Steve Jones’s 1985 Chicago Marathon time of 2:07:13 remains the UK’s fastest. This autumn the now V55 runner returns to Chicago, to see whether he might break his age category record. An unconventional, unscientific, and raw talent – he might just do it. Here, Adrian Hill, sports journalist and author, recalls the Welshman’s
Photographs www.photorun.net, Bank of America Chicago Marathon
Steve Jones, the former world marathon record holder and Britain’s greatest male competitor over the epic distance, ran with the commitment and bravery born of a man brought up in the South Wales coalfields and used to the spartan regime of a serviceman in the RAF.
There was a certainty and resourcefulness about Jones’s relentless gallop that ground more extravagant talents down. He trained as an aircraft technician but rarely flew on the track or road, he was the runner’s runner, unfussy but highly effective.
When his lack of a finishing ‘kick’ continually hampered his progress at the highest level in the 10,000 metres (although he was good enough to finish 8th in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics), Jones decided to concentrate most of his efforts on the road.
He won his first half marathon two months after LA and then, sensationally, broke the world record in his first 26.2-miler, The Chicago Marathon, with a time of 2:08:05 – 13 seconds inside the old mark set three years earlier by Australian legend Rob de Castella.
He was once again inside the former global best recorded by ‘The Deec’ when he won London at the first attempt in 1985 (2:08:16) but another man who had moved up to the distance, Portugal’s Carlos Lopes, then snatched the Welshman’s prize away from him. The 1984 Olympic champion came home in an astounding 2:07:12 to win in Rotterdam.
Typically, Jones took the blow on the chin and resolved to reclaim the honour when he returned to Chicago in October 1985 but fell agonisingly short by a mere second, winning in 2:07:13. He quipped: “If I had known that I was so close to the world record, I would have bettered it. If there had have been a clock at the top of the straight, I might have started my kick earlier”. That fateful second cost Jones a $50,000 bonus but the time remains the British record, 80 seconds better than that recorded by anyone else. Jones holds the four fastest marathon times on the UK all-time list.
Total Commitment And Effort
In the 1986 Commonwealth Games at Edinburgh, Jones opted to compete in the 10,000 metres, claiming a bronze medal for Wales. It was designed as a sharpener for his main target that year, the European Championship. Jones tried to break the field from the start in Stuttgart, a strategy that many considered foolhardy but carried out with total commitment. Split time after split time told the story of a potential world record. He lead by over two minutes with six miles to go, surely this was the major gold medal he had been seeking… But then the plan back-fired as his body gave out against the mind numbing pace. He went backwards, reduced to the pace of a four-hour social runner and was remorselessly overtaken by those who had judged their effort more evenly. He finished a dejected, and very tired, 20th.
It was not the end of the Jones story, he claimed The New York City Marathon in 1988 in another fast time (2:08:20) by the staggering margin of over three minutes, but his final realistic chance of a major title ended in failure in 1990 when he came fourth in the Commonwealth Games at Auckland.
Jones was still knocking out world-class times at the age of 37. His victory in the 1992 Toronto Marathon came in 2:10:06, a UK veteran’s record only surpassed by Paul Evans’s 2:08:52 in 1996.
A world championship marathon appearance in 1993 (12th) ended his 20-year distance running career at the pinnacle.
The son of a steelworker, he started to make his mark at cross country in the late 1970s, eventually amassing nine Welsh titles in the mud. Meanwhile, on the track, he was a very handy 8:32 steeplechaser. However, his move up to 10k was as inevitable as the later progression to the marathon.
In 2007, Jones’s status within Welsh athletics folklore was formally recognised when he stood alongside the likes of, 1964 Olympic long jump champion, Lynn Davies; 100m hurdles legend Colin Jackson; London marathon founder, John Disley; and multi-medalled Paralympian, Tanni Grey-Thompson, as one of the first inductees into his country’s track and field hall of fame.
The Jones philosophy was far removed from the scientific approach applied these days. He happily admitted to having run his best times on a diet of coke, mars bars and meat pies. His was a mind-over-matter style which was thrilling to watch.
Two decades later he is still untouchable by the current crop at the top of the British marathon running tree. Champions come and go but the true sign of athletic greatness are the times. The standard set by the ultra-determined Welshman will remain the benchmark in these islands for some time yet.
Now 55, Jones has settled in Boulder, Colorado – where he used to prepare at altitude. He is still involved in running, organising an elite, professional, endurance running training group. And he’s planning to compete again in The Chicago Marathon this autumn, with Piet van Alphen’s incredible world V55 record of 2:25:56 (set at the 1986 Rotterdam Marathon), apparently in the back of his mind. Even after a glittering career that would be some achievement…
But, remember, never under-estimate Steve Jones!