It's over 30 years since Steve Jones set a world marathon record in 2:07:13, but his PB still stands today. The fastest British marathon runner in history, not even Mo Farah has managed to steal the Welshman’s crown.
Now in his sixties and settled in Boulder, Colorado, we catch up with the marathon legend and erstwhile RAF technician about old school training methods, true grit and Mars Bars.
After setting a new world record of 2:08:05 at the Chicago Marathon in 1984, Jones returned the following year to smash his own record in 2:07:13. As a relative unknown, due in part to his tenacious attitude and rigorous approach to training, he took the running world by storm. Looking back at his career, Jones credits hard work, determination and an old school work ethic for his success.
‘Distance running and marathon running especially, is about stress and coping with that stress,’ says Jones. ‘You go through every emotion you could ever experience in your life in that 26.2 miles. So you train for it. That’s why elite runners train for 120 miles a week, so there are no surprises on the day.’
‘I think the more you race, the more training you do, the more capable you are of coping with these stresses,’ he adds. ‘Most people who haven’t trained before can’t do that, because they only thought about doing the marathon three months before when the entries opened – some have never run before in their lives.’
Jones is well known for his tough attitude to training. ‘The thing with distance running, is that today magazines in general are not hardcore running magazines, they are human interest magazines – they just happen to be wrapped around running. And you sell your magazines because you’re trying to get someone from point A to point B as comfortable as possible, which isn’t the elite way of course, it’s not competitive running.’
Running on instinct
Perhaps best known for shunning gadgets in favour of following his instincts, Jones famously won Boston without the help of a watch. ‘I think we’re all different. But me personally, I just enjoyed trying to get the best out of it. I was a prolific racer, I ran for my club, I ran for the Air Force, I ran internationally for Great Britain and for Wales. Sometimes I raced three times a week, but I enjoyed every minute of it and I absorbed it and relished in it, and what it did was that it taught me to run instinctively. There is nothing that could go wrong in a race that I hadn’t experienced, whether it was in training or in a race, I could still get the best out of it.’
Jones credits a diet of ‘Mars Bars, meat pies and Coca Cola,’ for his success, maintaining that, ‘there are no secrets to success.’
These days Jones takes it considerably easier preferring to run a 10-minute mile, but as a coach to young athletes he still gets his competitive fix. ‘I look at some race results and think like, how the hell did I run that fast?’ he laughs.
‘There’s that adrenaline rush that you miss, you know when the gun goes off and there’s that surge to get to the front and keep the pace going. But I’m realistic, there’s no way I could do that or continue to do that now,' he says. 'But there are lots of other things going on in my life; I coach a group in Boulder, I don’t live vicariously through them because I’ve done it all, but I really enjoy passing on my knowledge and passing on my experiences.’
The simple philosophy
Jones has always favoured an uncomplicated training approach. ‘My training is effort based,’ he explains. ‘It’s not timed, because we’re all different. You’re not always on the ball at 7 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, you’re not on the same ball the Tuesday morning before, or the next Tuesday morning. So, if my runners give me 100 per cent on that day, that’s all I can ask for.
‘You know, it’s not about running in 29 seconds or 36 seconds, it’s about going out there and running hard and coming out of it knowing you couldn’t run it any quicker.’
‘It’s a simple approach,’ he adds. ‘What’s got my interest is trying to change people back to what they used to be. Retro running; simplified running, with less clutter.’
Jones admits some runners are resistant to his methods. ‘It can be a bit frustrating, but what I really enjoy is seeing them succeed and trying to strive to get them to the point where they’re running PBs and being more competitive, and finally understanding what I’m trying to pass on,’ he says.
‘All of my athletes are post-collegiate so they’ve all been moulded before they get to me. So the hardest part is to, not break the mould, but soften it - so they’re open to other ideas. And when they do start to open their minds and not be so rigid, I can mould them into my philosophy.’
He’s the first to admit that it isn’t always that simple. ‘Sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t – and that’s one of the reasons not everyone’s running world records,’ he says.
Jones believes that a lack of decent role models has diluted the sport. ‘The generation I grew up in of runners, or those half a generation before me; people like Tony Simmons, Brendan Foster, they were icons and people I really looked up to,’ explains Jones.
‘I wanted to beat them. That was my Olympics. Just being in the same race as them, I remember that feeling. They all had a major influence on me and my running career, in moulding me and my personality into who I became. I think one of the reasons the standard is so bad today is that because there is no one like that to look up to. Yes, we have Mo Farah, and a few other people like Mo. But there was nobody for those people to look up to.'
'I think the biggest prospect now is Callum Hawkins,' he adds. 'He’s got all the tools as well, he’s still young enough, he’s certainly the best prospect out there.’
Jones has no regrets. ‘I enjoyed every step of it, I loved it. But you know, I don’t care for it now. I don’t have selective memory. Some people might be in a relationship and never remember the bad parts or only the good. But I don’t have selective memory of my running or forget that about my training. I enjoyed beating myself up and I enjoyed pushing myself all the time.’
Steve Jones marathon tips
Gearing up for a big race? British world marathon record holder Steve Jones knows a thing or two about running 26.2 miles...
- Train properly.
- Don’t wear anything new on race day.
- Make sure you’re hydrated, but don’t drown yourself, because it does happen.
- Do the training. The training is the hard part; otherwise a marathon is a slog, no matter how happy you are to be in the event and how much you enjoy running, it’s a beast and it hurts.
- It’s an emotional race, so be prepared for that. And the only way you can be prepared for that is by semi-introducing yourself to running longer distances.
- Enjoy it!
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