I never once thought that he would come back at me, or he would slow and go back to him. I just kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing.

Were you aware of how fast you were running, say at halfway?

I got through 10 miles in 47 something, I believe. But no, it didn't register to me at all. I didn't have splits written on my hand or anything. I had nothing in mind. My only thoughts were beating Rob. I got to about 18 miles, and my agent friend shouted, 'You okay?' I just winked at him and carried on. Yeah, I slowed the last 10K, but for 20 miles, or 22 miles I was on 2:04 pace. So I was just a wafer thin edge away from being where the guys are today. And this was 34 years ago.

Are you surprised that it took 33 years for Mo Farah to break that time as the British marathon record?

Yeah. I come from an era where there was a lot of really, really good runners in the UK. And I could tell you names that wouldn't mean anything to you, but they were all my mentors. People like Geoff Smith and Hugh Jones, Richard Nerurkar, they were knocking on the door, 2:08 something. Nobody seemed to quite get that magical 2:07:13.

Let's talk about New York. You won that race in 1988, you ran 2:08:20 there, which is a time that would still be competitive there today. What was it like for you to win that race?

It was very... it was sweet. I don't know what the next word should be, but it was sweet. I won Philadelphia half marathon and I came straight [to Boulder] from Philadelphia. And I'd been training six weeks, training had gone great. I kind of had been written off. I hadn't won a marathon since '85, I blew up in '86 in the European championships. So, I'd kind of been written off.

I had a few good results, but nothing spectacular. So I trained hard for six weeks and went to New York, and I was ready. I knew I was ready. I was the dark horse of the race. Anybody that knew me knew that if I was in New York, then I was going to run well. And the race went exactly how I wanted it to go, how I planned. The tactics were perfect. I was going to sit ’til halfway, and then push on. Fortunately, just like in '84 in Chicago, it was somebody with the same idea. In New York it was Gidamis Shahanga. [He] pushed on, and I just followed and just carried on pushing, and pushing, and pushing.

I'd just left the air force four months before so I could focus on the backend of a professional career. It all paid off, it doesn't happen very often. I was fortunate enough to win five marathons in my running career, and all five of them played out the way I had planned them. 

I had been left out of the team for the Olympics in '88. [Then] I had got a call months before the Olympics saying somebody had dropped out, and I was in, and I said, 'I don't want to go.' I was preparing for New York. I had most of the summer off. I put all my eggs in one basket, knew what I had to do. It all worked out.

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Mario Fraioli is host of the morning shakeout podcast and also writes the newsletter of the same name. You can learn more about Steve Jones’ Chicago and New York City victories in an extended audio version of this conversation, which appeared as Episode 81 of the morning shakeout podcast as well as the Fall 2019 issue of Meter.

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