The huge interest, and much hype, surrounding Mo Farah’s recent debut at distance running’s fabled event has many positives for athletics and distance running in particular. A welcome addition to these has been the repeated references to an incredible athlete almost forgotten by mainstream sports fans and even many who profess a more than passing interest in athletics.
The name of British marathon record holder, Steve Jones, has often occured to me since my first memory of him in the nineteen eighties. Not only are his achievements spectacular, and somewhat unheralded, but Jones fits into the special category that has held a fascination for many. The sporting maverick.
That his 2hrs 7min 13 sec performance in Chicago 1985 is still the British record speaks volumes for the quality Jones possessed. But it is the manner of his success, allied to the nature of competitive marathon racing that should place him in the pantheon of distance greats as well as serving as a lesson for the dual modern mantras of professionalism and the scientific approach to training and performance.
The Chicago Marathon of 1984 was billed as a two-horse race and a potential battle royal. Rob de Castella and Carlos Lopez were to finally meet over the classic distance. The experts were split between `The Deke’, the events’ hard man coming back into form and Lopez who appeared ready to move the event on to another level. These two would take World, Olympic, European and Commonwealth titles between 1982 and 1984 as well as setting multiple word and regional records. Also in the high quality field was Boston marathon winner Geoff Smith.
The man from Ebbw Vale was unsung and unnoticed thus few, with the exception of a handful who knew the sport and kept an eye on recent results, would expect any more than a respectable showing. No one would have predicted the actual events of that cloudy rain-sodden morning in October 1984.
After a cold and wet start to the day, the rain abated and the wind dropped, the temperature was ideal and the race looked like delivering all it promised and more. Around the 17 mile mark, De Castella can be seen taking a sideways double take in Jones’ direction, the others in the lead group were as expected, but who’s this guy? Earlier the Welshman had predicted that at this stage of the race someone would kick on. Jones fulfilled this prophecy himself and simply raced away from the field of more exalted athletes.
The next few miles were a story of blistering pace and floundering TV coverage, view the you tube link of the race for a lesson in what happens when commentators forget to expect the unexpected in professional sport.
Jones crossed the line over a minute ahead of De Castella and Lopez, whose personal duel and times would otherwise have made for a great tale, Yet they were relegated to afterthoughts following the new World Record set by a man in his first completed marathon.
2 hrs 8 mins 5 secs, 8 seconds faster than the record, held by one Alberto Salazar ( Mo Farah’s highly esteemed coach). A satisfied Jones commented that although he knew it was fast , also what he was capable of, he had no idea of just how fast till in sight of the finishing tape. He also refers to not yet being a marathon runner! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jz40AXEg8lI)
As special as that, and other performances, were they do not demonstrate fully the uniqueness of Steve Jones. two trifling events from around this time offer more insight. During that incredible Chicago performance a mini crash happened at one of the many fluid stations en route, several of the elite athletes were caught in the melee. One athlete was on his way down to a painful and probably race ending fall. He was grasped under the arm and righted by the passing Jones.Weeks previously Jones had been competing in the Old El Paso half marathon when, leading at 9 miles, he stopped to help a wheelchair racer who had fallen, still he went on to win the race by more than 20 seconds.
The following year Jones produced more scintillating efforts, failing by 1 second to lower the world record, then held by Carlos Lopez, in Chicago. His London marathon winning time of 2hrs 8mins 16 secs, included a bathroom break!
Two more tales sum up The RAF man as a genuine maverick, going his own way in both success and failure and taking both on the chin. Jones set a new world record of 61 mins 14 secs for the Half Marathon in 1985, this legendary run is generally accepted to have been completed following the consumption of at least 10 pints of cider in a Birmingham bar the previous evening. Indeed Jones claims his world record run the previous year to have been on a non diet of burgers, mars bars and coke. The flip side of the coin was Jones’s heroic effort at the European Championship marathon on 1986, in hot conditions he again attempted to destroy the opposition. Leading by over two minutes at 20 miles, and on schedule to smash the world record, he blew up and finished second last. His courage and guts were acknowledged by both the crowd and fellow athletes, who watched him shuffling home in a dreadful condition. Many would have simply walked off the course and gone home.
The term often used to describe Jones, by those in the distance running community, to whom he is a legend, is `Blue Collar’. It is intended as a compliment to his rugged even simple approach, Steve goes even further in stating he simply aimed to run fast, run hard and destroy the opposition, more often than not he did so!